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Monday, Jul 15, 2024

Design Thinking Can Reshape Businesses

When Don Norman talks about design, he frequently talks about the big picture.

It is as if he backs up so many steps that he can put a landscape the size of the Grand Canyon in his field of vision.

To Norman and other academics, the concept of design is more than graphic design, product design or industrial design. It is the creation of most anything that serves people.

It might be software or an entire health care system. Both topics came up at the inaugural Design Forward conference, an all-day event June 16 at the Broadway Pier.

Norman is a former Apple Inc. vice president and director of the 2-year-old Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego, which sponsored the conference. And his assertion is that design must be human-centered.

Proper human-centered design must do several things. Among them: solve the correct problem, not a symptom of the problem; focus on the needs of people; stand up to critical evaluation; and be revised, perhaps repeatedly. Observing the customer interact with the product is a must.

Thinking about design is not merely an academic exercise. Companies that employ “design thinking” outperform the market, said event speaker Sam Yen.

Yen is chief design officer at the German software company SAP AG and managing director for the company’s Silicon Valley office. On the side, he teaches at Stanford University’s design school.

Companies that employ design thinking include GE, IBM and Procter & Gamble. Design thinking has been the subject of cover stories in Harvard Business Review and Bloomberg Businessweek.

Yen recalled how SAP deployed some software to Kenya for cancer screening, and then watched the project fall flat. Eventually, the company decided to fly a team from Heidelberg to Kenya to observe the customer and the environment where the software was put to use. Seeing the “human context” of the software deployment turned into a breakthrough, Yen told his listeners.

The 400 participants at the sold-out conference entered the area under a series of doorways labeled “Observe,” “Think,” “Make,” “Iterate” — a reference to the design process.

During a break-out session, a team from Round Feather LLC, a San Diego consulting firm, spoke of health care design.

The business offered stories of stakeholders’ trips through a dysfunctional system, accompanying the stories with detailed, poster-sized flowcharts. One especially complicated flowchart described one patient’s “emotional journey” of communicating with a big insurance provider in an attempt to retrieve the lost password from his computer account. There were dozens of steps. They included interaction with the website and multiple phone calls.

It seems that the medical system is designed to meet nobody’s needs, said a member of the Round Feather team. Doctors, patients, support staff and insurance providers all have unmet needs.

Corporations pay good money to learn about design thinking. Some people feel education can start early.

Mindy Ahrens teaches kindergarten and first grade at the Poway Unified School District’s Design39Campus (the title on her business card is learning experience designer).

Ahrens told conference-goers how her class redesigned recess, as class members felt the options on the playground were limited. Students went through a process of watching recess, listing perceived problems, interviewing participants, brainstorming, taking polls, proposing ideas and building prototypes of what they would like to install on the playground.

Students suggested and built a “marble track” for rolling marbles (Ahrens felt the students should have chosen stronger building materials, but kept her mouth shut and let her students learn that one from experience). Students also suggested a ga-ga pit, an eight-sided enclosure for playing a version of dodgeball. The pit became “the hit of the school,” Ahrens said.

Conference organizers and several speakers said San Diego’s economy could turn into a design-driven economy.

To do that, speakers encouraged the creation of a group called the Design Forward Alliance. “We’re using BIOCOM as something of a model,” said Scott Robinson, CEO of San Diego-based Fresh Form, referring to the locally developed biotechnology trade organization.

Yen, for his part, encouraged conference-goers — even at the most conservative, risk-averse companies — to look at issues through the lens of design thinking.

“If we can do it at a 40-year-old German company, anybody can do it,” he said.


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