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Solve problems faster using design thinking

November 10, 2016 By: Vanessa Iarocci

Consider—as this video outlines—that it took 50 years for one in four Americans to adopt electricity. It took 30 years for the same number of people to adopt radio, 18 years to adopt colour TV, 13 years to adopt mobile phones and only seven years to adopt the World Wide Web.

Change is happening at a more rapid pace than at any other time in human history, and the pressure to solve problems in an increasingly complex environment can result in frustration and even burnout. But what if we could learn a simple method for solving problems faster and better?

A few years ago, I learned design thinking, also known as human-centred design, a simple, creative approach to problem solving. I quickly noticed that the framework was flexible enough to inform all sorts of problem solving in business and life.

Two aspects of design thinking, in particular, have made a big difference for me: developing a persona and developing a problem statement.

Design speak: Develop a persona

Translation: Understand who you are solving a problem for

It’s natural to solve problems from our own perspective. Designers combat this bias by employing a variety of methods to generate insights about their end users. These insights are translated into personas, or summaries about the end-users’ wants, needs, preferences and goals.

Recently, I worked with a team to develop a strategy to boost employee morale and drive a more innovative and creative company culture. At the outset of the project, our bias was to jump into creating solutions for employees who were just like us—that is, people who were relatively new to the organization, eager to try and do new things, and excited about change. However, by slowing down and canvassing our users—in this case, the employees—several unique types of users emerged, including one type we affectionately named “Victor the Veteran.”

After intense observation and discussion, we learned that “Victor” is a seasoned employee, with over 15 years of experience in the organization. Although he may not aspire to the most senior levels of the organization, he is a diligent and committed employee who feels like he is being left behind by the pace of change. He often feels unappreciated and, as a result, may hold back from sharing his creative ideas. Victor needs quiet validation and coaching, and the opportunity to share his wisdom with new employees. Understanding Victor early on helped us to design a more inclusive employee engagement solution to meet the needs of all of our different types of employees.

Key takeaway: The next time you’re solving a problem, create a one-page summary of each of the key “character personas” for whom you’re attempting to solve the problem. Name your characters and, as you begin to solve the problem, continuously note their needs, preferences and behaviours. Ensure you refer back to your personas often to keep your bias in check. (Here is a handy tool to help you develop more formal personas.)

Design speak: Develop and refine a problem statement

Translation: Solve the right problem

Designers use what they learn about their personas to continuously refine the problem they are solving. In other words, they reframe their challenge from a user’s perspective.

One of my favourite case studies of “solving the right problem” is over 60 years old—before “innovation” was part of our vernacular! As outlined in this article, in the 1950s General Mills launched a line of cake mixes under the famous Betty Crocker brand. The company’s initial problem statement was likely something like: to create a fast and easy way to bake cakes, using a mix.

When the just-add-water instant cake mix didn’t sell well, General Mills did not retreat. Instead, they re-doubled their efforts to understand their end user who, at the time, was “the busy homemaker.”

Research revealed that: “the average American housewives felt bad using the product despite its convenience. It saved so much time and effort when compared with the traditional cake baking routine that they felt they were deceiving their husbands and guests… Women felt guilty getting more credit than they deserved. So they stopped using the product.”

General Mills aptly realized that the problem they needed to solve was something more along the lines of: “Vanessa, the busy homemaker, needs a quick and easy solution to bake for her family because she enjoys creating baked goods for the people important to her, but she doesn’t have the time or energy to bake from scratch.”

General Mills’ ultimate solution was to develop cake mixes that required adding an egg and water (thereby addressing the need to “create”). The formula survives as the much-loved Betty Crocker cake mix that many of us enjoy today.

Key takeaway: Ensure that you craft a fact-based, specific and actionable problem statement to solve. Frame your problem from your users’ perspective and consider leveraging the format: [USER] needs to [USER’S NEED] because [SURPRISING INSIGHT].

This brief overview of how to use key aspects of design thinking to solve problems will hopefully inspire you to try design thinking.

If you find yourself inspired, check out this field guide for design, created by global design company IDEO. It is a well-researched (and free) 192-page book with 57 design methods, a full slate of worksheets and case studies from projects that show human-centred design in action. I have no affiliation with IDEO, but since mastering the guide, I have applied it, in some form, to almost all of my problems.

Good luck and happy designing!


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Vanessa Iarocci is passionate about innovation, having spent close to two-decades working with both early-stage founders and at large established enterprises to design and execute novel growth and restructuring strategies.

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Design Thinking