Best Design Advice? “Just Make It Up”


As part of the fellowship program, we bring in experienced designers to provide feedback on issues we’re grappling with in our work.  Two weeks ago we were lucky to be joined by David Kelley, founder of both the and IDEO.

I asked him about the challenge underlying my recent blog post “What Problems Are Design Thinking Useful For?”  How to rapidly increase sophistication of one’s design capabilities across two dimensions: building a robust design toolkit and integrating design with other approaches?

While I’ve been learning a lot about using my economics training and management consulting skills alongside the design process, I’ve been frustrated with my limited design toolkit.  I know there are many methods for empathy, synthesis, etc. that I haven’t been exposed to.  If the Governance Collaboratory is about teaching local innovators design thinking to apply it to their work, I’d need to understand how to better support others in acquiring these skills as rapidly as possible.

I drew a graph with design sophistication on the y-axis and integration with other methods on the x-axis, identifying where Jeremy and I have moved from nine months ago to now.  “How to get up and to the right?,” I asked.

David’s answer?  “Mileage.”   Ok, yes.  I get that.  Over a dozen design cycles in the past few months has taught me a tremendous amount about integrating design with traditional social science approaches, yet I feel stunted in my acquisition of a toolkit.

“But,” I pushed back, “I just don’t know what tools are out there, someone has to teach them to me.  Should I look to coaches?  Or read books?  Are there case studies?”

“Just make them up!” David answered.  “We just made up the empathy map at IDEO a few years ago.  You’re out in new territory.  Figure out what works best for the problems you care about.”

What might seem like a frustrating answer has turned out to be quite liberating, but only when coupled with the mindset shift that design thinking affords.  Making it up makes perfect sense, because a designer’s mindset gives you the creative confidence to experiment and quickly learn what works.  So, off into uncharted territory I go…

A Small But Profound Mindset Shift

We talk so much about celebrating and learning from failure.  True, we should understand and share what doesn’t work.  But merely using the words “learning from failure” implies an underlying mindset that reduces the speed at which we learn.

It implies that we approach our work in the following way:

  1. I take a lot of inputs about what I know in the world and come up with a new intervention
  2. I go do that thing and believe that it will work
  3. If it fails, I reflect on why and share my learnings

What if instead we approached our work with the following mindset?:

  1. I take a lot of inputs about what I know in the world and come up with a new intervention
  2. I ask myself what I don’t know that is critical to the intervention’s success
  3. I go try that thing with an eye towards learning about what I don’t know
  4. I constantly reflect on what my work reveals about what I don’t know
  5. I continually update my approach based on what I’ve learned

This shift from “know –> do –> learn if fail” to “believe –> try –> learn constantly” sets us up for continual improvement through a much faster learning cycle.  It’s a small shift in mindset, from what you know to what you don’t know, but it has profound implications for the speed at which we learn and improve.

What Types of Problems are Design Thinking Useful For?


Upon beginning my fellowship at the last September, one of the biggest questions I wondered was “Which problems are design thinking good for and which are not, and why?”

When I asked around, I got pretty underwhelming or only slightly helpful answers, like:

  • “Design thinking is good for everything.” (not helpful)
  • “Problems that aren’t technical in nature” (a little helpful)
  • “Problems relating to human experiences with subjective answers.” (slightly more helpful)

Surely there must be some challenges involving human experience that are more amenable to the process than others, I thought.  I started to feel like the only way I’d get a good answer to my question was to start applying design thinking to different problems myself.  A dozen turns through the human centered design process later, my understanding is starting to take shape.

In retrospect, the question itself was a naïve one.  It presumed that human centered design was a process that you applied to different problems (which is how we generally describe it at the  But I’ve come to believe that it’s less of a process than it is a mindset empowered by a robust toolkit.  Yes, most design teams move and iterate through steps which include understanding users and context, distilling insights and abstracting design directives, conceiving of novel solutions, then experimentation to learn what works.  But a truly sophisticated designer understands how to adapt the principles and tools of design thinking to the problem at hand.

I’ve been thinking about human centered design sophistication along two dimensions: the design methods themselves (toolkit) and integration with other approaches.  A robust design toolkit would include a plethora of research methods, synthesis instruments, ideation techniques, and prototyping approaches.  The experienced designer can draw from a wealth of tools to adapt high-level design “mindsets” (i.e. empathy, prototyping, testing) to a wide range of problems.

The second dimension of integration with other approaches is equally critical, particularly in my world of taking design best practices into governance innovation.  I’ve always been suspicious of professionals from the private sector (be they management consultants or designers or whatever else) bringing their tools into the social sector and believing they alone can move the needle on the world’s most intractable problems.  As we’ve experimented with design in governance, we’ve always had an eye towards complimenting rather than replacing existing approaches.  We’ve already begun to see where our social science backgrounds tend to dominate over our design skills.  My suspicion is that for some types of problems we might rely largely on other approaches, with design tools sprinkled in here and there as appropriate.  For example, for macro level policy questions that rest on philosophical beliefs, insights about citizens could inform debate rather than lead to policy design directives.

Bottom line is, I no longer think it’s a question of “Where human centered design is useful and where it’s not” but rather one of “How to draw on human centered design for the problem at hand.”  The hard part is building sophistication as a designer.  I asked David Kelley for his advice on the matter last week.  His response? “Mileage.”

Cookstove Insights from

Screen Shot 2013-04-15 at 10.15.58 AM

About a year ago I Sarah Nadel wrote a guest post about the lack of designers in development interventions, using an evaluation of cookstoves as her primary example.  I followed her post with another of many on the merits of integrating human centered design into development work, with examples from the Silicon Valley. It turns out around the same time as we wrote those posts, The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves hired (the social side of famed innovation firm IDEO), to look at cookstoves from a designers point of view.  The team spent 8 weeks in the field conducting nearly 70 interviews with women, cooks, charcoal sellers, entrepreneurs, and NGOs.  Check out this video on what they uncovered about what matters for cookstoves for the people who will use them.

I’ll Never See Things The Same Again

“Am I just in a new convert-honeymoon period with design thinking, or will I never be the same again?,” I asked.

“You’re finished.” answered David Klaus, a former fellow and most recently the Product Design Lead for Proximity Designs in Myanmar.

I was pretty sure that was the case.  In thinking about it more over the past week, it’s abundantly clear that I will never see the world the same way I did just nine months ago when I began my fellowship at the  Really internalizing the mindsets of design thinking as I’ve practiced it since September has led me to a couple realizations that together have forever changed how I will approach my work:

1. We base big decisions and invest significant resources on assumptions we rarely acknowledge, let alone test.

Any time we are doing something new, we are by definition venturing into the unknown.  No matter how smart or experienced you are, and no matter how earth changing your ideas sounds, it invariably rests on some major assumptions — about your user, about your value proposition, about the system around your user, about the leverage point you’ve chosen to focus on within that system, etc.  Instead of acknowledging these assumptions and asking how we can learn whether they are correct, more often we charge ahead with implementation without even realizing that, as MIT Media Lab’s Jessica Goldfin describes, “there are pebbles in our shoes that are going to break our ankles.”   While past experience can help us identify opportunities, patterns and best practices, it also risks blinding us to what we don’t know.

2. We conflate “doing things” with making progress on the issues we care about.

Rockstar social entrepreneur gets funding for a new, incredibly compelling idea.  She builds out her workplan over the next 12 months and gets sign off from her funders and board.  She hires an amazing team, builds some cool software, establishes a bunch of partnerships.  She is working around the clock and so is her team.  She is meeting all of the milestones she’s set with her funders.  Everyone has the delusion of progress.  But remember, her idea rests on a handful of assumptions.  If she is wrong, even though she’s working hard she’s actually gotten nowhere.  We have seen this plenty in the international development space: building schools or getting more students into the classroom does not mean that we are realizing the educational outcomes we care about.  Yet it doesn’t seem like those lessons have translated into how to think about progress in the early stages of new, innovative initiatives.

Once these realizations became prominent in my thinking, I started to think the world was out of it’s mind. Unacknowledged and untested assumptions are literally everywhere.  We’re investing all of this time into ideas we believe are good, but instead of running little experiments to help us understand if we’re directionally correct, we’re applauding progress against a work plan to nowhere.

The assumptions that are everywhere and over-investment in untested ideas sets us up for a very long and expensive learning curve.  Right now, we’re focused on “learning from failure.”  It’s a tiny incremental step in the right direction.  What if instead we were learning from constant experimentation?  What if we were highly tuned to what we know and don’t know, and constantly crafting simple activities in our work to uncover the unknown?

Now that I’ve realized these things, I’ll never be able to work any other way.  I’m not just taking a year to design the Governance Collaboratory and executing on whatever model we determine is best.  I’ll come out of the year with a new set of questions, and set up our programs to answer them.  In this mode, I’ll always be getting better as what I do.  The biggest challenge now is the inevitable frustration with the dominant way the rest of the world works.

Where Traditional Thinking Meets Design Thinking


While Jeremy and I are enthusiastic about using design thinking for governance innovation, we are first social scientists, and second designers.  We know human centered design is not a silver bullet — we want to understand both its utility and its limitations, and how to use in in compliment to existing approaches.  As we have experimented with design thinking this past quarter — on real governance issues, with the people addressing them, in the field — I have started to notice when we are primarily using our traditional frameworks and when we are leading with our design tools.  This has helped me begin to see how human centered design fits with traditional analytical approaches (what one might call “systems thinking” or “identifying a binding constraint”).

Because human centered design hinges on designing for, well, a human, one has to identify specific interaction points between the innovator and the user to focus design efforts.  For example, when we addressed freedom of access to information in South Africa, we focused on various users requesting information from the government.  Information requests, however, are only one part of a much broader system linking access to information to improvements in governance.  The issue could have been not whether each user group is requesting and getting information, but what they are doing with it to hold governments accountable.

We have seen that our first step in applying human centered design to governance issues is to forget about our newfound design skills and think like social scientists.  We work with our partners to understand the problem they want to address, identifying likely constraints within the overall system and the relevant users in each area (for example, with information requests the users were activists, journalists, citizens, and NGOs).  Without doing so, we risk focusing on the wrong part of the problem, limiting the efficacy of even the most compelling ideas.

Once we do this, we hone in on the users of interest and begin to apply the tools of human centered design by doing empathy work (interviews, observation, and immersion to uncover user needs).  We are also starting to understand, however, that this empathy work is not just about need finding, but also validating or refuting our initial hypothesis about where to focus within the system.

Take for example Embrace, the oft-cited case for the power of human centered design in international development.  Embrace is a $25 infant warmer for premature babies, which relies on a wax packet that is warmed in water and retains heat (and thus does not require electricity).  Embrace came out of the work of a student team in the course Design for Extreme Affordability.  We use the Embrace example at the to show how design thinking can lead to a complete reframing of the problem.  The students were originally given a design challenge focused on building a lower cost incubator for clinics in Nepal, but when they went to do need finding, they realized that babies never made it to the hospital.  Most premature babies were born in rural communities and died before they could get anywhere due to high transportation costs and the babies’ inability to keep themselves warm.  The Embrace team realized that they should instead focus on the rural mother in need of a way to keep her baby warm, instead of a clinician in need of a cheaper incubator.

This was a systems insight that came out of the team’s need finding work, not a user one.  The biggest mortality issue for premature babies wasn’t in the hospital with clinicians; it was back at the village with mothers.  Human centered design, particularly its tenets of rapid prototyping and iteration, allowed the team to then develop a product that could work for in a rural setting: very inexpensive, not requiring electricity, and easily sanitized.  The tools of ethnography embedded in design thinking then, are as critical for determining binding constraints in a system as they are for identifying user needs.

We find ourselves relying on our political science and economics backgrounds in ideation as well: both brainstorming and selection.  Our foundations in political and economic theory help us identify ideas that are compelling not just because they meet the identified user needs, but also because of their implications for systems dynamics and human behavior.

We are still very early in our thinking of how human centered design compliments other approaches and where it is most effective (and why).  But these early realizations start to show us how much traditional thinking is actually embedded in human centered design; through systems level analysis during need finding and putting people on design teams who have the expertise to think about ideas in complex ways.

Key Learnings from Cape Town


We just returned from three days in Cape Town testing prototypes for the Collaboratory with mySociety and the Open Democracy Advice Center (we posted a summary of the experience here).  Below are some of the big learnings we’re taking away as we continue designing the Governance Collaboratory this year:

  • There is a different level of energy and enthusiasm when people are focused on their own problems.  We saw the same thing in Nairobi as teams turned to their own issues during the final day of the workshop.  As much as people enjoy learning design thinking by applying it to interesting problems, they really light up when they fold it into their current approach (even though they are often forced to confront the shortcomings of their existing methods).
  • People working on their own problems bring significant priors into empathy work, which was consistent with that we saw in Nairobi.  This can make them resistant to learning even if they don’t realize it (which they usually don’t).  When experts alone engage in design thinking, it can be challenging to dig deep enough to uncover unexpected insights.
  • When you start with an solution versus a general problem space, a lot of ideas feel more like features vs. radically different solutions.  Even though we backed the team up to to the more general problem of freedom to information in South Africa, many ideas were still very much in the solution space of the platform.  It was hard to get the group to think beyond the idea of a web interface for PAIA requests, though many of the ideas drawn from the empathy work are likely to make the interface far more effective.  We experienced the same thing when we began brainstorming for the Governance Collab, given that we had strong initial ideas about how it might look.
  • Outsiders add an enormous amount of value to a pre-existing team by bringing a fresh perspective and unexpected reference points from other domains.  Outsiders are especially important because they challenge the biases and assumptions of the insider.  This indicates that the optimal design team includes both insiders and outsiders whose strengths balance the other’s weaknesses.
  • Examples and modeling are really important when teaching design thinking.  As we mentioned in our post on our iHub prototype tests, design thinking is tough to translate.  This way of work is foreign, and the vocabulary is new, especially when working outside the United States.  It’s critical as teachers that we not just explain the steps of the design process before the teams do it, but also give clear examples and model the activities.  When I returned and spoke to the Exec Ed team here at the, they said they’ve come to the same conclusion, even when working with design familiar execs from the United States.
  • Our value-add is not just in teaching and coaching design thinking, but also in applying the systems level understanding that comes from our backgrounds in political science and economics.  As powerful as the human centered design process is proving to be in innovation around governance challenges, design is not enough when you’re addressing complex social issues.  Of course we knew this, but now we’re starting to get a clearer sense of how the pieces fit together.  We’ve found it key that we put on our hats as social scientists when framing the design challenge and discuss the overall theory of change, which helps us understand how and where our users fit into the broader system.  Likewise when we turn to ideation, our ability to place the ideas into a broader systems context helps us generate and identify the truly transformational opportunities.

And with that, we headed back to Stanford, exhausted and invigorated.  More than anything we were thrilled to finally roll up our sleeves and apply design thinking to the issues that we’re most passionate about, alongside the local actors who are ultimately going to make change happen.

No more posts.