Imagine being asked to redesign Boston's Public Transportation System in one afternoon. It may sound like a daunting task but this was exactly what I and about 20 other students were asked to do in a design thinking class I recently took a few weeks ago. Within hours, we had come up with ideas like a gondola style train car, individual speed pods, and food and beer service while you wait. While these were all great ideas, the point of the class wasn't to actually come up with a solution that day. It was to teach us the process of design thinking.
What Is Design Thinking?
It is a 5-stage process, traditionally used by product designers, to create solutions using a human-centered approach. If you have enjoyed the convenience of the Swiffer mop, you have design thinking to thank. But today, design thinking has moved beyond the consumer products arena and is now used to solve problems in fields ranging from healthcare, to criminal justice, to rural farming. For example, a team of Stanford graduate students was asked to create a low cost portable device to help newborn babies in Nepal who were dying of hypothermia stay warm. They originally designed a portable incubator. But after visiting with the families in Nepal, they realized that very few homes had electricity. Based on this feedback they changed their design and ultimately created a sleeping bag made of special material that when heated would hold its temperature for several hours.
HOW can DESIGN THINKING help you?
Stage 1: EMPATHIZE
This human-centered approach to solving problems begins with empathy. To design a useful solution, designers have to understand where their audience is coming from. Who they are? What are their challenges? What are they struggling with? What are their needs and desires? What will make their lives better? The best way for the designers to accomplish this is to drop any assumptions they have about what they think the right solution is and get curious about their target audience. Only by watching how they go about their day, asking questions, and listening to their stories can the designers begin to design an effective solution for their audience.
Interview Yourself: When it comes to finding the right career most people get frustrated because they don't know what they want to do. The next step isn't obvious and this lack of clarity leads to a lot of time spent thinking and not enough time spent taking action. But notice that the underlying assumption here is that you are supposed to know what you want to do. The beauty of using design thinking is that you don't have to know what you want. You just have to be curious about yourself. This starts with interviewing yourself and asking the right questions such as "What have you enjoyed doing throughout your career?", "What issues and causes do you care about?", and "How do you enjoy spending your free time?" All of these questions point to what you genuinely care about and enjoy doing.
Stage 2: DEFINE
Once the designers have observed their audience, interviewed them, and listened to their stories they need to synthesize the data and narrowly define the problem they are seeking to solve. The goal here is to create a problem solving statement that centers around a specific need of the audience. For example, when asked to create a solution for mothers with toddlers who don't like eating vegetables, a problem solving statement would be "How might we help mothers get their children to eat more vegetables?" Notice the focus is on "eating vegetables" and not on "eating healthy", or "eating more", or "eating less junk food." By narrowly defining the problem the designers bring clarity to the problem they want to solve and will be able to come up with more specific, higher quality solutions.
Get Specific: After you have interviewed yourself, start to draw connections between your answers. Are their themes that begin to emerge? Organize your interview answers into categories like skills/strengths, industries, organizations, passions/interests, people, and causes. Once you have categorized all the information, take a step back, review the information and ask yourself what you want to focus on and explore in more depth. What are the skills, industries, causes, etc. that stand out to you? Choose a specific path to explore and resist the temptation to explore everything at the same time. This may sound counterintuitive but realistically your skills and interests will make you marketable in only a few industries and that's a good thing. You won't to pursue opportunities that are the best fit for you. You don't to find just any job, you want to find the right one.
Stage 3 IDEATE
This is the fun part where the design team gets to have a creative brainstorm session with rules. Think big white boards, collages, and color post-its, where rational thought and imagination have equal say in the matter. In this stage of no holds barred creativity, the main rule to follow is one of no judgment. All ideas are welcome. The point is not to come up with the right idea but to generate as many ideas as possible. This allows for not just the most obvious ideas but also for innovative ones as well. By using tools like mindmaps, sketching, and wordplay the designers are able to tap into their conscious and unconscious selves.
Once the designers are satisfied with the variety of ideas, they create a selection process to choose which ideas they will bring to the next stage as a prototype. A commonly used method of selection is one where the designers pick ideas that fall into one of three categories, "most likely to delight", "the rational choice", and "the most unexpected". Ultimately the two or three ideas that receive the most votes are carried into the prototyping stage.
Brainstorm: Because of the work you did in stage 1 and 2, getting to know yourself and getting specific about what you want, you can now more effectively identify the kinds of careers that appeal to you. In stage 3, create a list of people and organizations that do the work that you want to do. Read through university course catalogs or visit sites like skillshare, udemy, lynda, creativelive, codeacademy, and coursera and create a list of courses that are of interest to you. Based off these lists, create voting criteria for how you will narrow down your choices such as, "most fun", "most interesting", "most practical", "most lucrative", and "most fulfilling". Use this stage to pick out which careers are most appealing to you.
Stage 4 PROTOTYPE
In stage 4 the designers create a very simple prototype of the few ideas that they have chosen to move forward with. A prototype can be anything that the audience can interact with, from a sketch to a cardboard model. The goal here is to share the prototype with the target audience, get their feedback, and build in their suggestions. By starting with a low-cost prototype the designers avoid investing a lot of time and money and also minimize the risk of going too far down the wrong path.
Start Small: Once you have identified 2-3 career options your goal is to get a taste of what they are like in order to see if it would be something that you want to do. Your version of building a simple prototype would be to set up an informational interview with someone in that field, find a mentor, volunteer, take a class in that subject, go to a workshop, or attend an industry conference. Do whatever you can to gain some real world insight into the careers you have chosen that goes beyond just reading an article or thinking about them. Through each prototype activity you will learn about the pros and cons of each field and will be able to make educated decisions about how to move forward.
Stage 5 TEST
Stage 5 is a continuation of stage 4 where the designers incorporate feedback from the target audience, narrow down the prototype choices, and test different variables in order to improve on the product or service that will eventually be taken to market.
Validate: Testing out your career choices allows you to validate your assumptions about what you think you want and what might be a good fit. It is also a way to challenge any limiting beliefs you have about what career options might be unrealistic or beyond your capabilities.
The benefit of the design process is that it gives you a path to follow that allows you to explore your career options. You can never really get stuck because in every moment there is something to test and learn from to keep you moving.
Download the Career Design guide
If you would like to go deeper with using design thinking principles to help you find the right career, then download the Career Design Guide with questions to help you move through each of the five stages.