2016 SOI: Discover Your Inner Designer

Ideo leader urges summit attendees to make their ideas real

By 
Diane Rusignola, Deputy Editor, NACS

Walking a day in your user’s shoes is an invaluable exercise in figuring out what the user wants, said David Schonthal.

When international design and consulting firm Ideo was formed in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1991, it was founded on the idea that there is a designer inside all of us. So said David Schonthal, who now works in the company’s Chicago office in its business design practice. He’s so sure that the idea holds strong to this day that he challenged attendees on the final morning of the summit to prove it to themselves.

Everyone was to grab a pen and piece of paper, take 60 seconds and draw the person sitting next to them. The results were equal parts fun, silly and awkward. At the end of the exercise, Schonthal—who also serves as clinical assistant professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University—admitted that the first thing people usually say to their subject is simply, “I’m sorry.”

The idea behind the exercise reflects how we should live in business: to be bold and try new things, unlocking the designer inside all of us to create better customer experiences.

Schonthal said design is a way of looking at the world through a human-centered lens. There are three basic elements of design thinking: Learn about the world, have some ideas and make those ideas real.

When we look at what’s viable, feasible and desirable, and how those three items overlap, many of us start with what’s feasible, or the technology side of the equation, Schonthal said. But if you really want to reach the intersection point, you need to start with what’s desirable—or the human part of the equation.

“Talk to users. Be out in context where they are, where they live,” Schonthal said.

Learn About the World

One campaign that helped Ideo understand human behavior was Bank of America’s “Keep the Change” initiative. Through interviews, the company learned that many people were rounding their monthly bills up to the closest $5 increment, hoping to get ahead with their debt each month. The company found it curious that people were willing to pay their utility company before paying themselves by contributing to their savings account. The Bank of America campaign helps people round up their debit-card payments, but with the extra money going into an account of their own.

“ ‘Can you show me?’ It’s the most powerful question you’ll find.”

“It was simply taking something that people are already doing—an emotion they’re trying to achieve—and developing it into [a good behavior],” Schonthal said.

But how can we discover the emotions our customers are trying to achieve? Everything you want to know about your users exists outside your building, Schonthal said, so get out there and start learning about them.

Schonthal talked about how many children dislike MRI machines, with 85% of them needing anesthesia just to get through the experience. A company that recognized this attempted to “understand the entire journey” through a child’s eyes, and the result was putting the child on a pirate adventure—including medical staff dressed as pirates and an MRI machine that looked like an authentic ship. “Just changing the context can make a massive, massive, massive difference,” he said.

Think bank customers or children who need MRIs have nothing to do with your business? “At Ideo we don’t typically look for solutions inside an industry we’re working on. [So] where might you look for ‘inspiration by analogy’?” he said.

Start with users. In the bell curve from novices to experts, the tendency will be to go to the middle of the bell curve. “But if people are using [something] exactly how you expect, there may not be that much to learn,” he said. “In order to push the edges of things, you need to start with the edges of things. The best ideas rarely come from the mean; they come from the edges.”

If the Shoe Fits …

And while people say one thing, they often do another, Schonthal said. He referenced a project he worked on involving rheumatoid arthritis. A study participant said she had no trouble opening her pill bottles each day, but it was obvious her hands were mangled by the disease. They discovered she had come up with a life hack to open her pill bottles with a table saw.

“ ‘Can you show me?’ It’s the most powerful question you’ll find in interviews,” he said. “The data you get from interviews is only as good as what you think to ask.”

Workarounds such as the pill bottle/table saw are absolute gold for designers, Schonthal said. When you can observe a user who has come up with a workaround to a problem, they’re already on the road to a solution or a new product that you can innovate.

“Context is part of the equation, but it’s not all of the equation. You need to add in empathy,” he said. “It all comes from being the user, walking a day in your user’s shoes: designing with empathy.”

For example, walk around a classroom on your knees to see what it looks like for a child. Then your future designs will have the user in mind.

“Employing empathy can be a super-helpful design tool,” he said. “How can you design something without ever having walked a day in your user’s shoes? What can you do to experience the world through your customer’s point of view?”

Make Ideas Real

After learning about your users and realizing what they may need, it’s time to build a solution. First, amass ideas, Schonthal said. People expect an idea birthed in a brainstorm will end up being used in the market, but that’s the wrong approach.

“Quantity first, then quality,” he said. “Brainstorming is best when you don’t stifle ideas. At least in the beginning, defer judgment. What’s the wild idea that keeps coming up in meetings that doesn’t seem feasible now but could end up pointing you in the right direction?”

Schonthal encouraged attendees not to be afraid to build a tangible prototype of an idea they’re throwing around. Do it even if it’s as crude as using a whiteboard marker and a clothes pin, which Ideo did when drafting what would end up being multimillion-dollar medical equipment. “Prototypes are questions embodied. All of a sudden we were having a very different fidelity of conversation as soon as we had something in our hands that we could touch,” he said.

The idea, though, is not to not fail, but to fail as quickly and cheaply as possible. “There is 100% certainty that when you try something new, at some point along the way you’re going to fail,” Schonthal said.

When putting together a prototype, it doesn’t need to be fancy, but it does need to be physical. In fact, Schonthal says the scrappier—and the faster—the better. And if you don’t believe him about prototypes, he says you can create one for everything, including a relationship. After all, he asked the audience, what is dating if not simply a prototype for marriage?

It’s all about “lower-risk, lower-fidelity ways of answering super-important questions,” he said.

When Ideo was developing a prototype game for “Sesame Street,” the company built the potential user experience with a cardboard cutout of what the interface might look like, with staff acting out the characters within the game. “With an afternoon and a cardboard cutout, [we manufactured] just enough fidelity to create the experience,” Schonthal said.

So what’s the fastest way to embody your value proposition? Make it cyclical, not linear, he advised, and you will be able to achieve something new, different and great.