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Design thinking ourselves off the ledge

How design thinking and crowdsourcing ideas can keep us from stumbling into the future


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Will Parton, UXC

a year ago | 7 min read

The future is often uncertain, so we distract ourselves with diversions or focus on the day-to-day rather than absorbing the state of the world.

I get it. Believe me, I’d rather catch the latest episode of Outlander on Netflix or share Mr. Sandman Cat Tik Tok videos than admit it too, but we are at a tipping point.

Think about it. Global pandemics threaten to upend our way of life. Climate change is now a part of our everyday existence impacting everything from immigration to the economy. Cable information wars have called into question whether or not “facts” are a thing. And China’s authoritarian rise seems destined to own the 21st century.

Much of this can be linked to a world that is changing faster than ever before, as technology accelerates the digital revolution and transforms how we socialize and do business.

Somehow, the future went from being a shiny promise that we were excited about and became a trigger for anxiety and fear for many of us.

It has never been more important to rethink how we create and use technology to reduce unintended consequences. Who will help us innovate and open up possibilities for a brighter future?

When Elon Musk first came to Silicon Valley in his early 20s, he was disappointed to find so many great minds spending their days and nights working on social media and photo-sharing apps and not using technology to move the human race forward.

He took a different path with his companies, and for whatever flaws the man has as a human, you can’t deny his impact on the future of space travel and transportation.

Now, back to the future. I would argue that design thinking will get us down from the “scary-future-scenarios” ledge. And by crowdsourcing ideas, we don’t need to rely on a small group of elite individuals. All of us can play a role in how the future is played out.

Why design thinking? A little background

Design Thinking can take many shapes and forms. Over my 15 years in design, it’s my experience that Design Thinking is the backbone in helping companies in different industries improve digital experiences and find ways to innovate product solutions.

FinTech is my current focus, where we use these methods to bring different departments together as we collaboratively understand consumers’ financial problems and arrive at ways of meeting their needs.

Design Thinking is often used for creating innovative new digital products; however, it can also be applied to real-world problems like climate change, politics and everyday things.

How does design thinking work?

A Design Thinking approach is different primarily because it is not linear. Designers look at all aspects of an issue, and designers, like inventors, get excited about problems. Why? Because within the problem lies the answer.

The issues people are having in any given scenario are the roadmaps to finding solutions.

1. Empathize

Design thinking takes a human-centered approach, with empathy, listening, and observing at the core of the mission.

Our ability to see the world through other people’s eyes, to see what they see, feel what they feel, and experience things as they do is the first step to understanding the problem. This can apply to any problem, really.

We must first do our homework and research by listening, observing and empathizing before we allow solutions to creep into our thinking. Easier said than done. It is human nature to rush into solutions but the best problem solvers fall in love with the problem, not the solution.

When facing a problem like climate change, the sheer size of the problem can feel overwhelming. Most of us don’t know where to begin or believe we can’t possibly make a difference, so why bother trying.

Or maybe we like the conveniences in our lives and don’t want to make any major changes. One of the best ways to approach any large problem is to define it and break it into more manageable pieces.

2. Defining the Problem

Man-made carbon emissions are making the air and oceans hotter, therefore grandma in Florida is going to be underwater soon.

Causation breakout:

  • Deforestation 14%
  • Industrial processes 24%
  • Agriculture 13%
  • Energy use (transportation and homes) 49%

Impacts:

  • Extreme Weather Events
  • Food & Water Insecurity
  • Spreading of disease
  • Mental & Physical Health

Once we have a good understanding of the real problem, we won’t waste energy, time and resources trying to solve the wrong problems.

2. Brainstorming

Ahhh the fun part — now we get to brainstorm and ideate by collaborating and/or crowdsourcing solutions. Brainstorming is a powerful method for generating lots of ideas very quickly about almost any problem or issue.

The best way to find new solutions is by tapping into divergent thinking. This starts by gathering input and ideas from a wide range of sources and people. This will give us what we need to discover new ways of solving our problems.

In the context of climate change, this might be a combination of government and/or private industry approaches. Remember, the more ideas and perspectives, the better.

For example, this could start by listening to small and large private companies looking for new and innovative ways to reduce or remove carbon from the air. Or encouraging governments to give electric car companies subsidies and tax people for carbon emissions.

Or encouraging individuals to find creative ways to reduce their own carbon footprint. Think about it, as we know from the problem statement, 50% of the problem is our cars, airplanes and homes.

3. Prototype — testing and learning

Throwing lots of ideas out there is great, now it’s time to hit the ground with some experimentation to see what works and what doesn’t.

As I mentioned earlier, Design Thinking is not a linear process, it is an iterative process that requires open collaboration and feedback. Testing allows people to take prototypes and interact with them in order to gauge what works, what doesn’t, and how well solutions meet needs.

When thinking about climate change, is eliminating fossil fuels the best way to solve the climate problem? I don’t know — probably, but let’s experiment with different ways of generating low-cost, carbon-neutral energy. Maybe bringing back the wild, as David Attenborough has said, with more open spaces and fishing-free zones. Maybe new carbon extraction technology will do the trick.

Most likely, the answer is that it’s a combination of different strategies, but let’s open ourselves up to different scenarios and play around with it. I like to always go in with the mind of a beginner, rather than an expert.

If you look at every situation with fresh eyes, you can tap into the first impressions you have and not lock yourself into patterns of thinking or preconceived notions.

As Shunryu Suzuki, a Sōtō Zen monk and teacher said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.”

4. Crowdsourcing

While crowdsourcing does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with Design Thinking, there is definitely a connection here because Design Thinking is by no means limited to those educated few in an ivory tower who are determining how innovation gets done.

Ideas can come from anywhere. While R&D used to be designated to a department within an organization, most modern companies are hip to the realization that no matter how talented their staff may be, going outside the four walls of your business can open up a whole world of possibilities for ideation and innovation.

That’s where crowdsourcing comes in. Put simply, crowdsourcing is a way to bring in more diversity when it comes to new perspectives on the problem at hand. As Rebecca Cullen points out in this article on the heroX platform:

The novel perspective of people who do not necessarily know your product or your company allows for new concepts to emerge. Crowdsourcing teams have no bias or agenda, therefore they operate with a freedom that employees inside the organization might not experience.

Platforms like heroX, InnoCentive, and MIT Solve are paving the way toward a much more democratized innovation landscape. It’s so cool to check out their sites and see that heroX for example has collaborated with organizations like NASA for space challenges, Boeing for aviation challenges, and the NFL for a helmet challenge.

When it comes to my own experience in the field of Design Thinking, my jobs may focus for the most part on user experience, but I always go back to the human-centered approach; so that beyond just making an app or site more intuitive with a simpler interface, there is a broader, more inclusive implication.

Don Norman, pioneer and inventor of the term “user experience”, in an interview with NNGroup put it perfectly:

[User experience] is used by people to say, ‘I’m a user experience designer, I design websites,’ or ‘I design apps.’ […] and they think the experience is that simple device, the website, or the app, or who knows what. No! It’s everything — it’s the way you experience the world, it’s the way you experience your life, it’s the way you experience the service. Or, yeah, an app or a computer system. But it’s a system that’s everything.

In the end, I agree with Elon Musk, that instead of coming up with new ways to share photos on social media, why not think bigger, dig deeper, and take a more human-centered approach to what is going on in the world around us? With tech, misinformation, pollution, and overpopulation we’ve created a maze of compounding problems and now we need to design our way out.

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Will Parton, UXC

Product Design Strategist & Human

Curious UX advocate with 15 years of experience working for top brands in both consumer and enterprise applications.


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