Heuristic Design — New School, Big ‘D’ Design Thinking

Border Collie

On the train between Liverpool and Manchester, England

We now move on to talking about Heuristic Design — the core behind New School Design Thinking, with a capital ‘D’.  But first, let’s talk about what’s meant with the term ‘design heuristic’.  A design heuristic is a pattern of problem solving where the person or group doing the solving assembles a series of steps that guide the group toward designing a solution for a problem.  Design Thinking relies heavily on various methods for multiple concept ideation, input from the outside, and interface with a customer.  As was said a couple of posts back, there is no hard definition — but it is geared toward innovation, as opposed to refinement.

Products evolved through Design Thinking are often the first of their kind — take the iPhone, for example.  By rethinking the interface from hard keys to a touchscreen display, as well as creating essentially, a portable computer, the iPhone developed a different paradigm for how phones might be used — and quite literally conquered the world in the process.

Old Cell Phone Iphone

At the same time, once a breakthrough product is made, typically continuing refinement and evolution with the development of hierarchies has to continue.  Below is a graph of iPhone evolution, taken from here: (a Korean language website — not much in the text.)

iPhone evolution

Continual refinement in cameras, battery capacity , screen resolution — if not done at Apple, was done by suppliers, all providing expertise in refinement of the individual components, and cleverly combined for an aggregate improved package.  The takeaway?  We often start with New School, and end up back at the Old School.   This also tracks well to Martin’s Mystery -> Heuristic -> Algorithmic transition discussed earlier.

The history of Design Thinking is profiled here in Wikipedia, and I think it’s safe to say it really got rolling around the mid ’60s.  My favorite example has to be the famous Lockheed Skunkworks, headed up by Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson, and known for the breakthrough SR-71 spy plane.Lockheed_SR-71_Blackbird

Lockheed SR-71 spy plane, NASA 831 out of Dryden Research Center

The Skunkworks were likely a transition site from old-school design thinking to New School Design Thinking, in that  Johnson was a crack designer in his own right, creating the Lockheed AQM-60 Kingfisher, an unmanned aerial drone used to test missile systems.  Johnson was also one of the first systems engineers — specialists in tech integration that filled the evolved need that arose from both sides of the aero-space program.  There’s plenty of evidence, though, in Warren Bennis’ book, Organizing Genius — the Secrets of Creative Collaboration, that appropriately scaffolded, independent relational generation dominated the Skunkworks, and people were not constrained by following the usual communication channels in hierarchies, and talked to whom they needed to talk to get the job done.  Johnson served as the buffer between a much more traditional organizational structure at Lockheed, that eventually led to his dismissal — one can easily suspect the standard v-Meme conflicts discussed earlier on this blog.

Independent relational formation, and the evolved empathy that is required is the backbone of the social/relational structures that can effectively use Design Thinking.  One of the main reasons for this is the need throughout the process of a combination of important elements.  These are:

  1.  Multiple potential solutions.
  2. Goal-based thinking.
  3. Enhanced metacognition — knowing what we don’t know, and what we must find out.
  4. Involvement of the customer in the design process.

Let’s start with #1 — multiple potential solutions.  Multiple potential solutions are much less likely to happen in a hierarchy or power structure.  Both of these social structures exist primarily to maximize the relative status of the individuals involved.  As such, having multiple ideas on the table is more likely to be construed as a threat to authority.  Further, the people who move up in such systems are likely to be famous for being ‘righter than right.’  Such thinking dominates reputations in places like universities.  Is it any wonder we have problems with critical thinking at universities?

Multiple solutions thrive when groups of individuals are focused on the goal, and support of everyone in the community.  Further, they grow out of interactions between peers, or at least in environments where peer-level treatment is the norm, regardless of rank.  One of the more interesting examples of this is in the Marine Corps — the only branch of the US Armed Services where officers and enlisted people attend the same schools.  According to my military friends, it is much easier to talk up the chain of command in the Marines than any other of the service branches.

Peer-level treatment and exchange also promotes nonlinear interactions — meaning that there is the possibility for all sorts of shifting opinions after rational empathetic interactions that are not nearly as predictable as those based on emotional empathy.  It may almost always take 5 minutes to soothe a baby (emotional empathy), but a given concept for a new product may be discussed for hours.

#2 — Goal-based thinking — is also a huge coherence generator in the world of Design Thinking.  On a team, it’s not who’s the smartest guy in the room.  It’s whether the team can achieve the goal.  And when customer happiness is included in the goal set, an interesting phenomenon occurs.  Now the team must not only process the technical requirements of a given product development process.  They must also involve themselves with the customer’s emotional state.  One can see that this linkage of both emotional and rational empathy drives development not just of the team members individually, but the sense of unity of the entire group.

#3 — enhanced metacognition becomes extremely important in innovation.  If disruptive innovation is the desire, it necessarily means that the team driving a Design Thinking process is going to have to consider things that have not been considered before.  There will be Known Unknowns (and Unknown Unknowns) without question.  And that will often involve failure.  But since heuristics must be, in part, built on experience, creating an initial prototype that is imperfect is often the only way to learn.

Finally, #4 — Customers involved in the design process contribute profoundly to enhanced metacognition, in that the knowledge that they possess must be respected, regardless if they can deliver explicit reasoning for why they want something.  If the customer wants a yellow bike, they don’t have to have reason — if you want them to be happy, you’d better give them a yellow bike.  In applying Conway’s Law with this, there is also the addition of an unknown social structure that generated the knowledge inside the customer’s head — and that can add to the richness and diversity of the final solution.

And designers must develop empathy and connection with the customer, often to tease out exactly why customers want something.  In my design class, my students once had a project where they had to design a temperature measuring device for water jackets on enormous, industrial-size wine vats.  The customer specified stainless steel for the device, which is typical for food processing.  But in this case, the temperature measuring device was never going to touch the wine.

The students complained.  And I told them the customer was always (well usually) right.  Turns out one of the main uses for the device was a display item at trade fairs for the equipment.  The real reason was that the customer didn’t want their customers getting confused on whether they used stainless steel in their wine processing equipment.  And the only way to assure this was to make sure everything in their booth was made of stainless steel.  Any solution that wouldn’t let them sell more wine vats wouldn’t be more globally valid.  Because the task for the device the students created wasn’t just to measure temperature.  It was to sell more wine vats.

As usual, there’s more to unpack — the big thing being scaffolding.  We’ll save that for the next post.

Takeaways:  New School Design Thinking uses flexible, trust-based social structures that involve the customer in both specification and some level of decision making as the design process continues.  Coherence and happiness are both more likely outcomes when the customer participates in deciding the trajectory of given designs.  Multiple potential solutions, goal-based thinking, enhanced metacognition and customer involvement are all signs to look for in any Design Thinking process.

Further Reading:  “Fail Forward” or “Fail Fast, Fail Often” are two mantras of some contingent of the Design Thinking crowd.  I don’t like the word ‘fail’ nearly as much as like the concept delivered by ‘experiment and incorporate experiences.’  I think it’s more indicative of the actual execution of the process.  You can read about how some of the Masters do it here — no question Toyota makes some of the most sophisticated cars on the planet.

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