Design thinking can be a powerful approach that helps organizations break through their limiting assumptions of what is possible. It creates deep empathy and gets us out of the abstract debate over ideas in meeting rooms, to a place where we can collaboratively create and test tangible concepts. The theory is great, but getting to implementation is often difficult. Why is that?

When one of us (co-author Glenn Fajardo) started organizing the TechSoup Asia Program Design Session, an event that convened leading social innovation professionals in Southeast Asia to collaboratively prototype new ways of using technology for social impact, he decided to use design thinking for the first time. He encountered questions and worries that we think most first-timers have. The first was:

“OK, so I’m convinced that using design thinking is a good idea. I think I understand what it is after reading Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt’s article “Design Thinking for Social Innovation,” and it sounds great, but I'm not sure how to put it into action.”

Since then, we have experimented with using design thinking in several projects. Based on our collective mistakes and experiences, particularly in organizing two recent events in Southeast Asia (Changeweekend and the TechSoup Asia Program Design Session), it’s clear that it’s not always easy to put the theory of design thinking into practice.

We agree with Brown and Wyatt that “most [people] stop short of embracing the approach as a way to move beyond today’s conventional problem solving,” and that “one of the biggest impediments to adopting design thinking is simply fear of failure.” However, to better understand how we might help more social innovators with “design doing”—actually applying design thinking—we need to better understand how people learn to use it effectively.

Learning “design doing” is experiential and social

There are already good learning materials available online, including the The Stanford d.School Bootcamp Bootleg and the HCD Toolkit. So what makes it tricky to learn and teach design thinking in a way that helps people embrace it more fully? These current materials might provide some sense of security and help, but are toolkits and workbooks enough?

Written materials alone cannot capture all the nuances of design thinking because the approach involves a structured approach with a lot of unstructured elements. Design thinking, like jazz, requires an appreciation for improvisation; learning how to apply it is an experiential and social activity.

Like learning to ride a bicycle, it is experiential. You cannot learn how just by having someone explain it to you—you have to actually try to do it yourself to find your own balance. You also need to practice to get better.

You can also increase your understanding by observing and interacting with more advanced practitioners—in this way, it is social. You enhance your understanding by practicing with your peers, sharing perspectives, and giving each other feedback.

This learning combination of the experiential and the social means thinking of design as craft rather than design as a codified process or design as an outcome. Think “knitting circle” rather than “classroom.”

From knowing to doing

As an example, let’s look at just one part of design thinking: how to prototype. A prototype is a simple simulation of the experience of a new product or service—a simulation that a user can interact with. It is often quick and dirty, and it makes an idea tangible and real. Prototyping helps you surface questions about the desirability, usability, and feasibility of your idea. Iteratively making and testing a series of prototypes can help you gain a deeper understanding of your users and help you refine your solutions.

We’ve seen anxiety from newcomers about making their first prototypes. They understand the concept of a prototype, why making a prototype can be useful, and how others have made prototypes. But the part about them actually making a prototype themselves…scary!

We saw this in the first design challenge for Changeweekend, where participants were tasked with developing new ways for currently unbanked populations to gain greater access to financial services. As we dived into a 45-minute session to create the first prototype, panic ensued:

“Aaaaack! Now what? I understand what a prototype is supposed to do, but not how to make one.”

“Prototyping is for creative people. I’m not creative.”

“Aren’t there more detailed process steps? Tell me what to do next, not just ‘start building.’”

After about 10 minutes of spinning, and with some prodding from the facilitators (“You won’t learn it until you do it...”), one small group finally started to build a “business in a box” prototype out of cardboard and construction paper. 

As they started to engage in the experience of prototyping, they overcame considerable fear and inertia, despite feeling like they didn’t really know what they were doing.

Conversations broke out: “I like what you did with this. Can you tell me more about your thought behind it? What if I tried this too?” The richness of the learning increased with the social interactions throughout the event, as participants had a chance to iterate and get feedback from their teams, other teams, the event facilitators, and other invitees who work in social enterprise development.

Once they started to work experientially and socially, and as their creative confidence grew, participants were able to start applying prototyping to their own design challenges, ones they face in their day-to-day work. One group took an idea for a “charity gift card” and started building prototypes that it could actually put in front of its intended users. This practice led to significant changes to the organization’s business model, to the product offer itself, and to the product’s presentation.

What’s needed to support more design doing?

Even if you’re just getting started, you might be surprised at the kind of help you can find. Try reaching out to your networks. Try posting to the Stanford Crash Course Facebook page. LinkedIn has several design thinking forums, such as Design Thinking, a subgroup of the Industrial Design group, and another (separate) group that is also called Design Thinking. Use these resources to find information and—more importantly—to connect with people. Let people know what you’re trying to do and ask for their advice.

Gawad Kalinga Design Session at Playhouse MINT College in Manila. (Photo by Issa Cuevas-Santos)

We also believe that there’s both a need and an opportunity here for more experiments around how to create systemic support for learning design doing. One could imagine a spectrum of modes for learning (varying in their degree of direct support of the experiential and the social) that lie between reading manuals online and signing up for a formal course on the topic.

One of the most significant challenges we see is enabling beginners to interact in real-time with experienced hands, in ways that are substantive, scalable, and sustainable. Though it wasn’t by design (no pun intended), we saw some promise in something that happened after the TechSoup Asia Program Design Session: several participants who experienced design doing for the first time during the event took that experience back with them and held design sessions where they were based. Organizations that did this include ASSIST and Gawad Kalinga in the Philippines, and ChangeFusion and OpenDream in Thailand. As a result, many more people were able to access experiential and social learning experiences that included interaction with (newly) experienced hands. In the future, one idea is to more explicitly build in an “each one teach one” expectation of participants.

What do you see as the barriers to introducing and applying design thinking in your organization?

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