Design thinking - a practitioner's practical perspective

Barb Mosher Zinck Profile picture for user barb.mosher July 31, 2018
Giving design a voice at the highest levels of an organization can bring a more holistic view - some practical advice on how to achieve this.

Chris Wilkinson, Director of Product Design for the Devbridge Group, has an intriguing view on design thinking and how you incorporate it into your organization. He walked me through his perspective as a practitioner, and it’s opened my eyes to a new way of approaching not only custom development but also business decisions in general.

Wilkinson studied philosophy and the humanities before entering into design as a profession, He studied counseling, philosophy, and other courses and then shifted into studying classic design - colors, photography, printmaking. To most people, these two disciplines would seem unrelated, but Wilkinson feels that for software development they are pretty closely related, especially design thinking.

There is no license or certification you can get for design thinking or design in general, at least not in the sense that it’s regulated (there are plenty of programs). When you talk to people who do design thinking for a living, Wilkinson has found that there is a handful of things that are generally agreed upon and then there are things that each practitioner puts their own spin on it.

That’s because designers often come from very different backgrounds. For Wilkinson, it was always about helping people interact:

Anything we build in software replaced something people can do.

In other words, it’s something that will be used and embraced by people, so you have to think about what that means; it’s more than a set of tasks or business objectives.

Wilkinson has spent the last eight to ten years doing design thinking consulting, working with companies that are embracing technology as an important part of their business. The key thread between those who are doing it successfully is that they are making the customer their North Star, putting them at the center of everything.

What is design thinking?

The first thing to take into account about design thinking is that we shouldn’t call it out as a special thing. At its core design thinking is taking the time to understand the problem space, document it, create alignment in the team, do research and validate that understanding, build ideas and solutions you can prototype and validate, then test the solution as you develop it. Essentially, you build a cadence where some aspect of your project is always in one of those phases.

Design thinking works better when you do it as a team and not outsource it completely. Bring in your engineering team, the business, product management. Every team and every person brings different views and perspective that will help build the best solutions. That’s why it’s better to design in a team.

For the company Wilkinson works at, Devbridge, it’s about delivering quality software; building great products and shipping to market fast. They do this by embracing design and making the customer the focus of product discovery and delivery. They partner with the business to understand goals and objectives; bring user research into the equation, looking for the intersection between the two. That, according to  Wilkinson, is where you will find the best things to make.

At Devbridge, there's a dual track scrum practice with two separate prioritized workstreams. The business prioritizes the work, while the design and product team goes out, does the discovery and then feeds that back to the development team. It’s a continual loop with fast feedback informing product direction as well as reducing the time to market.

Design thinking as competitive advantage

Building software alone isn’t an outcome, building something meaningful that solves a real problem or achieves a specific result is the end goal. The way you execute the solution and the quality of the software built shows you understand the customer and your market - design thinking is a competitive advantage that will help you realize that end goal.

So how do you get started? Wilkinson argues that the easiest way is to get in a room and think about the all the problems and outline potential solutions, but it’s not the best approach as it’s critical to be more deliberate. Think through and talk about a set of problem spaces, such as an operational aspect of the business or a new initiative already on the roadmap. Embrace design thinking for single engagement and build on a series of wins that show how the approach works.

It's also an idea to isolate a team from their extra responsibilities. Empower one person to own a product and work with them to help them prioritize and understand different business considerations. The design team can then talk to stakeholders to understand the problem and develop experiences and prototypes. Once the prototypes are tested, they bring back the learnings to the business and from there ship something small. The product or solution is tested, and feedback is provided that helps them adjust if necessary and take the next step forward. The key is to show value at each stage.

Eventually, according to Wilkinson, companies will restructure how they operate as teams. Instead of siloed groups for design, product, development, analytics, we will see full stack teams around product delivery following a design thinking approach that supports involvement by everyone.

A good point that Wilkinson makes is that design thinking is a conduit for value. By itself it’s not inherently valuable; it’s how you and your team operate and the quality of the software you develop that is the real value of design thinking.

My take

I like the idea of changing how we think about building software solutions, but design thinking is valuable in many other ways. You can evaluate a problem space, a business opportunity, a build vs. buy decision. For design thinking to take hold in a company, it should be incorporated into all aspects of business decision making. Giving design a voice at the highest levels of an organization can bring a more holistic view that you won’t necessarily have otherwise.


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