For the past three years, I’ve become a practitioner of Design thinking (DT) as a Program Manager for SAP’s Design and Co-innovation Center (DCC). DCC has tackled hundreds of design challenges around the world, using DT to transform the user experience for enterprise software users. After working with DT on many projects, I began to notice that DT’s real power lies in its simplicity: it’s very easy to learn, with no pre-requisite knowledge; it can be applied on all kinds of problems, across industries and cultures; it fosters collaboration, and encourages people to try, fail, and learn from process.
I have become so convinced by the power of DT that I’ve started to conduct DT workshops in my Chinese community. The first workshop was for the Tzu Chi Academy, a nonprofit school where I’ve been volunteering since 2008. For many American-Born-Chinese (ABC), going to a weekend Chinese school is a common extra-curricular activity. However, Mandarin is not an easy language to learn, especially when you only have lessons once a week. This is the common challenge faced by many teachers at this school – “How do you teach Chinese effectively to a room of kids who are not very motivated to go to school on Saturday mornings?” That right there, is a good design challenge!
At the annual teachers retreat in March 2015, I introduced the concept of DT by going through the five phases as defined by the Stanford d.school: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. Then I led an exercise using the “Leporello”, a one-page folding template created by DCC, which guides the users through all phases of DT to solve a design challenge.
The teachers were tasked to work in pairs, starting by interviewing each other to gain a better understanding of the emotions they felt when teaching the class. I then asked the teachers to draw on paper as many ideas as possible. Articulating these ideas visually was challenging for some, but everyone had fun doing it. Finally, the teachers presented the solutions they came up with to one another and received feedback on them. One idea was to set up a Google Drive for all teachers to share their valuable teaching resources, thus saving class preparation time significantly. Another idea was to have the kids create skits based on the monthly cultural theme, so they would be more engaged. Many great ideas were generated, and everyone walked out with something to try for the next class. My mission accomplished!
After the success I had with the teachers, I gained more confidence in introducing DT to people who were not familiar with it, and developed a vocabulary to explain it in layman’s terms. I was ready for my next challenge.
In July 2015, the group of volunteers of Tzu Chi had a camping trip at a state park. I was tasked to lead a team activity – another great opportunity for me to introduce DT! I started with the Marshmallow Challenge, a game to demonstrate the power of prototyping, which is a key step in DT. Seeing some engineers with PhD degrees struggle to make a free-standing structure out of spaghetti sticks was quite entertaining. Two out of five structures lasted long enough for me to measure the height, and the winner was whopping 21-inch tall structure!
Next, I introduced the concept of a “persona” – a fictional character representing the typical user whom you are designing for. “Bob” was the persona we created as a typical volunteer for our organization. And the team brainstormed on how to make Bob’s volunteering experience better. Ideas started flooding as the post-its were flying everywhere on the campsite. After 20 minutes of brainstorming, we were able to cluster everyone’s ideas into five themes, and the team had another round of ideation in order to create action items to take beyond the campsite. Everyone was amazed by the quantity and the quality of ideas they came up with collectively. As a wild turkey stopped by the campsite, I concluded my first outdoor DT workshop a WILD success.
Design thinking is not something you can only learn at a design school: there is a lot of good material available online for anyone who is interested on the topic. More importantly, design thinking is not something only designers can do: everyone can become a DT practitioner to create innovative solutions to everyday problems in everyday life.
May design thinking make everyone’s life better, here, there, and everywhere.