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April 11, 2016

Solve problems creatively; and repeatedly, consistently, and viably too!

Posted by Richard Lobo (View Profile | View All Posts) at 2:53 PM

Amidst all the excitement surrounding the changes brought about by technology in our lives, there is a contrary view expressed that these changes don't compare with the revolutionary changes that were brought about in the past. Think light bulb, steam locomotive, the printing press, the internet and so on. The contrarians believe that while the problems of humanity remain complex, the innovations are barely able to offer incremental improvement to our lives.

So, when the skeptics say that we've swapped invention and innovation for incremental improvement, they do make a point. That does not take away from the fact that incremental improvements (think faster airplanes, improved antibiotics, low energy light bulbs) have had their own impact on the planet and its inhabitants. To me, it's a combination of incremental and transitional that make this subject fascinating. And to keep it that way, we need a new springboard that makes both happen.

That springboard is a "new way of thinking" about the way we design our products and services and most importantly, our experiences, which is quite simply called Design Thinking. It's a misnomer really, because Design Thinking is absolutely not a fancy, new approach to design. It's a deep, fundamental philosophy that teaches us to question and appreciate why we do (or innovate) what we do. Or should be doing in its place.  

The short answer to that is that all innovation has only one purpose, which is to solve the biggest problems of the world in hand with the people who live in it. Hence, Design Thinking is really "User Thinking". It's about finding the most basic needs or the most fundamental issues of human beings - at times even discovering them for the first time - and then going on to solve them in a very human-centric way. Design Thinking teaches us to find and frame a problem and then imagine the ideal solution, the one that fulfills its users' desires perfectly. Whether that solution is even technologically practical or commercially viable is secondary. In fact, because Design Thinking emphasizes human-centricity above all other considerations, it is quite possible that the ideal solution in some cases would need less rather than more technology. Just think about it. How many features of that latest smartphone do you use, or even need, on a regular basis?  

Because Design Thinking believes in a human-centric approach to finding and resolving problems, it draws upon human-centric insights, rather than aggregated, anonymous data, for inspiration. Design Thinking folds the customer or end-user into the design process right from the start, in a number of ways - as observed subjects, objective critics, experience designers, co-creators, and prototype testers. In his book "Change by Design", author Tim Brown explains how important it is to observe and learn from all users, especially those on the periphery, and even non-users. He says that studying customers and needs that fall squarely in the middle of the bell curve will only yield incremental insights at best. To get to true insights, where we can see problems or possibilities that no one else has seen as yet, we must push boundaries, think differently, apply learnings from other domains and industries, and see connections and synergies that lurk beneath the surface. Often, that happens outside our comfort zone.  

The reason why the Design Thinking exercise shuns some straitjackets such as presentations, spreadsheets and innovation frameworks, is because those are geared to lead us to an already known solution or an already experienced experience. Instead, Design Thinking exhorts us to freewheel, to dream up every crazy idea we can think up, prototype the idea rapidly and then work with real users to see what they like, what they wish for, and finally what they would be willing to pay for. The idea is so simple, so elegant that it is hard to understand why it is not already innovation hygiene. Our client organizations that have set forth in this direction are discovering a whole new realm of innovation - where they are able to stay open to all ideas to start with, but can then identify the ones with a chance quite quickly, build rapid prototypes at relatively low cost, and test them out with actual customers repeatedly, until they come up with "the one". In Design Thinking they have found a way to not just solve problems more creatively, but do it repeatedly, consistently, measurably and viably. 

In the past, design was often secondary to either commercial interest or manufacturing viability. Bringing design to the fore will make the output aesthetically more attractive and user friendly while probably making the process of creation faster and cheaper. As the possibilities of new ideas expands to encompass products as well as human-centered process, it is essential that we use the infinite possibilities that design thinking opens up to design a more interesting and livable future for ourselves.

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