How to Design

Course: An Introduction to Design Thinking

Institution: Stanford University


I was fortunate recently to take a class at Stanford University’s design school, better known as the The class was organized into a group exercise and we were tasked with designing the ideal wallet. We started by each sketching the "ideal" wallet. When we reviewed the results we discovered that when you don’t know who you are designing for, you design for yourself. Which was the point. The is all about user centric design not you-centered design.

So in order to understand what users want we needed to focus on empathy. Our mission was to redesign the wallet experience so that it was “useful and meaningful.”

We started by interviewing a customer, the person next to us. We took four minute turns, twice. The goal was to get the interviewee to tell a story about themselves and then delve deeper by asking lots of Why questions. What we found in the interviewing process was that the interviews became about more than the wallet. They were about finding the meaningful problem, which is a reframing of the design task.

To capture our findings and see this more clearly we were asked to list out needs – what our partner was trying to do (active terms, verbs) and insights – new learnings about our partners’ feelings and views that we could use in our design. This then helped us literally define the problem better.

All we had to do was complete this sentence: [Partner’s name] needs a way to _____. Unexpectedly, in his/her world, ________. This blank was for the insight.

The process really opened my eyes to how much of what we truly desire or need goes unsaid and it’s only when we take the time to listen that we can begin to meet those needs or desires. The process is really a design plan for life.

After we completed our new problem statement – as opposed to “I need a new wallet,” I found that my partner Jayme needed a way to express his creativity and unexpectedly, in his world physical fit drove his behavior. Jayme actually didn’t even like carrying a wallet if it would affect the profile of his jeans.

Next we were asked to ideate – meaning, generate alternatives to test. We sketched three to five “radical” ways to meet our partner’s/user’s needs. I came up with a new pair of jeans for Jayme.

Then I shared my solutions with him and captured his feedback. I listened to what he liked and didn’t like about my ideas and with his help centered on an idea for re-usable, color pockets he could adhere to the jeans pockets of any jeans he uses.

At this point we were about 45 minutes into the exercise. We were then tasked with making our idea. Yes - making it. Scattered around the space were materials to prototype our solution. I gathered up felt, scissors, and duct tape and whipped up some “portable pockets.”

If this all seems lightening fast to you, you’re right. Part of the lesson was just how quickly and cheaply you can get to solutions and working ones at that.

The whole exercise took an hour and it was revelatory. The methodology in general is this:

  • Empathy
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

Repeat. When there are disagreements about what design makes the most sense, then it’s important to go back and ask more questions of your users. Also, these words are more buckets than steps per se.

What guides this process are some of the principles: Focus on human values

Show don’t tell

Craft clarity – this is reframing the problem: what is the problem I’m really trying to solve?

Radical collaboration

Embrace experimentation

Bias toward action – which I’m all about!

There have been numerous design successes that have emerged from the and benefited from their approach. Most notably is Embrace – a baby warmer that replaced incubators in Nepal. You can learn more here.

And for more on the approach check out their Bootcamp Bootleg Dschool Bootcamp Bootleg 2010.

In the words of the Founder of the David Kelley:

“We want to try to develop empathy for people, see what they value as humans and try to use that to come up with big ideas, so we call our method human-centered design. There’s a creative act in trying to decide what problem is worth working on in the first place.”