Photo of handout from design thinking workshop at Stanford's d.school

What I learned at d.school

This summer (yes, I’m just writing about it now) I attended An Introduction to Design Thinking at Stanford’s d.school. I’m not new to design thinking, but to be a good design thinker, you have to approach the problem as though you’re new every time. So, starting from square one is very good practice, especially when the professional world is often insisting on expertise and quick turnaround.

Here’s what I learned at d.school this summer:

Be open to other people

We started in a room full of energetic, diverse professionals, scholars, artists, teachers from all over the world. First, we did some structured mingling, which involved walking around the room until someone told us to stop and talk to the person next to us. We were given a prompt to discuss what we remember learning most recently. I spoke with a father of two from Spain who told a parenting story. I shared my speeding ticket story.

What’s to learn here? Being open. We were open with each other about real world stuff. It was nice.

Listen closely to what people need

We moved into another space, a collaborative space filled with moveable furniture and lots of low-fi stuff like pipe cleaners, sticky notes, tin foil and scissors. We were led by two people who had been doing the week-long corporate workshop and were now teaching what they’d been learning. We were paired off, and I began working with an advertising professional from Brazil. Here was our mission:

  • Redesign the gift-giving experience for your partner. Start by gaining empathy. (We interviewed each other.)
  • Reframe the problem. (Infer insights and take a stand with a point of view.)
  • Ideate and generate alternatives to test. (Sketch five radical ways to meet your user’s needs.)
  • Share solutions and capture feedback from your partner.
  • Iterate based on feedback.
  • Build and test your solution.
  • Communicate your story.

Ask the right questions

This relates to one of my favorite HBR case studies, Should you listen to the customer? (R1209L). In it, the four authors warn against asking your customers what they want. Instead, we should ask what resonated emotionally. What was hard to understand? What did you want to tell your friends? Providing meaningful services and experiences requires thoughtful questioning and listening, which is often difficult in fast-paced environments. But trying to find this practice is the empathetic path for everyone, customer and provider both.

Answers are usually below the surface

Improving the gift-giving experience for my partner meant reflecting on she was saying and what I observed. She talked animatedly about the most recent gift she gave: her credit card to a friend, so that she could get her hair straightened for a party. “Your friends make the party,” she said, almost wistfully. She talked warmly about her friend, what she she loved about her, like her listening and selflessness.

I tested my inferred insights — that my partner was a high energy, creative person who didn’t have a lot of time. She’s always on the go and feeling a bit unmoored. Perhaps her ideal gift would include unstructured one-on-one time to hang with her girlfriends? Yes, she said. Yes.

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