When I started my design education, the class that intrigued me most was Design Methodology. Where most introductory classes taught drawing basics and design history, this was my opportunity to pull back the curtain and learn all of the trade secrets. It was, I assumed, where I would be instructed in how to be clever and brilliant at a moment’s notice. Or the location of the Inspiration Switch that I could flip whenever I was under the gun and needed a brilliant idea.
Design Methodology, like many other second-year courses, turned out to be less about trade secrets and more about hard work. Being a good designer takes a lot of effort, just like any other skilled trade. And inspiration can happen in a flash, but only after you’ve put in the long hours of honing your intuition and tending the fires of your mental engine.
But the big secret I discovered over time is that designers are essentially highly trained problem solvers. And that their methodology for solving problems can be used in myriad other situations. In fact, you can use design methodology to get better results in nearly any discipline. Much has been written on the subject lately, with the term "Design Thinking" typically used to describe the process. Over my next few posts, I’ll be discussing key parts of the process.
Part 1: Start with empathy.
Before you can solve a problem for someone, you have to fully understand their challenges. Designers are often asked to solve problems of which their audience is completely unaware. Henry Ford famously quipped that the problem his customers would have identified was the need for a faster horse. Someone with vision will often see a surprisingly better way…but only if they understand the needs of the user.
In order to do this, you have to first learn about your audience. What’s their daily life like? What drives the dozens of decisions they might make in relation to your product? What one decision-making factor completely outweighs the others?
You can answer these questions in a variety of ways, like digging into existing research or interviewing the kinds of people you’re looking to serve. But there’s no substitute for standing in their shoes. Visit their places of business, observe how the work gets done and honestly look at challenges from their point of view. That’s the key to objective innovation.
Once you have a good understanding of what drives your customers, you’ll much more effectively generate ideas, which I’ll cover in an upcoming post.