“Design Thinking 101” Article Review Part 2

Hi Everyone! This week’s post is part 2 of my review/take and connections to improv on the article:

Design Thinking 101

by Sarah Gibbons of The Nielsen Norman Group@segibb

You can check out Part 1 if you haven’t yet and then come on back to Part 2. Part 1 covered the following sections from the “Design Thinking 101” article:

  • History of Design Thinking
  • Understand
    1. Empathize
    2. Define

This week we’ll be going over:

  • Explore
    1. Ideate
    2. Prototype
  • Materialize
    1. Test
    2. Implement
  • Why – The Advantage
  • Flexibility – Adapt to Fit Your Needs


Explore – Ideate | Prototype

The Explore phase comes after the Understand phase in the article and it is where the team doing the design thinking process wants to come up with possible solutions to the user’s problems.

Improv is really about exploration. Exploring ideas, themes, concepts, feelings, relationships etc. I mentioned in Part 1 that the start of an improv show is where themes and ideas are generated; well the rest of the show following the opening explores those things and creates a world based on them.

I love that during the Ideate phase Sarah says “no idea is too farfetched”. The same holds true in improv (yes and). Now obviously for the business world, not every idea is going to end up being used. Eventually the team needs to settle on what they believe is the best solution. The best solution will take into account things like budget, platform, time frame, resources etc. BUT while ideating leave no stone unturned or idea unexplored.

What learning improvisation does for you is that for ideation it trains your mind to be open and ready to grow ideas. You’ll end up making connections you wouldn’t expect to normally by being open to and listening to and adding on to other people’s ideas. The group working together stands a better chance of coming up with something far more interesting and likely to solve the user’s problems than one of the team members working by themselves in a vacuum… #NoUnicorns

After Ideation comes Prototyping and the article talks about this being the place where you bring tactile representations of your ideas to life. Here you’re analyzing all the ideas and connecting different thoughts, defining and writing up your findings and then building a prototype. You’re bringing your ideas to life here and if the ideas are new, innovative or…<gasp> “disruptive”, you have to be brave and willing to take a risk in order to do that.

Improv helps you with that process by getting you to act on your ideas. In improv the following example is called “side support”. For example if there’s a scene (you’re watching from the side of the stage) going on and the location hasn’t been established you might see them as being in an office, in the break room. Well then get out there, go to the coffee pot, then to the fridge, grab your lunch and sit down and start eating. Jump on your idea and get it out there! That brings more life to the scene by adding new information and it helps clear up where the scene is taking place and helps the audience (sort of the “users” in this case) have a better mental model of the world the scene is taking place in. Get in there and build that world just like you should get in there and start prototyping out ideas so you can see how they’re taking shape and affecting the user’s world.


Materialize – Test | Implement

Moving on to the Materialize phase we start with Test. Here is where you are actually bringing your solutions to the users and getting feedback. Does what you built solve the user’s problems? Hopefully you’re working with an iterative design, prototype, test cycle that doesn’t have a lot of wait time between phases. The more often you’re working through the phases the faster you’ll get to a solution.

What you have to be ready for is that what you’ve initially conceived isn’t what the user wants or it doesn’t help them the way you thought it would. You need to be ego free at this point, which is hard to do because you’ve put a lot of work and yourself into the design and creation. It can hurt and be taken personally when all that work ends up being rejected by the users.

Improv in this case teaches you to be ego free or at least ego lite. There’s no time in improv to get too attached to your ideas. You may go out to start a scene with the idea that you’re a Mom dropping her daughter off for her first year of college but then your scene partner comes out and says “So I tried cleaning the family room but the vacuum cleaner broke”. Well you have to be ready to drop that idea and go with the new one. You may still be a mother and daughter but the circumstances are now completely different than what you thought they were going to be.

Just like you may have come up with, what you think is the greatest checkout work flow ever, but then in testing you find out that the majority of your users don’t want to create an account in order to checkout (which you have set up to provide all sorts of perks and extras if they do, which is why you think the users won’t mind creating the account). The users just want to checkout as fast as possible. You tell them in focus groups how they would get discounts and special promotions etc. but the users you speak with don’t care. Well if you’ve done your work bringing in a representative group of users for testing then you need to listen to them, be flexible and make the account creation optional.

Again, Improv teaches you to be flexible and not too attached to your ideas because things are ALWAYS changing in improv scenes and shows. Listening and staying in the moment will keep you from getting thrown off in scenes and in your daily work.


Why – The Advantage

Probably the shortest part of this post but Sarah goes over the advantages of using design thinking. Design thinking really puts the user at the center and source for the designs the UX team produces. The skills needed to really do that work are taught or supported by improvisation. A short list of skills taught by improvisation are:

  • Listening
  • Acceptance
  • Non-Judgment
  • Empathy
  • Trust
  • Connection
  • Collaboration
  • Authenticity
  • Simplicity
  • Agility
  • Creativity
  • Disruption
  • Innovation
  • Change
  • Risk


Flexibility – Adapt to Fit Your Needs

This final section talks about the design thinking process described in the article as being flexible which is important. The design process can be messy and the process is more of a scaffolding to work within and support what you are trying to do design-wise. Also, because it is iterative you are returning to phases you have gone through before to handle the feedback you’re getting from the users.

Improv does the same thing. There are myriad formats for long form improv shows and in addition to that there’s also long and short form improv. All of these forms of improv have a structure to them. That may seem at odds with improv. Usually when I talk about improv having a structure/framework the response is “but its improv aren’t you just supposed to make it all up?” Yes you are creating a show from nothing but the structure and framework help the improvisers organize and order the information they are creating. The improvisers aren’t being told what to say or do or what characters to play or where the scenes should take place.

So flexibility is a skill all improvisers learn about and by learning more about improv, maybe even taking some classes you too could take that skill over into your daily work. You’ll learn to react better when things come up and you and your team will be able to better pivot towards a new, and possibly, more interesting solution with your design.

That’s all for this article’s review I hope you enjoyed it!


Yes and,


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