Sneakers as a Tool for Learning Design Thinking

Today I’m running a “Sneaker Design Workshop” at the Juneteenth Festival at Southside Community Center. The theme of this year’s festival is “Economic Empowerment and Entrepreneurship” so I thought I’d bring a little entrepreneurial thinking to the table. In the workshop, we’ll use tools from Design Thinking (DT) to develop a concept and brand for a pair of shoes that carry a message. Think Tom’s Shoes “Buy One Give One” message or, of course, Nike’s “Just Do It.”

Sneakers are great carriers of messages. Just like graffiti on the El Trains in 1970s New York, sneakers are colorful and mobile. They have visibility and are great platforms for communication.

In this workshop we’ll use the five phases of Design Thinking to approach the project and then iterate. The five phases are: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. I’ll flesh out the specifics below.

EMPATHIZE: Most often DT asks us to empathize with consumers. But there are other stakeholders to consider when trying to develop a great idea. For this challenge, I want the designers to identify a person or people that they wish to help. This desire to help becomes the cause of the brand. Like above with Tom’s Shoes, Tom’s aims to help people who can’t afford shoes with their BOGO business model. Furthermore, the aesthetic of Tom’s Shoes expresses humility and simplicity which are values in line with the cause.

DEFINE: Once the designers have identified a cause, they need to define the problem. Design Thinking problems always start with “How might we…” So their design problems will look something like this: “How might we create a sneaker brand that promotes ______ cause?”

IDEATE: Here’s the fun part. Once the designers define the problem, they need to engage in “out of the box” thinking to discover resonant solutions. What does a sneaker that promotes X cause look like? What does it smell like? What does it taste like? How does it make the wearer of the shoe feel?

PROTOTYPE: You might think that a prototype would be a model of the actual sneaker. But in Design Thinking, we’re focused not only on creating great products but on creating great experiences. So we start with drawing storyboards. In the storybaord we explore quesitons like: How does a person hear about this sneaker brand? What do they do once they hear about it? How does the person feel once they are wearing the shoes? How are they now connected to the cause?

TEST: In our first test, we aren’t only validating our ideas but discovering its weak points. How do we do this? We share our storyboards and listen for feedback. Some feedback is prescriptive “You should do this or that,” while other feedback is descriptive “Something about this part doesn’t sit well with me.” It’s the designer’s job to elicit feedback, listen carefully, then interpret that feedback and go back to the drawing board for revisions or consider changes in direction (called “pivots”).

ITERATION: This isn’t a phase of Design Thinking but rather a mode that underlies the entire process. At anytime we might get feedback either from our own eyes when building a prototype or from our team or from potential users that causes us to make revisions. Being able to listen to feedback and revise is what separates amateur designers from the pros.

In the sneaker workshop, we’ll revise our storyboard and then design a profile of the actual shoe using brightly colored card stock. If we had all day, we’d prototype and test a few rounds. But today we’ll only do it once or twice, then present our ideas in short 1-2 minute pitches. I can’t wait.

related:

http://www.edutopia.org/blog/design-thinking-opportunity-problem-solving-suzie-boss

“We’re all designers now…

…so we might as well get good at it.”

This is the opening line to chapter four in Chris Anderson’s book Makers: The Next Industrial Revolution. Okay, I buy it. But just how do we get good at design? C. A. says that we need to learn to use software and hardware of the maker revolution. You can teach yourself or pop into any makerspace for classes on Arduino and 3D Printing and so on.

But there’s another thing that makes us “good at design.” And it’s not something you’ll likely find in a class at a makerspace. It’s the human side of design. And I argue that human centered design (HCD) skills are just as important as tech skills if we want to be designers who make stuff that matters.

To develop HCD skills, I propose we understand and practice three principles: Expertise, Empathy, and Emotion. I’ll flesh these out a bit right here:

EXPERTISE. In David Weinberger’s book Too Big To Know, he argues that the internet has changed our understanding of knowledge and expertise as we transition from a world in which knowledge is disseminated by individual experts via paper to a world in which knowledge is shared through and created by a network. He defines this transition  here:

This transition from expertise modeled on books to expertise modeled on networks is uncomfortable, especially now as we live through the messy transition. We know the value of traditional expertise. We can see a new type emerging that offers different values. From credentialed to uncredentialed. From certitude to ambivalence. From consistency to plenitude. From the opacity conferred from authority to a constant demand for transparency. From contained and knowable to linked and unmasterable.

So if we’re all designers, the first thing we have to understand is that we aren’t 20th century design experts; rather, we are 21st century networked designers. And thus we need to transition from experts who know it all to designers who know how to harness the collective intelligence of a network.

EMPATHY. This transition is uncomfortable, Weinberger warns. How do we let go of our know-it-all status and harness the collective intelligence of our networks? First we have to believe that diversity of perspective will lead to richer solutions than solutions designed by a lone genius. If we believe that, then we are open to gaining empathy for multiple stakeholders in a problem.

How do we do that? We talk to people. And we don’t just listen to what they say, we observe what they do. We listen for the messages between the lines. Or listen for what’s not being said. This close listening will help us gain insights into multiple ways to approach a problem.

And btw, we don’t get these insights from online surveys or conference room focus groups. As entrepreneurship guru Steve Blank says, we need to “get out of the building.” Visit people in their homes, at their places or work, on the street. If we’re trying to design a grocery store experience, well then we best be spending a lot of time at the grocery store.

EMOTION. Once we gain empathy for the people we are designing with — note that I didn’t say “the people we are designing for” — then we can design something that resonates. Why is resonance important? Because despite what classical economists would have us believe, we aren’t only rational. Pure functionality isn’t the only thing that engages us. We respond to emotional details in products and systems. The brainy quotes printed large on each Adafruit invoice, that’s an emotional detail. It’s a wink, an intimate gesture from the company to the customer that says, “Hey, you and I know each other, don’t we.”

Brainy quotes are one way to design for emotion. Another is less explicit: implied metaphor. Implied metaphors in design compel us to transfer to the new design the positive qualities of a familiar thing. Jonathan Chapman, author of Emotionally Durable Design, says, “Its easy to design a toaster that will last twenty years. It’s harder to design a toaster that someone will want to keep for twenty years.” So we need to look for metaphors for things that get better with age, and ask ourselves as designers how we might design those qualities into our work. A wooden laptop might make you want to keep it for longer than a metal one that scratches more easily, because it has taken on an heirloom quality for you.

Now that’s good design. Learn the tech tools. Yes, you must. But also learn humanity in design by redefining expertise, gaining empathy for all types of people, then design with emotion.

Translating a Storyboard into Code

story_code

I had a fun experience the other day. I am working on a game project with a designer and an electrical engineer. On Friday, I had lunch with the designer and we worked on a series of storyboards for the game. At the end of the lunch he left and I thought, “Great. With this storyboard, the EE will know exactly what to do.” Then I thought about that for a minute and concluded, “I don’t think the EE will appreciate this storyboard so much.”

So I translated the storyboard in to faux code pictured here. I showed it to the EE and he said, “O yeh. This makes sense.”

The relationship between being creative and letting go

This past Friday and Saturday I helped out with a design-thinking workshop led by Tracy Brandenburg and Sirietta Simoncini and their graduate students in the Systems Engineering program at Cornell University. The workshop was held for dozens of executives from around the country.

Throughout the two-day workshop, the execs were asked to prototype their ideas in several forms: physical prototypes, storyboards, and skits. Each time the workshop participants had to present their prototypes, Tracy or Sirietta would call out a reminder, “OK. Once again, it’s time to let go of your prototype both physically and emotionally.” For some, this was easy. For others, this was really difficult. It’s hard to detach from something we just made and admit to ourselves “This isn’t done yet. I need help.”

In an art school critique, it’s often the case that students aren’t allowed to defend their work. “You won’t be there in the gallery to explain your concept to the viewer” so the reasoning goes.

Art students are trained to let go of their work.  My colleague from RIT, Roberley Bell, has an assignment in which her design freshmen work on a project all semester. Then on the last day of class, she hands out shovels and tells the students to bury their work in the ground. This may seem extreme. But compare the burying to the exercise from the professor she got the idea from — he hands out matches and instructs his students to burn their work!

And then there’s this experience I had as an undergrad in art school: I approached my professor with a print I had made and asked him what he thought. He looked at it for 10 long seconds. Then he picked it up, ripped it in half, threw it on the floor and said “That’s what I think.” For months I was shocked. But then I came to realize two things: 1. He was probably having a bad day and 2. He didn’t rip up my work because he didn’t like it. He did it to show me that I was being too precious about it. Harsh as that approach may seem, he effectively taught me to let go.

What makes this letting go even more difficult is that you can’t let go completely. You need to let go enough to gather useful feedback and listen well. But you also have to remember that you are the designer or artist or entrepreneur and your vision matters. When Project Runway contestants have a client challenge, their mentor Tim Gunn always has to remind them, “At the end of the day, it’s your name going down the runway. You want to please the client. But you also want to maintain your vision.”

Not easy.

A trick, I think, is to remember that feedback is essential but should not always be taken literally. For example, when someone testing your prototype says “This button should be red” it doesn’t necessarily mean that the button should be red. As a designer, you need to interpret feedback. “This button should be red” probably means, “I want the button, or the action the button sets into place, easier to find and use.”

Still, in order to get feedback in the first place, you need to let go of your prototypes, both physically and emotionally. You need to be open and vulnerable. You need to have faith that the feedback, once you interpret it, will help you develop and deliver something better that you are able to when working alone.

related reading:

http://99u.com/articles/7187/why-sharing-your-work-setbacks-struggles-breaks-creative-blocks

Who Is Best at Predicting the Future?

I’ve come across an interesting study about a correlation between cognitive styles and accuracy in predicting the future. The study is from Philip Tetlock, Professor of Leadership at UC Berkeley who built on Isaiah Berlin’s theory about foxes and hedgehogs. Put simply, foxes are lateral thinkers,  hedgehogs are linear thinkers, and it is foxes who are better at predicting the future.

Tetlock contends that the fox–the thinker who knows many little things, draws from an eclectic array of traditions, and is better able to improvise in response to changing events–is more successful in predicting the future than the hedgehog, who knows one big thing, toils devotedly within one tradition, and imposes formulaic solutions on ill-defined problems.

This insight makes sense, that foxes with their ability to hold multiple points of view are better positioned to see the future. But there’s a twist. Hedgehogs, with their certainty, tend to be more confident and thus convincing to a crowd. And foxes, with all of their “It could be this way or it could be that way” internal debate, tend to express less confidence and are less convincing to a crowd. Stewart Brand sums this up nicely here:

Bottom line… The political expert who bores you with a cloud of “howevers” is probably right about what’s going to happen. The charismatic expert who exudes confidence and has a great story to tell is probably wrong.

As you may know, I’m interested in “unlikely leaders” and foxes  fall into that slot. They express doubt while the hedgehogs express confidence. So my question for all of us is this: How might we train ourselves to listen to foxes, to embrace their expressions of doubt so that we can better understand where we’re going.

read more here:

http://longnow.org/seminars/02007/jan/26/why-foxes-are-better-forecasters-than-hedgehogs/

http://www.overcomingbias.com/2006/11/quiz_fox_or_hed.html

http://press.princeton.edu/titles/7959.html

http://www.chforum.org/library/choice12.shtml