Design Thinking Explored

Design the New Business – English subtitles from dthenewb on Vimeo.

I’m a researcher who happens to love great design. So, it’s probably not surprising that whenever a client project comes up that is tackling a product or service design challenge, I leap at the opportunity to work on the team. Over the years, my absolute favorite projects had one thing in common; a team of diverse thinkers with very different backgrounds and skills. Something about the differences among the team members always brings out the best in our work.

If you’ve never had an opportunity to work on a design project but are interested in learning more, the above video is a great introduction. What I like about the video is that it dispels some of the hype surrounding the term “design thinking” and focuses on the rich opportunities to meld design and business thinking for greater impact. Well worth watching for inspiration!

Then, if you are interested in exploring design thinking further, a really great online Coursera class to explore is Karl Ulrich’s design class at the University of Pennsylvania. His class is fun, challenging and will definitely improve your design skills. He combines design theory with hands-on skills development so you will learn by doing. You’ll create a project website and take your idea through the design process. The lectures are fantastic, particularly the ones where Karl talks about his own experiences launching new products. The class should be offered again later this year so if you check out the course page you should be able to sign up for updates.

If you are not familiar with Coursera, it’s part of the massive open online courses (MOOC’s) movement in education and offers classes from more than 60 universities on a wide range of topics. I’ve taken classes on behavioral economics and design and so far have been impressed by the quality of the classes and the great ideas I could apply to my consulting practice.

Enjoy exploring!

Heat Maps Capture the Big Picture

Heat maps may not be used as much in research reports these days but I think they are still an excellent way to visually capture and share complex information in one compelling snapshot. The appeal and magic of a heat map is that it’s easy for just about everyone to quickly see, process and grasp patterns in the data. It also generates a lot of attention when the heat map reveals an interesting pattern. A well-constructed heat map is still a great tool to quickly capture attention and spark a BIG picture discussion in any presentation.

Consider the above example—a partial heat map I recently saw in a blog post. Without knowing anything more about the context of the data represented, you can quickly see the large red patch indicating that something really bad happened along the right side and consistently down the page.

What if I told you that this was part of a larger heat map that Vanguard’s chief economist used in a recent presentation while discussing the future of the economy and housing sector? And, that the x-axis (horizontal) is a timeline and the y-axis (vertical) is housing market data by state. Now, the information presented quickly takes on additional meaning. In just a few moments, you have processed a snapshot of a very complex data set spanning 20+ years. That is the power of a great heat map.

Finding Inspiration

Research presentations are not just about sharing charts and data, but also about taking the audience (even briefly) on a journey from the consumers’ point of view and experience. Whenever I’m working on a research story for a client, I have my short list of “go to” sources that I turn to for inspiration. Inspiration sources help keep the creativity flowing on even the most complex of qualitative and quantitative projects. Actually, inspiration sources have one other advantage. It helps to show the client a potential approach we could take to get the story across to their stakeholders.

One of my current “go to” favorites is the video Green Tunnel by Kevin Gallagher. In 5 minutes Kevin takes viewers on an amazing 2,200 mile journey of the beauty, ruggedness and changing topography of the Appalachian Trail. I’m not likely to ever hike the trail, but watching the video I get a sense of what that experience would be like. If Kevin can take the viewer on a 6 month journey in 5 minutes, I should be able to find a creative way to synthesize a mountain of qualitative and quantitative research data to share a compelling consumer journey. While I don’t have Kevin’s ability to edit such a masterpiece, I have drawn inspiration from this amazing video to brainstorm, synthesize and interpret research in new ways to build empathy and understanding.

  • Create and narrate a storyboard of consumers’ brand experience (e.g., field notes and images captured at an airport, navigating all the touch points with a brand).
  • Create a visually rich slide show of captured moments, places, interactions and items recorded or photographed, narrated with consumer quotes (e.g., Ken Burn’s documentary style).
  • Compile and edit video footage from ethnography, shop alongs, focus groups or interviews in a succinct 10 minute clip, organized by themes or topics or even key questions (e.g., similar to how Big Think presents interview segments).

Having inspirational sources helps keep story front and center whenever I’m pulling together a presentation. Are there other sources of inspiration that you recommend?

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To Be a Better Writer, Play

Watch children at play and you quickly realize that their approach to learning new skills is very different than most adults. When learning to play a new game, children typically use a 3 step process: listen to a few instructions, watch others briefly and then join in and start playing the game. It’s primarily through trial and error and continuing to play that they master the game.

What can children teach writers about the learning process?

We typically spend a lot of time on step one. We take classes, more classes, read books and take a long time, if ever, to progress to step two and step three. However, to become a better writer requires the same approach to learning as children. We need to move to step three: dive in and play.

I think that’s why one of my favorite books on the art and science of writing is Gabriele Lusser Rico’s book Writing the Natural Way. I first discovered her book in the 1980’s and it’s been on my bookshelf ever since. The format of the book quickly nudges you from reading about a technique to practicing the technique outlined in the chapter. Throughout the book you practice techniques like clustering, trial webs, recurrence, imagery and metaphor, to name just a few.

Recently I picked the book up again and was amazed at how many of the techniques that I learned back then I still use today. One of the most interesting chapters explains how our left and right hemispheres of the brain process information. This was the first book I remember reading that demystified the use of right brain and left brain thinking skills in the creative writing process.

If you are looking for a book that quickly immerses you in the craft of creative writing techniques through play, I recommend checking out the book. The last edition available was published in 2000.

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