Innovation is on everyone’s mind as we stand on the cusp of digital transformation. In this context design thinking has become a buzzword that is constantly being used in all the different media. But should software developers also think like designers? And what does that even mean? Design thinking is an approach to innovation ostensibly devised and standardized by David Kelley and Bill Moggridge. It promises to open up new possibilities in the quest for innovative ideas and their implementation. The approach is based on empathy and radical cooperation. Sounds abstract right? Fair enough, design thinking is hard to put your finger on. It is the ability to perceive things that others can’t see and to know how to implement ideas.
A design thinking example
The iTunes Store opened in the beginning of 2003. Back then Apple was a totally different company to what it is today. iTunes used to only run on MACs—just 5% of the market at the time. Napster was still a big concern for the music industry. When Apple suddenly offered to make music available legally on iTunes many people thought: “Why not..?” A few months later Apple expanded iTunes to Windows.
While the music industry assumed that many people didn’t want to pay for music (which was true for some of them), Apple recognized that it was much more convenient to download music onto their computers than to buy a CD in a store or on Amazon.
Okay, you can stop reading; you already know everything.
In hindsight it all seems so inevitable; Apple is the hero of the story. But why didn’t the music industry think of the solution first? Apple is good at using different aspects of design thinking:
- The ability to let go—dealing with uncertainty
- Resisting the urge to start coding immediately
- Developing a unified understanding within a team
- Storytelling—understanding the context
- Developing apathy
1. The ability to let go
You are hanging on a cliff with your back towards a rock face when someone advises you to let go. It seems unimaginable that you might consider “letting go” to be the solution, right? But then again, how long can you hold on? When should you let go? Most people let go when they have no other option.
Good climbers spend a lot of time thinking about when the right time is to let go so that they can stay on their feet. By looking up and down they are able to establish when it would be better to make a move that, at first glance, appears to be regressive but which in fact will offer better perspectives in the long run.
How do you develop the skill of dealing with uncertainty?
2. Resisting the urge to start coding immediately
In my many years in the software industry I observed that past experiences play a big role in developing new products. New technologies get used to visualize things from the past. Consequently old processes get applied to the new situation without considering how new technology could actually make new processes possible. The actual heart of the problem is only addressed in later releases (when the real innovation kicks in). Developers are forced to develop around the old logic, which requires a lot more effort.
Prototypes should be developed at different levels of maturity in order to test the reactions of potential clients at all those levels. By beginning with prototypes scribbled on some paper that will then either go on to be developed or discarded again, a system is developed in which risks become more calculable. It also allows you minimize the financial costs of failure and increases the acceptance rate among employees for the common goals. The entire team can then zero in on an integrated solution.
But how do you develop an understanding of the so-called real problem? (In the Apple example, the real problem is convenience).
3. Developing a unified understanding within a team
We often think that innovation springs from an individual, isolated genius. Steve Jobs is tirelessly cited as the quintessential example of that. But even he was surrounded by many who gave him ideas or helped carry them to fruition. The German designer Hartmut Esslinger reportedly originally came up with the idea for the iPhone. David Kelly played a massive role in creating the first commercially successful computer mouse that Apple brought to the market.
Don’t get me wrong; Individuals can have good ideas. But in order to successfully implement them teams are needed. Teams in which people with different perspectives work together to create successful products. How do you motivate a team to come together for a common cause?
4. Storytelling—understanding the context
A few years ago I went to a cabin in the mountains for a ski trip. I remember talking to some of my colleagues about music. Some of them had brought their PCs along so we played a few tracks. I was very surprised by the diversity in music among them. But still it felt like one or two songs were missing. My friends would not rest until they had loaded every single one of them onto their phones from the internet. Today that would be no problem because there is decent Wifi available in even some of the most remote areas. I never would have thought it would one day be possible to find them all.
Observant readers will remember stories like these and connect them later to other knowledge about technical developments or scientific discoveries that are not very well known yet. They might tell others about them, listen to them. They are open towards the world. This creates a number of loose ends that that eventually could be platted together to make sense. The likelihood of that happening in the team is greater if everyone is thinking of the same problem. Stories are the ideal medium because they contain protagonists, contexts and moods. People love stories and can remember them better than abstract lists with analytical information.
5. Developing empathy
Empathy is the ability to understand how someone else feels. We all know how it feels. The question is when to use this ability. We generally limit ourselves to evaluating what the person we’re engaging with makes visible or audible. We apply our general mode of interpretation and are satisfied with it. Designers, on the other hand generally ask why someone does something in a particular way and compare that approach to observations others have made in the same situation. They try to think about possible analogies that may offer solutions from a completely different perspective. They then try to find patterns and finally add their teams own knowledge to the problem in order to create new solutions.
And then they have to learn to let go because, at the end of the day, no-one can know for certain if the new combined solution will succeed. Nor whether the old one will still be able to guarantee success. Innovation does not happen when you decide to sit down and concentrate. It happens in the hustle and bustle of life, while we are trying to figure out where to go next. Make sure to look up towards your goal and look down for alternatives that might not have been visible until now. Last but not least, if you are open for it, be ready to pursue new goals that can only identified once you’ve started.
Did you know:
Inga Wiele received her design thinking training at the d.school in Potsdam’s Hasso-Platter Institute. She has been active in the field of project management/implementation for many years and has been running her own business for the past two years. She works with companies of all different sizes and in all kinds of industries.