So Everyone is a Designer?
If you’re current with design and tech news, you may have noticed a school of thought that has become increasingly popular in recent years. That thought being that everyone is a designer. At surface level, this comes across as a bold claim. It’s not often that you hear “everyone is a fill in trained professional here.” So what does this mean?
While it’s nothing new to those in the field, the benefits of design have become widely recognized thanks to Silicon Valley tech giants like Apple and Google. For many companies, the discipline of design has inspired a new way of operating. While design is often thought of as a visual layer or an end result, it is in actuality a process, and this process can be referred to as design thinking.
In talking about Systems Design in the Sciences of the Artificial (MIT Press, 1969), Herbert Simon summarizes the concept beautifully by saying, “Unlike critical thinking, which is a process of analysis and is associated with the ‘breaking down’ of ideas, design thinking is a creative process based around the ‘building up’ of ideas.” This practice can be organized into phases. The exact number of phases and the name of the phases vary based on the source, but there are three main components (in chronological order): Define, Iterate, Implement. This is applicable to any kind of problem solving, but we will concentrate on product development.
Without diving into too much detail, it’s important to note the following:
- The definitions phase is critical to setting up for success. Clearly define the problem by considering the user, the scenarios, the business goals, and the overarching project vision.
- Leave problem statements open-ended and avoid specifying features right out of the gate. Consider for a moment the difference between “We need a community forum” and “We need a way for users to share information with one another.” The latter problem statement will encourage far more creative and innovative solutions.
- The iterations phase is to explore as many options and paths as possible. If you are going to fail, this is the time to do so. By including users for feedback and testing along the way, your team will gain new insight and a solid rationale for any UX decisions made.
While the actual terminology can be misleading, design thinking is not solely reserved for designers, or for those individuals who consider themselves to be creative. I often hear people say, “I’m not the creative type.” What I say to this is: you have ideas everyday!
Design thinking is innate. It is something that derives from the natural desire to meet a need or to make something better. Don Norman believed, “We are all designers. We manipulate the environment, the better to serve our needs. We select what items to own, which to have around us. We build, buy, arrange, and restructure: all this is a form of design.”
Product teams should take advantage of the fact that this skill belongs to everyone. It can be valuable to involve multiple people with various perspectives in the initial definition phase (from end-users to stakeholders), eventually whittling down to a core set of team members that are familiar with the project vision. This group of people may consist of designers, developers, product owners, product managers, business analysts, etc. and they all play a role in the process.
How to Foster Design Thinking on Your Team.
Once you are ready to commit, there are many ways to create and maintain an atmosphere that lends itself to design thinking. Here are some ways to set the foundation:
- Break Down Preconceived Notions: One misconception about design is that it is an exclusive practice where designers are given specifications, head off to their labs to work, and come out after some time only to unveil a beautiful, shining end product. In reality, a good number of people need to contribute along the way to get a truly successful result. This is about a state of mind. Get everyone thinking about the User Experience.
- Unify the Team: This can be one of the most challenging, but critical, things that you will need to do. Everyone involved in the project needs to be on the same page, from senior level management to those building the product. What is the project vision? What are the main goals? Who are the target users and what problem(s) are we solving for them?
- Prevent Silos: This may seem like a no-brainer, but design thinking and collaboration should not be limited to specific departments or members of the team. Empower everyone to have a voice and to share their knowledge and talents for the good of the whole.
- Safe and Open Communication: To encourage team members to use their voices, make sure the working environment is one where discussion is celebrated. Remember the old standby, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” If people are asking questions, it’s a good sign of engagement and that their wheels are turning. Questioning and brainstorming help drive clarity, uncover unknowns, and bring to light different perspectives.
- Failure is OK: The reality is that not every idea or suggestion is a good one. In order to find one amazing idea, you may have to come up with a lot of mediocre (or bad) ideas first. Part of the process is testing your hypotheses and assumptions in order to validate them. This is where the value of user testing really comes in! Continual learning is a requirement.
Everyone is a Design Thinker*
When people say that everyone is a designer, what they really mean is that everyone is a design thinker. If the design thinking process isn’t in your toolbox just yet, I highly recommend that you give it a try. It will transform the way you approach problem solving, both professionally and personally.