Side by Side - part 3 of 5: Design thinking

Published February 27, 2014
— Bilal Brohi illustration
— Bilal Brohi illustration

Design thinking; an approach to higher standards & continuous innovation.

So you’re willing to fail, as well as work collaboratively to harness collective intelligence, or evolve ideas in parallel rather than sequentially. These two seismic shifts in perspective still leave a couple of areas that need to be solidified. Before embarking on a project, especially collaboratively, its important to set an objective and milestones to ensure minimal unwanted deviation occurs, and that the project is completed on time and budget, and to the desired specification.

In a normal lifecycle, the attainment of standards is often overlooked as budgetary constraints and timelines are given preference which leads to the questions: can a methodology include a function to increase the likelihood of a higher rate of success? How can we employ excellence not only as a constituent of the product development cycle, but develop it as a feature of the product itself?

Enter design thinking; a user-centric approach to business which spans the entire gamut and is fast gaining popularity globally as being a cornerstone of new businesses, especially digitally-anchored startups.

People often ask if this is an ‘internet-only’ phenomenon, and if design thinking produces excellence, and startups employ it, why do startups focus on shipping seemingly incomplete products (minimum viable products) which are ‘hacked’ together. This is not true. People often misconstrue the terms ‘hacking’ and ‘minimum viable product’ to mean ‘come up with something barely working’.

To clarify the ambiguity, as well as consider an ‘offline’ scenario, lets take a step back and consider a hypothetical. Technology is a tool; having a hammer doesn’t teach you how to build a table. You may decide to build one small desk - a prototype - with adjustable legs in one finish (minimum viable product) to test the market for extendable tables made out of sustainable wood and do so using scrapped wood, secondhand hammers and the help of a cousin who’s visiting for the weekend (hacking), but it still has to be a really well-built table since it has to last at least 15 years, be fire retardant, support at least 60 pounds of weight and not have any sharp exposed edges as it is going to be promoted to be used in schools and classrooms.

These guidelines mandate that extra thought must be paid to the design process. By considering the user’s needs - weight, safety, extendability and combustibility - design decisions can be made in selecting materials and chemicals, physical shape definition and production techniques which will result in a well rounded and well engineered product. A product that will be unique, have a justifiable return on investment (ROI) for businesses, and minimize the environmental impact of furniture production for schools since its longevity will be unparalleled. A product built to a really high standard due to the principles employed in its design.

However, it doesn’t end there. Since design thinking encapsulates the entire customer experience, it could include among other things; making it easier for customers to view the product in close proximity to see the craftsmanship; enabling online purchases with payment plans to make it more affordable; subsidizing white-glove delivery - which includes delivering the product to your room of choice, unpacking it and removing the debris - as well as training customer service representatives to be courteous and knowledgeable when informational questions are put forward; and having customer-friendly standard operating procedures and responses in place when things go wrong.

This isn’t a philosophy limited to startups and technology companies. One of the best examples of implemented design thinking has been the massive redesign of www.gov.uk, which supplants approximately two thousand separate government websites.

Innovation

“Put your discourse into some frame.” - William Shakespeare

Design thinking enables exploration, which is very, very good for businesses, people, economies, cities and entire countries. A foreign bank operating in a developing country may want to increase its business volume to beyond the limited upper and middle class. This might lead the bank to ask “How can we enhance our product offerings to encompass people from a lower income bracket?”. That might lead to working with the government, corporations and not-for-profits to conceptualize a product or solution which exposes said people to alternate income generation schemes, which in turn enables them to earn more than their current livelihood and be introduced to the concept of saving. Without framing such questions, there will likely not be an immediate exploration of such unconventional ideas.

My work revolves around helping individuals and organizations identify and pursue new opportunities, increase efficiency, mitigate risk and design solutions to existing and anticipated problems. My experience dealing with personal, corporate and government entities in this part of the world, now and a decade ago, reveals the same problem; that of being decidedly averse to risk, motivated primarily by personal gain with some very rigid notions which result in wastefully micromanaging everything, and cutting corners for short term gain.

The purpose behind this series, is to not only give a primer on starting new ventures, but inculcate an expanded, relevant perspective.

So the next time you see a decrepit building or a business with depleting standards, see it as a missed opportunity and ponder on how it could have been better designed conceptually or physically, how it could have been prevented and an alternate reality could have manifested. Distilled, that is what entrepreneurial thinking teaches; to see the possibilities as they can be. It is what makes us idealistic and relentless.

The writer is a technology advisor and strategist.
Twitter Handle:@yasserbrohi

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