Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Design Thinking, the Elevator Pitch

Design Thinking is still a concept that suffers from 1) misunderstanding and 2) being dismissed as a new word for an old thing. Because of this, all design thinkers, at one point or another, are put into the position of evangelizing for design thinking.

So, let's think about how we might create an elevator pitch for design thinking and, along the way, we will probably give ourselves lots of great material for evangelizing the concept as well.

What Do We Want to Communicate?

Well, frankly, there is a lot. Too much, in fact. So, most of the difficulty is tossing out a lot of important things to communicate the core value of design thinking. Whatever we do, it's important to communicate:
  • What you do with it
  • What value it provides
  • How it is different or uniquely valuable
But remember that it's an elevator pitch, they aren't sitting down taking notes.

What Do You Do With It?

For the most part, people use design thinking to create a product, and depending on how broadly you interpret those terms, that comprehensive statement covers all uses.  However, a lot of people think of products only as a piece of gear or software. With an elevator pitch, you may have no idea of your audience's level of knowledge in this area, so it's best to assume no specialized knowledge.

Because design thinking can be used far more broadly to both identify and solve problems.  Those solutions may involve products, but they may also involve new processes, plans, or ideas. And, more powerfully, it can also be applied to 'blank slate" scenarios, i.e., you are not sure what problems you need to solve for your users/customers or what solutions to even consider.

What Value Does It Provide?

The primary value comes from the philosophy and process of design thinking. It is tempting to just start slapping that process into a pitch because the core concepts of the process are important to using it and fully understanding it. Let's explore that.

We can use simple or complex statements. Either choice raises problems for an elevator pitch. If we keep it very simple with a broad strokes description, like IDEO's "inspiration, ideation, implementation" model, then our pitch starts to sound like fuzzy market-speak. If we dig into the specific process steps, we overwhelm the audience and encourage them to tune out.

In either case, depending on whose vision/model of design thinking you are following, there are some nuanced differences in what the steps and terms mean.

Lots of terminology and nuance is your first red flag that this information may not be a good choice for an elevator pitch. So, what can we do?  We can focus on the point of the process. What overall value is derived from using it?

To me, the greatest value of design thinking is that it enables you to create a product that better meets the needs/wants of your user/customer. But just saying that is not a compelling argument on its own. Our audience wants to know what is special about design thinking that allows them to achieve this.

How Is It Different or Uniquely Valuable?

To fully convey how design thinking is different, it is natural to start with discussing what you are comparing it to. The canonical counter example is one that has often been used in the business world; design methods that brought in users and designers towards the tail-end of product creation, as an afterthought, to polish it up and make it more appealing. 

In contrast, design thinking leads with design and engages users immediately.  Designers lead the process, as opposed to engineers or developers. User engagement continues throughout the process, including before, during, and after prototyping. This user feedback helps guide the development. Some call this user-centric or human-centric.

This general idea is not entirely novel, really, but adoption was not high until somewhat recently. The term design thinking was being used as far back as the 1960s, but the current usage of the term stems from work in the 1990s, when the framework, philosophy, and processes became more formalized.

Unlike methods where a prototype might be mostly envisioned by engineers and then shown to a user when it is mostly done, design thinking favors rapid prototyping. Prototypes are created quickly an inexpensively, creating only what is necessary to test the relevant concept, e.g., a mock-up made out of cardboard to explore user feedback on usability related to size and shape.

This approach favors a product that more closely meets the needs of its users, to avoid the failure of creating a product your customer does not want. It's important to notice my focus on value and customer needs, because lowest cost is a dodgy argument to make. In almost any case, one can create a cheaper solution that does not meet the customer's needs. So, the argument for design thinking is efficiency and creating something the customer actually wants.

These key qualities can be summarized as follows.
  • Leading with design and user engagement
  • Engaging the user before, during, and after prototype creation
  • Rapid prototyping and a "fail fast" approach to quickly and efficiently get to the best option

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, "Hey, you threw jargon in there!" Yes I did, but I think "rapid prototyping" is a phrase that communicates the concept with adequate accuracy for any audience.  The phrase "fail fast" may be a bit of a stretch, so we may or may not throw that in there.

"Leading with design" may make sense to designers, but it's probably an odd turn of phrase for others. So, let's rephrase that to "designers lead throughout the process".

I am going to revisit something I said earlier in this article. Because of how the process works, it can be applied to a scenario where there is no notion of the specific user need nor the solutions you might use. For example, design thinking has been used very effectively by non-governmental organizations to explore a problem, identify the causes of those problems, and implement successful programs to resolve them. The important point is that you can start from essentially nothing with this process and be successful.

If you are a design thinker, you might be frustrated by the absence of the word "empathy" in this discussion, because it is a critical aspect of what makes design thinking work. However, it's a word that has wildly variable connotations to many people and, without explanation, can seem vague and fuzzy, getting put in the mental "market speak" bin. It's a concept better suited to a follow-up discussion.


There are many ways you could put this together, so please take this as an invitation to be creative and put your own spin on it. We are going to aim for 30 seconds.

Note: The assumed audience is a leader within the company and is going to focus on business, brand, and efficiency.

The storyteller: This blurb couches the pitch in a more conversational, story-telling mode.
Creating a product or solution your customer doesn't want is bad for your brand and bad for your business. Design thinking helps avoid those disasters. It's a framework for identifying and creating products and solutions that better meet your customer's needs; it can even help you figure those out. Designers lead throughout the process and users are engaged from start to finish. Rapid prototyping is used in concert with user feedback to keep the development on target. The result is a process that efficiently produces something that meets your customer's needs. Better products. Better solutions. Happier customers.
Just the facts: All right, it's go time. No filler text. Minimal qualifiers. Avoid jargon.
Design thinking is a framework for identifying and creating products and solutions that better meet your customer's needs; even when starting with a blank slate. Designers lead throughout the process and users are engaged from start to finish. Rapid prototyping is used in concert with user feedback to keep the development on target. The results are products and solutions that better meet your customer's needs.
And so ends the exercise. Take care.

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