“Design Thinking 101” Article Review Part 1

Hi Everyone! Time for another article review. Today’s post is different than our normal article breakdowns. I’m not reviewing an article about improvisation being used in business. Instead I wanted to talk about the article:

Design Thinking 101

by Sarah Gibbons (@segibb) of The Nielsen Norman Group

Sarah has written a wonderful article providing a brief history of design thinking and then breaking its process into 3 phases with each phase having its own sub-steps. My plan is to connect what Sarah has written to improvisation and how it can help support UX workers who are involved in the design thinking process.

Before getting into the rest of the post I want to say that, while it’s fun to show the connections and give examples that show how improvisation can help UX, in order for this to work improvisation has to be engrained into your company’s culture. If you want to make lasting changes in your employees thinking and behavior there are improvisation exercises that you can use on a daily basis. By doing these exercises daily with your teams the mindset and skills fostered will become a part of how your employees think and behave by default.


History of Design Thinking:

Sarah starts off the article with a brief history of design thinking and there’s a really good quote that, IMHO, connects well to improvisation:

“We’re always looking but we never see…it’s the act of attention that allows you to really grasp something, to become fully conscious of it.” – Milton Glaser

“We’re always looking but we never see…”

The first part of the quote makes me think “always looking” is really never taking the time to stop and absorb what we’re looking at in a certain moment of time. We just stay stuck in a non-stop mode of constantly bouncing from one thing to the next. It makes me think of how, during a scene, an improviser wants to remain “in the moment”. In improvisation bad things are coming if an improviser is busy focusing on things like

  • An idea for a scene/show they have in their head that they want to force on everyone else
  • What the audience wants to hear or laugh at
  • How they didn’t get enough stage time during the last show and by God they’re gonna make up for that tonight!

Are you, as a UX Designer “in the moment” when you’re listening to the users tell you what they like and don’t like about the product? Are you already looking to solve the problem before the user fully communicates their needs? Are you trying to push your own agenda regardless of what the users are saying? Are you “in the moment” when you’re listening to what your other team members are offering as possible solutions to the problem? Be in the moment so you can really see what is going on and what you’re users are saying.

“it’s the act of attention that allows you to really grasp something”.

The second part of the quote is what can make for great improvisation…ATTENTION (note the CAPS in order to get your, attention). When you’re improvising you want to be hyper-focused on what is going on right then and there in your scene.

  • What is your scene partner saying?
  • How are they saying it?
  • What physicality are they taking on?

All of these things are communicating information to the improviser receiving them. An improviser HAS to be in the moment and paying attention to their scene partner! When an improviser is paying attention they can process that information and respond to it with new information that adds on to what is being created. If the improviser tries to shoehorn the “funny” line they had in their head before the show into their response it’s going to look and sound awkward and worse, kill the idea that was just being offered by their fellow improviser.

Are you and the rest of the UX team giving your users and each other your full attention? When you’re ideating are you allowing everyone’s ideas to be fully explored? Be in the moment when you’re working, try as much as possible to not have a lot of…SQUIRREL!!!…moments. Like the quote said paying attention allows you to truly grasp something and you really do want to truly grasp what your users are trying to tell you.

Design Thinking – The Process:

The article breaks down the Design Thinking process into the following:

  • Understand
    • Empathize
    • Define
  • Explore
    • Ideate
    • Prototype
  • Materialize
    • Test
    • Implement

We’re going to finish up Part 1 with the Understand – Empathize | Define phases.

At the start of a project you (obviously) want to understand what needs to be accomplished. What are the business goals, the user goals and how do you satisfy both of those? I tend to lean towards the thought that if you satisfy the user goals you’ll end up taking care of the business goals for the most part.

This is of course where user research comes into play. The user researchers start gathering all the information they can about the product and what the users are doing and not doing with it. All of this information has to be gathered up and then analyzed for patterns like seeing where users may be abandoning the checkout process or why they don’t complete the sign-up form. All of this information is going to inform the initial design i.e. the content, information architecture, user flow, content flow etc.

To relate this to improvisation, at the start of the show you have nothing. You don’t have any goals other then to put on a well-improvised and entertaining show. Notice I didn’t say “funny”, try to be funny and you’ll most likely end up with a show resembling a turd. Regardless, at the start of a show a group will get a suggestion from the audience like “can I have a suggestion of a kitchen utensil” (how many of you just thought ‘spatula’ to yourself?).

From the suggestion the group will then run through what is called “the opening” and during the opening the group tries to generate as many ideas from the suggestion as they can. There is ZERO time for rejection of ideas here. The improvisers should be working together to build off of what is being said by everyone else. Patterns and themes will start to emerge and the improvisers should be picking up on them. Those patterns and themes will form the basis of the rest of the show just like your user research data will form the basis of your design solutions.

Empathize is the first sub-step mentioned in the understand phase. Empathy is one of the buzzwords in UX right now and everyone is talking about how you need to empathize more with the user. If you’ve done enough user research and really gone through it and tried to see things from the user’s point of view you should be able to empathize with their pain points and what is causing them frustration. This can take effort though as we normally just like to see things from our own point of view.

Improv with its mantra of “yes and” forces you to focus on your scene partner though. You become a more natural empathizer the more you improvise because you start to go into your scenes by looking forward to the scenic gifts your scene partner is going to give you (think of the feedback your users are giving you as gifts to help you make a better product). Not only are you looking forward to them but you also start to take on the attitude of how can I also make those gifts even better.

It’s a different way of thinking but I can attest to the fact that when I work now I really try my best to help explore other people’s ideas and take them as far as I can (and they do the same for my ideas). The idea may not end up being the best solution to the problem but often times by having that open, improv mindset to other peoples ideas I’ll have another solution pop into my head because I remained open and ready to add on to the idea we were exploring.

Define is the second sub-step mentioned in the understand phase. Here is where you are actually working with the overall team to take the user research and look for patterns and organize them something you can work with. That will help inform you as to what the users are specifically struggling with.

Details are important in improvisation. The details help define the who, what and where of an improv scene. A scene can survive without these 3 things but they can be much richer and more entertaining when you do have them. By even giving basic details with your lines you can help create a richer world. Make the mustard you want on your hot dog “Grey Poupon”, not just “mustard”. That detail can inform your scene partner that maybe you like the finer, more expensive things in life.

By paying attention to the details in your user research you can define the patterns and issues more clearly. And if you have a more defined issue you’ll be better able to address that issue with a solution created by the entire team. If you know that users aren’t completing the checkout because they don’t want to create an account for the site you know exactly what is wrong vs. just looking at “we had 100 people start checking out and only 20 completed it”. Define those details and define them by talking to, empathizing with and connecting to your users.

Improvisation helps you to connect better with others because you have to learn how to connect with your scene partners. The two improvisers are working together and the stronger they connect to each other the better the chances are that they’ll create a scene that is rich and full of interesting ideas and directions that can be explored.

Improvisation teaches these skills, skills that absolutely help support understanding, empathy and defining patterns, themes and details. Improvisation can help all of us in UX; the researcher, content strategist, project manager, information architect, interaction designer, visual designer, front-end coder etc. all be more focus and connected with the users and each other. We just have to be willing to try something new and different on a consistent basis that will take us out of our comfort zone, which in the end will help us grow.

That’s all for this week. Come on back next week for Part 2!


Yes and,


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