This article appeared in The Irish Times on Friday, 6 June 2014. 

Ireland, though not a global design capital, is not a bad place to develop a new product. Dublin was shortlisted to the final three entrants for the World Capital of Design 2014, and next year will be “The year of Irish design”, a year-long programme convened by the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland.
Sam Russell, head of product design at NCAD, believes that “there are rich opportunities for product designers in Ireland in the realms of medical device design and user experience design.

“Ireland has well established industry bases in both of these areas and there is clear potential for product designer graduates to find roles here,” he says.

But there is a challenge common to all businesses designing new products and services. US technology investor Dave McClure, coined a maxim that sums this challenge up: “Your solution is not my problem.” He had sat through many a pitch from start-ups seeking his investment before distilling this nugget. And the idea, once grasped, is obvious: entrepreneurs often produce products that do not solve the kind of problems customers actually have. An entrepreneur pitching for investment is keen to talk up their solution, but what counts, says McClure, is that there is a genuine problem to be solved in the first place.

Designing products that solve real problems is difficult. A process called “design thinking” can help a business to shape its product to meet customer needs.

The process has five stages, and begins with the “empathy” stage during which the business goes out to research the problem among the people affected by it. Using the insights discovered by talking to people, the team can progress to the “definition” stage where it defines the problem based on real needs of potential customers rather than the entrepreneurs’ assumptions.

The third step is “ideation”. This is a free-for-all binge of idea generation, attempting to find every conceivable remedy to the problem. The focus is on quantity of ideas, rather than quality. Judgment is deferred until a later stage.
The fourth stage is “prototyping”. The team quickly produces simple mockups or prototypes of several possible products that combine ideas discovered in the “ideation” stage. These prototypes are then discussed among the team in the final stage. This final stage is “feedback”, when the judgment that has been deferred from stage three is finally given.

The best prototypes are then selected and refined for testing in the real world among prospective future users, which is a repetition of the “empathy” stage. And so the five-stage process goes, repeating again and again, until prototypes are refined into something that real world users are enthused about buying.
David Kelley is one of design thinking’s leading pioneers, and co-founded global design consultancy IDEO and the at Stanford University.

“The beauty of design thinking is that it can bring many disciplines together and gives these disciplines a roadmap to take on innovation. The, for example, draws from all of the graduate schools at Stanford. Students begin to develop a greater confidence in their ability to be creative in their area of study and some wonderful innovations are a result.”

Kelley recognises that design and design thinking can not solve every problem. However, he does believe that design thinking can be applied to challenges where design has not previously had a role.

“Right now at IDEO we are doing some work with a client where we are exploring designing end of life. Not where you would typically think of design but it is actually quite rich in terms of possible solutions for making that experience more human and better for loved ones.”
There is, however, a line of thinking that runs counter to the free-for-all ideation approach. Filip Lau, a partner at ReD Associates, says that the absence of criticism at the third stage of the design thinking process prevents critical discussion that can be useful. “Analysis injects dissent and criticism into the ideation process, and contrary to what the rules of brainstorming tell us, this makes people more, not less, creative.”

Whether Lau is correct or not, the focus on rapid prototyping and feedback is undeniably useful. It echoes the lean start-up methodology of Steve Blank and others to building new companies by continuously changing the product based on customer feedback. Yet, obvious as this might seem, this approach is at odds with our natural impulse.

Consider the marshmallow challenge, a creativity exercise in which a group of people, often business leaders, are told they have 18 minutes to build a structure that will support a marshmallow as high as possible over a table top. Each team is given a set of rudimentary building materials that include 20 pieces of uncooked spaghetti, a metre of tape, a metre of string, and one marshmallow. The objective is to build a structure that will support the marshmallow, and to get it higher off the table than any other team.

What is remarkable is that the results of this simple exercise run counter to established wisdom. Recent business school graduates perform the worst. Lawyers do only slightly better. The people who perform best are young children.
Professionals do poorly because they have no tolerance for failure and experimental iteration.

Rather than fail many times in their quest for a good design, they tend to devote the 18 minutes of the exercise to executing a single, grand plan. At the Innovation Academy in UCD, where this challenge is a staple on the curriculum, this “grand plan” strategy invariably fails. Five out of six teams of highly qualified students failed to keep their structures upright in a recent exercise.

Children, however, do the opposite to adults. They play. In reality that play involves building a succession of “ prototypes”. And the kids build upon the best of these prototypes, so that they get bigger and bigger, taking the marshmallow higher and higher off the table.