Ideation, co-creation, rapid prototyping, etc. For the uninitiated, design thinking can seem like just a bunch of buzzwords. But once you become acquainted with and start using this methodology, you’ll see the results it can deliver for you and your team as you work towards a common goal.
Here at Business & Arts NL, we’ve been having a lot of conversations lately about design thinking and the value it brings, especially during these rapidly changing times. Design thinking can also help instill confidence as it helps us deal with complex problems in ambiguous circumstances. There’s never been a better time to learn more about it.
To help make the concept clearer, we reached out to someone in the local community who uses design thinking in their work every day. In addition to being a fine artist with a focus on abstract photography, Niamh Redmond is a researcher, advisor and experience designer who started her own consultancy in 2013. We recently caught up with Niamh to learn more about her work and how adapting a designer’s mindset can help people, businesses and organizations (big and small) thrive.
Business & Arts NL: First of all, can you tell us a little about what you do?
Niamh Redmond: In simple terms, I’m a researcher, designer and advisor who helps make the complex clear. I help understand and explore current and potential future environments, define problems and envision opportunities for improvement and innovation. I then work to collaboratively plan, research, design and develop solutions to them.
The longer version is that I run my own consultancy as a researcher and experience designer for companies and organizations that realize the importance of being human-centered but also recognize design as a competitive advantage and business differentiator, and see how this can positively affect their revenue, products, services, brand, culture and business – potentially even society and the planet. The practice is focused on creating positive human outcomes that actually involves those humans in the process. This ultimately helps clients and organizations better acquire, grow, support, serve, and retain their customers, users, employees, citizens, patients, guests and passengers – all types of people – in more ethical and sustainable ways.
Business & Arts NL: How does creativity and design thinking factor into your work?
NR: While I am working with clients in businesses and organizations that are obviously looking to grow and succeed, and that have financials, data and parameters that they know of and can somewhat control – such as budgets and timelines – my role of course involves taking into consideration these knowns, but also looks at an engagement more broadly. This includes areas of focus, which can be harder to define and assess – the unknowns. We humans are complex!
Hypothesis-driven design helps navigate through an unknown space and arrive at actionable next steps. I do this in order to uncover assumptions, test hypotheses, learn about experience and expectation gaps, unmet needs, thoughts, feelings, and to understand behaviours in order to be able to prioritize areas of focus, improve delivery and discover opportunities for innovation. I balance using a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods, the latter of which often relies on a more creative approach; helping clients explore a problem area or opportunity through facilitating workshop exercises and conducting interviews, but then following that up with discovery, analysis and synthesis to turn data into insights, to ensure that we have defined the right problem to be solved or opportunity to be explored, and by providing actionable next steps and recommendations, including but not limited to ideation, co-creation, prototyping and testing.
Business & Arts NL: Can you give us an idea of the breadth of your clientele? I understand you live here in Newfoundland, but work with clients all over.
NR: I’ve worked in Dublin, Ireland, where I was born and went to university, then in Vancouver, BC where I lived for 10 years. I’m now based in St. John’s, where my partner is from. I have worked with companies, clients and on project engagements across Canada, the US, and Europe, on products, services, systems and businesses used by millions of people worldwide.
My clients range from start-ups to enterprise technology companies, from governments to airports, from social media platforms and internet publishers to hardware and software development companies, from major universities to small school districts, from product and ux design agencies to digital transformation and change management consultancies, from global e-commerce and athletic apparel retail brands to crown corporations and regional healthcare authorities, from finance to energy and utilities. It’s varied work.
I’m remote-first and when we aren’t in the middle of a global pandemic, I occasionally travel to be on-site on an as-needed basis for in-person meetings, stakeholder interviews, workshop facilitation and customer research or observation sessions.
Business & Arts NL: What’s your unique viewpoint on what design thinking is and the value it holds?
NR: So, there’s this quote that has recently had a resurgence in popularity thanks to a very timely and recent popular documentary on Netflix. It goes something along the lines of: “There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users,’ one is tech, the other is the illegal drugs trade.” As a “user” experience researcher and designer, like many others in my field, we have to ask questions, challenge assumptions and think carefully about what and who we are designing for, and what others are building. I’ve heard many in the industry say what we need now is less things designed, but better. As someone that cares about what we put out in the world, it’s important that there are people who ask questions such as “Why are we building this, for who and for what potential – sometimes unforeseen – outcomes?” Instead of only asking “What can we build, how and when?”
For me, the main value in design thinking as a mindset lies in approaching problems in new ways and with thoughtfulness; bringing the human element back into the focus, hence human-centred design. When you research and design for people as people, as opposed to users, you gain a better understanding that helps uncover assumptions, and the ways unconscious bias may inherently exist, which can lead to opportunities for improvement. As Dr. Sam Ladner, a sociologist, ethnographer, technophile and author asks: “Why do we know so little about the social implications of technology? […] Sadly, it is all too predictable that technologists underestimate, misjudge, or otherwise under-appreciate how humans will interact with their technology.”
Another term that’s used in the industry is “edge cases,” and this has irritated me on more than one occasion, when I have sometimes said “They’re not edge cases, they’re people.” We have to think about how to make design more universally inclusive, so that products, services, processes, systems, businesses and experiences are being designed with diversity and accessibility in mind. The best way to do that is to have a team of diverse people involving lots of types of people in the process. Combining design thinking approaches – that help come up with ideas and opportunities for improvement or innovation – while working with researchers and designers – that help lead and facilitate this, communicate ways to support implementing solutions and can advise about planning for maintenance – can help with this.
There’s a really great, but also very important and increasingly timely opportunity, for businesses, organizations of all kinds, and governments to work with researchers and designers to use their skills and talent to collectively and collaboratively support the transition to a circular economy.
Business & Arts NL: For those who are interested in employing design thinking in their own companies/businesses, how scalable is it? Is it only used to completely overhaul entire companies, or can you use it to change one thing for one person?
NR: Great question. Anyone can try to train themself, or be coached, to think like a designer. Everyone – from individuals, entrepreneurs, and executives, within small start-ups, teams, entire companies and governments – can design the way they approach problems, the way they lead, the products, services, cultures and experiences they create, and how they innovate. Design thinking is certainly scalable and can be applied to figure out approaches not just in businesses and organizations, but also in systems such as schools, hospitals, airports, even economies, countries and for societies – to help with issues such as healthcare, food security, climate change, sustainability and the green economy, substance use and mental health support. However, design thinking in isolation is simply not going to solve these problems. It can help with them, when combined with other areas of expertise, support and resources.
Design thinking can be used as an approach to change on a small scale and also at an individual level. In fact, breaking problems and opportunities down into smaller, more manageable pieces is necessary for any area. For example, I’ve actually used and subsequently encouraged others to employ design thinking approaches when assessing and designing career and life paths.
Anyone can learn how to use this approach. However, a mature design practitioner has the expertise to both effectively envisage the world as it could be, and help make an actionable plan to get there. What it takes to design something great may seem easy, but it’s usually quite hard, and takes training and practice. I recently read a book, “How Design Makes The World,” by Scott Berkun. A few lines in an article he wrote really resonated with me: “We take good design for granted, as when it works we assume ‘it just happened that way.’ […] We need people who know how to make ideas real. And for this, designers are among the best we have.”
Business & Arts NL: Some may think that just having the tools and an understanding of design thinking is enough. But is it? What do people need to do to get the most out of this methodology?
NR: Everything is designed. Whether visually, digitally, physically, experientially, even organizationally. Design is central and sometimes either overlooked or not obvious. Design is everywhere, and in every decision.
The fact is anyone can use design thinking, but that does not make everyone a designer. In the same way that lots of people know about agile approaches, but aren’t engineers, or there are people well versed in lean methodologies, but that aren’t business or product managers.
Design thinking can be a buzzword, however, it’s also a useful starting point for deeper understanding. Design thinking can be viewed as fluffy or theoretical, it can also be a good approach – one approach – for generating ideas for improvement and transformation. However, ideas are the easy part. Design itself is much more. Design thinking done well accepts that it is not a complete process. It is part of a larger process that also includes generative research, practical planning, mapping customer journeys or service design blueprints, value chain analysis, concept development, actionable recommendations, next steps, implementation strategies and follow-up tactics, maintenance, as well as measurement at a regular cadence. That is: what was the outcome, what did we learn, what may have changed or was unexpected, what needs to be reviewed, re-assessed and tweaked – then repeat, so that it is a loop and becomes a cyclical process for optimization that needs to be maintained. Design is a never-ending process.
I get out of the building (metaphorically speaking), and I talk to, ask questions of and observe people. I help create a shared understanding and show a path forward for how things could be. Design thinking done badly simply doesn’t do this. Another area that I’m optimistically cautious about is the popularity and somewhat over-use, if not abuse, of the word “empathy.” Frankly, we overestimate our ability to empathize with others. Empathy maps are a tool sometimes used in design thinking and they can be valuable if you follow this up by executing next steps from it, so it doesn’t become a fancy but inaccurate or discarded artefact. That means treat whatever you think you empathise with as assumptions that need to be validated and tested. You can do this to an extent by bringing in experts that are closer to the actual people you’re describing; for example, those who work in support positions, who at least hear from customers every single day and better understand them, their contexts and environments. However, nothing beats involving the people themselves – early and often.
Finally, it’s important to balance ideas with actual execution, meaning that these processes are understood to go hand-in-hand and the ideation phase isn’t viewed as being more strategic or prioritized in terms of timelines and budgets, while prototyping and testing are viewed as being of less importance and thus allocated far less time. Similarly, it’s important not to be restricted by following one approach. Designers still rely on a certain level of creativity and experimentation, so prescribing a framework may not have the desired outcome. Prototypes shouldn’t just be rough sketches of an idea, they need to be developed by professionals that have shaped and been part of earlier processes into something that authentically simulates an experience that can be realistically tested. Can you guess who does that? Designers.
Niamh Redmond started her own consultancy in 2013. She uses design thinking approaches and more including while partnering with clients all over in a variety of industries; when helping mentor and coach others, including designers, as part of Microsoft’s Garage Program; in her role on the Board of Directors for the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival; and in her own career and life.