Solving problems, like designers do

Learn how to solve problems like a designer, strategist and behavioural expert at the same time.

Tom’s TED Talk about design thinking (2012). Approaching problems with a design thinking mindset is even more relevant these days.

At SUE, we continuously strive to optimise our working process. In this process, it’s my job to analyse and optimise the methods we use to research human behaviour. What are the best ways to measure conscious and unconscious behaviour? And how do we interpret the results as precisely and painstakingly as possible, without any biases? Because, in the end, these results are the basis of important day-to-day decisions. Analysing these behavioural research methods got me in contact with design thinking for the first time.

During my research, I came across an old (2012) TED Talk from Tom, about design thinking. I would like to show you why the design thinking mindset is even more relevant these days.

What is a strategist anyway?

Tom’s narrative on design thinking is based on a sequence of striking behavioural design cases and examples. I really like clever examples of behaviour design; they work great at parties. When someone asks the inevitable question: “What do you do for a living?” I can back up my story about behavioural psychology with these examples.

So instead of vague looks and questions like;”You’re learning how to manipulate behaviour?”, “Are you influencing me at the moment?” or “So, basically, you manipulate people?” I get reactions filled with wonder and interest.

For example, they’re stunned when I tell them how the researchers of Novi Mores got rail passengers to be quieter in the silent compartments of the train, by decorating the walls with wallpaper made from photos of library book shelves. The wallpaper triggered a psychological schema that activates when you walk around in a library, so you automatically behave more silently. New insights and applications of behavioural psychology always get me excited, so Tom’s TED Talk hit the right spot.

Book shelf wallpaper, made from pictures taken in the library of the University of Utrecht (source: Novi Mores).

Book shelf wallpaper, made from pictures taken in the library of the University of Utrecht (source: Novi Mores).

The question I get asked next, most of the time, is: “What are you able to do when you finish this master’s degree?” Then “What kind of companies want to hire you? And what kind of jobs do you have to do at those companies?” Logical questions, because the description of the master’s degree is pretty vague. The answers to these questions are certainly further-reaching than the university is trying to tell us, the students. Because the university focuses almost entirely on becoming a strategist. Of course, the purpose of a master’s degree is to become an expert in a specific niche of knowledge. But to always label your students as strategists is a shame and a wasted opportunity.

I’ve had courses where they told me that, as a strategist, I’ll be working with creative teams, designers, developers and marketing teams. Apart from the fact that a strategist is a strange concept. Strategy plays a role in almost every line of work. I found it a shame that, apparently, I wasn’t supposed to interfere with the other disciplines at my future job.

But why should I come up with strategic insights all day long, without being able to help in realising them? Contributing to the realisation of your own ideas is interesting and has educational value as well, right? This pigeonhole way of thinking stands opposed to the broad mindset I’m familiar with in a university environment.

But if I am to believe the thinking taught in my master’s degree, I’ll be an idea generating factory without a production department.

What is design thinking?

Tom’s talking, in a way, about pigeonholing as well in his TED Talk. Or to be more precise, about transcending this pigeonhole mindset. He goes into depth about the difference between the outdated way of thinking of old school marketing agencies and the progressive way of thinking of designers. Not just visual designers. Industrial designers, behaviour designers and other disciplines (are able to) have this progressive way of thinking as well. Because that’s what defines a designer’s way of thinking.

No Photoshop or InDesign, but persuasion, strategy and behavioural psychology.

Designers couldn’t care less about pigeonholing. They think in solutions and they automatically have their fingers in the behavioural design pie by doing this.

They think about the pain points a user stumbles upon while using their product, and try to come up with solutions, in order to maximise the impact of their designs. The designer starts from a user’s point of view, by doing research on human behaviour. What kind of barriers does a user stumble on while using a product? And how do you solve them in order to optimise the user experience? In other words: a design thinker approaches a problem from the user’s perspective first and by doing so becomes a designer, strategist and behavioural designer at the same time.

So design thinking is efficient on multiple levels. It’s not just an efficient way of approaching a problem, it promotes broad-mindedness as well. And I see these two effects become reality when I look at SUE.

Design thinking at SUE

Design thinking is the blood that pumps through the heart of SUE. Everybody works like a design thinker and starts at the root of a problem by looking at it through the eyes of a (potential) user. With this design thinking mindset as a ground rule, everyone gets motivated to come up with creative solutions. It’s not just the task of the strategist anymore. Thinking like a designer helps everybody to explore their potential.

Even if you pass a briefing on in a linear process, from strategists to creatives to producers, they all start with the same root question: “What’s the problem someone is facing, and what kind of solution does he need to solve this problem?” If you know the solution, you can start being creative and come up with a product or service that supports this solution. You can design behaviour with your product.

Take the First World Problem Pills (FWPP) as a design thinking example. For Aids Fonds, SUE had to come up with a way to increase the amount of donations and increase the awareness for the shortage of HIV medication in third world countries. In order to do so, we looked at the problems people face when donating money to charity. Research showed that people often don’t know what happens with their money and feel like they don’t get any reciprocity out of the donation. We solved the reciprocity problem by designing the FWPP, 100% placebo peppermints, but 100% effective. With funny labels on them, we turned a plastic jar filled with sponsored peppermints into € 20,- of donations for Aids Fonds.

All departments tackle a problem from the same starting point, by using the pain points of users as the basis. Everybody still has his own expertise, but doesn’t get away with leaving the behavioural design aspect to the strategists. Design thinking is making us all more creative and sets the foundation to produce magical campaigns, products and services.


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