Of all the things I explored across my quarter-century (and counting) career, I can honestly say it is my morphing experience with Design Thinking that fascinates me the most. If asked to express that feeling in a word, I’d say “authentic”. There are countless strategies, methods and “programs” that burst onto the educational scene, gain notoriety (or infamy–Guided Imagery, anyone?), but as I think over the recent emergence of Design Thinking, I can see how it’s suddenly gained traction across not only K-12 education, but in many aspects of business, research, and of course product development. Here is a Brief History of my connection to Design Thinking.
But first… a definition:
Design Thinking comes to us from faculties of Engineering and industrial design. Originally the tool for rapid prototyping and the creation of new “things”, designers–and educators–began to recognise the value in the process, which is organized around what I call the Five Pillars.
1) Empathy– This, to me, is the critical piece for education. A human-centred approach is the launch of every challenge. Before ever considering solutions, strategies or plans, you must first deeply understand the “Who” at the heart of the issue.
2) Definition–This stage is actually, to me, a continuation of the Empathetic focus, where the end user is considered in relation to all the details– how does the challenge impact or influence the focus? How is the environment formed, moving, or is it? This is the “What” of the issue.
3) Ideation–The fast-paced, inventive and highly creative stage of ideation is where solutions are discussed for the first time. This is the vital difference between other “problem-solving” strategies and Design Thinking– the solutions are not even discussed until a deep look at the Empathetic focus, and the problem or challenge clearly defined. But that’s not all– the ideation stage encourages a variety of solutions and strategies, and, done authentically, provides a rich tapestry of possibilities– many paths, not just one.
4) Prototyping– this is were the “design” actually begins– prototyping allows participants to select one of their ideations, or a combination of several, and begin to craft a solution. By its definition, prototyping intends that the perfect version is not the first one….in fact, there may be many iterations until one is perfected.
5) Test/Reflect– the final stage, but seldom the end point. The beauty of this pillar is that you are encouraged to consider, try, receive feedback, try again, reflect again….etc. When I do round in a workshop, I try to include 2 Feedback rounds, so that participants can experience the benefit of other eyes and opinions on their design.
and Sometimes 6) Often there is a 6th stage–Implementation. This does suggest an endpoint, and makes sense in product development, where the goal is to perfect an item, to create the best version of a car, bird house, jacket, backpack, etc….. To me, when designing an approach to a challenge, I don’t necessarily see that as an endpoint– for example, Bullying, Poverty, Homelessness, Graffiti… unless the challenge is completely eradicated by the solution, you may remain in the Test/Reflect stage indefinitely.
Part 2: What have I learned?
This is where the rubber hits the road. There are two prongs to this question– what have I learned about the process, and what have I learned about facilitating the process. At the time of writing, I have edited, rearranged, re-imagined and redesigned my own template several times. I use elements from Susan Crichton’s work at UBCO, Stanford’s D-School, Future Design School and the iie (Institute for Innovation in Education). I have also started to layer in Liberating Structures and different Inquiry strategies.
Facilitation-wise, I have worked with groups as small as 6 and as large as 100+. The most successful sessions have been the largest ones, where I talk the least and the participants work collaboratively through my template. I have taken grade 6-12 students through the process, whole school districts (and their multi-partners), post secondary instructors and support staff, and recently a multi-employee group of senior admin, teacher union reps and custodial/support staff. In every case, I was facilitating both the use of Design Thinking and leveraging the opportunity to address a challenge in their culture or workplace.
Learning #1: Provide the participants the opportunity to address a challenge while learning about Design Thinking. Standing and talking about it is never going to give the full flavour of the strategy. However… ensure the challenge you offer is one that is relevant to the whole group. Which leads me to…
Learning #2: The most successful sessions I’ve had are the ones where participants come with, or quickly land on, a challenge they wish to address. The bigger the group, the more diverse the issues, and it’s a rich experience to all to see what their colleagues are considering vital at the moment. On a few occasions, I have designed a challenge based on conversations with the organizer. These are successful too, as the organizer generally has intimate knowledge of the organization. Participants are always, however, encouraged to tailor the challenge to address a situation they care about.
Learning #3: If the participants don’t have a challenge in mind, or can come up with one on the fly, have some standard challenges on hand to share. Recently I led a session that was scheduled at the end of a Friday Pro-D. The participants were interested, but not overly participatory. I ended up running the session as an overview, rather than working through the process. I left that session feeling like the participants hadn’t gotten the most out of the afternoon.
Learning #4: Don’t make them solve a fake problem. Because this is an exercise all about empathy, I feel strongly that there is disrespect in not making that authentic. Human beings have infinite capacity to empathize, but we also have innate “BS” meters. Choosing an activity that focuses on a marginalized or disadvantaged segment of the population may seem like an easy entry, but unless it’s relevant to the group, it can come off as a bit of a cheap ploy. Likewise, a “global challenge” can by it’s very nature not spark the creativity that a personal connection to an issue can. As one colleague expressed it to me one day, “I don’t care about the (x). I wanted to make something else for that user.” That’s not to say you can’t (and I certainly have) offer a generic challenge, especially when the goal is to more deeply understand Design Thinking, but I’ve learned to always offer that extra layer of authenticity. It’s a simple sentence: “Of course, if you have a similar challenge in your situation, please feel free to tailor this experience to your needs.”
Learning #5- Make sure you understand what empathy is. There is always a “who” at the heart of every issue. Usually there are multiple Whos. Sometimes it’s all the Whos down in Whoville, but the empathetic focus needs to be human, even if the most elegant and well designed solution presents itself, if it doesn’t meet the needs of the humans, it’s destined to be a beautifully designed and elegant failure.
Fortunately, all failures are welcome in the Design Thinking realm. In fact, it’s failing that moves forward thinking. DT helps you fail faster to learn quicker. To learn better. To learn more better. Hmm… I think I need to run that motto through the process again.