Design thinking is one of the best strategies for product innovation because of its problem-solving approach specific to design. In this interview with Media 7, Holly Camponez, Director of Creative Services at Avenue Code, shares a few insights into creating end-to-end development solutions with the right approach towards design. Read on to find out how to spearhead digital transformations with design thinking.
Media 7: As the Director of Avenue Code's Creative Services division, could you please tell us a little bit about .Design?
Holly Camponez: Happily! .Design originated when we identified a key opportunity to add value to our client portfolio. As agile practitioners since Avenue Code was founded in 2008, we recognized that the old model of outsourcing design to an agency and then bringing in developers after was broken. As we studied design thinking and began to introduce methodologies like Google’s Design Sprint to our delivery, we saw that we were able to make significant strides in time-to-market, usability, and adoption by end-users. That marked a turning point for us, and we invested in building out our in-house agency where designers are steeped in design thinking, live and breathe the Agile manifesto, and are equally comfortable collaborating with business stakeholders and development teams. The “dot” in .Design is a nod to the clean slate that design thinking encourages – getting outside of your assumptions and starting at zero as you cultivate empathy with your user. The dot at the end of a sentence says, “That’s it, the end, what comes next could be anything,” and we try to bring this spirit of humility and continuous learning to each client and project we take on.
M7: According to you, how important is storytelling in design thinking?
HC: As much as I personally love and believe in storytelling, I believe it takes – or ought to take - a backseat in a true design thinking workshop, process, or engagement. There’s a pervasive tendency that all human beings have to want to make sense of things and fit them into a narrative too early on. Design thinking says that we’re here to listen first, and secondly to consciously pause before jumping right into a solution. We’re asked to do something wildly uncomfortable, which is to speculate, almost to play in the realm of, "How might we?" This is hands down the hardest thing to get a group of businesspeople to do; everyone wants to get to a solution as quickly as possible. It takes an intentional resistance to narrative and storytelling. I will of course add that once you’re into the actual work of ideating and building, storytelling is critical to creating something that resonates with users. That can’t be overstated.
M7: How does thinking like a designer help Avenue Code provide effective end-to-end development solutions for digital transformation for its clients?
HC: The biggest question a designer needs to answer is, "Who is it for?" followed by a deep understanding of the user’s needs. When you bring that mindset to digital transformation, it ensures that the solutions you’re designing and building are going to meet users where they are and that they will be adopted. I was at a conference a few years ago where an executive at a major Fortune 50 company was asked to talk about his company’s digital transformation. He shared how they’d done everything "right," hired Agile coaches, introduced new digital touchpoints for consumers, and then somewhat shamefacedly admitted that they had seen practically no incremental ROI from all their investment because they hadn’t stopped to look at the data around what users actually wanted. I think design has a bad reputation for being subjective and "fluffy." The reality is that thinking like a designer requires you to start from real data, and to quickly test and gather data if it doesn’t exist. When you’re in tune with the reality your users live in, you tend to create more effective solutions, and transformation is executed with clear goals in mind.
M7: What makes design thinking one of the best approaches for product innovation?
HC: If you look at human psychology, you quickly realize that everything about it is hardwired against innovation. Our brains want to make mental shortcuts as a way of coping with cognitive overload – which in our modern world is only increasing with the sheer quantity of information available. It’s a reasonable way to cope, but it also relies on a series of assumptions about the way things are. The problem with this is that it gives us pretty acute tunnel vision, which severely limits innovation by forcing us back to what’s known and familiar time after time. When we see a stick figure with two arms, two legs, and a head, our mental shortcut says, "That’s a human being." But what if it were a bear standing upright? Or a funny coat rack? Or a street light with arms for flowerpots? Design thinking gives us a practical set of ways to set aside our assumptions about what innovation looks like or what success means, which in turn creates space for out-of-the-box ideas.
M7: How do you analyze whether a design is good? What metrics do you monitor for this assessment?
HC: I love this question, and it can be answered on both a micro and macro level. On the micro-level, it’s always interesting to me when my peers in other disciplines suggest that design quality is subjective, when in fact there are very clear metrics to determine whether the tangible outputs of design are good or poor quality. Even a quick Google search can reveal some of these metrics, but a great place to begin is the book The Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler.
On the macro level, the fundamental question is: Who decides whether design is good? Although nearly everyone would agree that the user is the final authority on that point, in theory, this can be a surprisingly controversial stance in practice when business stakeholders want their vision executed, quickly and inflexibly. Obviously, not every project or product is going to allow for an in-depth research and discovery phase, but every project and product should find ways to include real user validation early and often. A good designer should be the voice of the user in product development – which means, by the way, that if you’re simply adding design expertise to "pretty it up" after everything has been defined, you’re really missing out on the true value of good design.
Nine times out of ten when a designer starts to look for a new job, it’s because they don’t feel the user is being centered in decision making. And on the flip side, designers themselves often fall into the trap of believing themselves infallible about what users want. Egocentric designers who don’t know how to be wrong will not produce a good design. The first question we ask in our interviews, particularly for roles that include user research, "Tell me about a time you were wrong." If a designer can’t answer that question, odds are good that they’re not going to add much value to a project.
M7: What's the best advice you've received?
HC: My parents, happily married for nearly 40 years, once told me, "When you’re wrong, say you’re sorry fast and get back to having fun." I’ve found that when I’m able to accept and own up to my mistakes quickly and move on, I’m much more effective professionally, as well as better adjusted personally!
Holly Camponez is the Director of Design & Creative Services at Avenue Code. She is passionate about the potential of design thinking to create a positive impact both socially and economically. Holly lives in Northern California with her husband, son, and three cats.