Thursday 16 September 2021

Opportunity: Initial problem

When I write about opportunity, what i mean is the initial problem definition, why are we here and what are we trying to solve? there are three main components to the opportunity stage

Identifying the opportunity for improvement is the first challenge of a design team, problems can come from many directions and usually are not as clear cut as they first seem; Often times symptoms masquerade as problems, for example I once worked with a client where it took 48 hours from the moment a user requested access to a system before it was either granted or the user was informed that they needed to take the appropriate training; after some investigation, the problem seemed to be a 48 hour service level agreement (SLA) with a 3rd party provider who was paid per ticket.

The provider was not willing to budge on the 48 hour SLA putting us at an impasse, but once we asked why is this handled by a service provider we started to gain some traction. We ended up cutting down a 48 hour turnaround time into a 10 second one by circumventing the service provider with a chatbot.

Now the above is a very simple example that nicely illustrates that the symptoms of a "slow" system  was actually the result of of an underlying problem of not having a dedicated admin that could handle the request, and that in fact this "admin" wasn't even necessary.

When we are trying to define our problem we should pursue questions along the following lines:
  • What is the actual problem underneath the symptom(s)?
    • is there a resolution?
      • what are the components of the resolution 
      • can the components be modified or reordered
  • Who is affected by the problem, 
    • our staff
    • our clients
    • our management
    • some of the above?
    • all of the above?
  • who has tried to solve this problem? 
    • Other teams? 
    • our competition? 
    • has anyone solved it 
    • has anyone moved towards a solution?
  • When did the problem start being a problem? 
    • this year?
    • this quarter? 
    • last week? 
    • why is it important now?
      • has it always been there?
      • has something changed that suddenly it's more serious? or just more visible?
        • has management changed
        • was someone managing the problem and no longer is
          • if yes, how? 
          • if no, why?
  • Has someone failed to solve this problem in the past
    • what can we learn from their failures
    • what did they do wrong
      • did they understand what the root cause was
  • where is this problem
    • local?
    • regional?
    • national?
    • global?
    • is it a cultural specific challenge?
  • Source of the problem
    • Internal
      • management
      • union
      • personnel
    • Partner
      • 3rd party provider
      • strategic alliance 
    • Competitor
      • Direct
      • Indirect
      • Disruptive tech
    • Government
      • Law
    • Cultural change
  • Why is it worth solving
    • enough impact to dedicate time and resources
    • will the solution be cheaper then the problem
      • in the long run
      • immediately 
      • does it matter (if it's legislation driven)
The most important thing is to dive deep, when investigation our problem, not to stop after the first level of questioning but to keep chipping away until we can get to the root cause, it's a very contextual approach, it's hard to say when you've gone deep enough. For my chat bot solution, the line of questioning that got us to our solution went something like this:
  1. Why does it take more than two days for new users to get anything done in this system?
    Because it takes up to 48 hours to gain access
  2. Why does it take 48 hours to gain access
    because it's a 3rd party provider that handles it for us on a ticket basis
  3. why do we use a 3rd party provider
    because its a rarely accessed system and it doesn't make sense to have a dedicated admin
  4. Is the system ours? or the 3rd parties?
    it's our internal system
  5. is there a rest API that we could use to access the system
The above is a very neat and tidy representation of what we did, in reality there where many dead ends we investigated many points of contact, many frustrations and many experts we had to consult, which brings me to my next point, just because our team has a technical component it doesn't mean it's the right technical component, when solving problems as a team you have to move beyond yourselves and consider solutions that you may not be well versed in. in those case you need ask yourselves:
  1. What expertise do we need?
  2. Who has the expertise that we need?
    • how much does it cost?
    • do we need external help?
One of the biggest challenges that we have to overcome is getting a handle on what the root cause of our challenge is, to make matters worse often times the client doesn't truly understand what's wrong:
  • The wrong problem being presented by the client
  • The wrong solution being presented by the client
in both cases it's easy to follow the wrong path, if the client pays you to solve the wrong problem or even worse they give you the solution to implement you are left in the worst possible situation where even if you are successful you still fail. If you solve the wrong problem 100% effectively you are still 100% wrong. 

Wednesday 1 September 2021

Introduction to design thinking

Design thinking in a nutshell is a set of techniques leveraged to figure out what the right problem is before solving it; this may sound superfluous however too often in today's world symptoms are confused with causes. For example poor user adoption is not a problem, it is the symptom of an underlying problem and design thinking asks and understands the most important question.

Design thinkers are merely trying to answer why is something the way it is, before trying to come up with a solution:
  • Why are we losing money? 
  • Why is no one using our service?
  • Why is no one buying our product ?
  • Why does something take so long?
  • Why is information not readily available? 
Design thinking is most effective in a cross functional domain that represents three main perspectives of the problem domain:
  • Business: this perspective keeps the solution aligned with organizational goals and within budgetary confines
  • People: not necessarily represented by actual users, but focused on understanding the users and their context.
  • Technology: provides an understanding of what is possible, what can actually be implemented to solve the problem

where these three perspectives overlap is the best opportunity for applying design thinking techniques resulting in innovation. The business is responsible to ensure viability, the user's perspective is to certify desirability and the technology delegate's goal is to align the solution with feasibility, when these three groups are satisfied we have a true contender.

States of design thinking:


  • Problem: this is the problem that has been presented to the Design team.
  • Investigate: the design team thoroughly investigates the problem.
  • Reframe: Once the team has investigated the problem, they have the knowledge and understanding reframe the problem into the root cause and not just the presenting symptoms.
The investigation of a problem revolves around the three cross functional domains:
  • Users: Gain an understanding into the end users and their context, how, where and why do they need this solution.
  • Business: How will this solution align with the business's strategic goals, which markets should this solution be distributed to, what type of revenue is required, what are compositors doing.
  • Technology: what resources are required for this product to be successful, is the technology feasible, is it readily available, 

The ideation state is generally what comes to mind when the words "Design thinking" are thrown about, this is the stage where the team comes up with creative solutions to the problem they're trying to solve.

  • Divergent: is the concept of coming up with ideas no matter how wild or unfeasible to solve the problem.
  • Convergent: narrowing down ideas to those that are feasible and best solve the problem
  • Visualization/storytelling: packaging these wild ideas in such a way that there value can be communicated with a greater audience 

The prototype state is where the team takes their best ideas and puts them to the test.

  • Prototype: build a model of part or all of an idea that the team wants to verify.
  • Test: create quantifiable criteria to measure prototypes against
  • Refine: synthesize results from prototype testing and incorporate lessons learned back into prototypes.

Prototypes should aim to answer questions like:
  • Does the solution really work the way it was intended? 
  • What do your users think of the solution, aesthetically, functionally? 

States of design thinking 

Design thinking moves between three states, in any order, generally you'd start with Research, but you could really head in any direction from there. Designing a solution involves many iterations between Research, Ideation, and prototyping as the team learns more about the problem from prototyping and/or ideating they need to revisit their problem definition do more research 

Our design team has to be comfortable with ambiguity, it needs to be made up of people that have various perspective but share one very important trait, and that's curiosity, these aren't people who want to be told what to do, they are people want to figure out what to do. People who are not afraid of sharing their ideas, who welcome challenge and criticism, people who are humble who don't mind sharing a "dumb" idea who aren't afraid of being wrong and who understand that sometimes the best solutions sprout from the dumbest ideas.

To truly embody the design thinking mindset one has to be part of a team where members can riff off each others ideas. To be able to work together in a constructive way to look at a problem holistically and iterate one their own as well as each others ideas. To have an open minded team spirited decentralized approach to problem solving, where everyone contributes and no one steals the show. Design thinking isn't about a superstar solving a problem it's about a team of passionate individuals drawing on each others expertise to identify problem and propose a holistic solution.

The Design team keeps the "User" at the center of their solution realizing that they are solving a business problem for a group of users leveraging technology.

the design process has three main bi-directional stages. the process is very iterative, we can identify our opportunity design our approach, go back rethink our opportunity then jump to our prototype, test it than redesign, prototype again and just move between the phases as needed to try and frame our problem and a solution that meets our main criteria.

In short Design thinking is a safe space for curious minds to come up with viable, novel, and desirable solutions.