Design thinking has been a popular topic in the software industry for the past couple of years. Companies such as Google have implemented this framework to innovate and solve challenges collaboratively.

In this episode of the People & Business Podcast, we talk with Travis Neilson, Interaction Designer at Google.  He shared his process of implementing Design Thinking in his everyday work and why is it important.

Design thinking is an interesting idea because when you say design thinking, maybe your mind goes straight to the people who make art and designers.

But that’s not really a good goal and that’s not even the audience of design thinking.  Design thinking is for everyone and you can think of it as critical thinking. It’s a process for innovation.

Let me ask you this, who is design thinking for? Like who is innovation for? Is it OK for a developer to innovate? Is it OK for a designer to innovate or a CEO or a marketing manager or even a housewife or a 4th grader in school? Is it OK for them to innovate?

One of the things I’m worried about when people hear, let’s talk about design thinking and people might turn off because they are like, “I am not a designer, I don’t want to jump into that.” It’s for all types of people.

And this is Albert Einstein who is not a designer but definitely an engineer, definitely a creative person, definitely an innovator.

[0:00] How to make everyone getting involved in this process of improving products?

Innovation and design thinking often come incrementally like step by step. And I think that’s something that would be hard to keep sight of especially when you have this really great vision of what you want to do and what you want to achieve overall, those little steps every day is where the work happens.

Innovation actually takes work. That’s one of the things that Steve Jobs kept on saying. Apple is definitely an innovative company and everybody looks to them as an example but Steve kept saying innovation is work, it’s not just waking up in the morning and having a great idea and there is your $1 million idea.

So the things that generate a good product, they are the same things that lead to your collaborators to feel safe and valued. And they are able to have bad ideas and not be worried that they’ll be ridiculed.

Because those crazy ideas that they are going to have, the next one you don’t know is going to be that killer feature or that next billion dollar idea. And so in the daily work, it’s important to keep in mind that innovation happens one step at a time and it requires trust and safety and for everyone to feel that they are a critical part of the machine.

[0:00] What is your process to improve products in your daily work?

In a step by step kind of way, this is what it looks like.

If you can close your eyes and imagine a chart and there are two bumps, it goes up and down and then a bigger bump up and then down. And these bump ups and down, they correlate to how your mind is supposed to open and close.

So you have to be open to ideas but you’ll also have to make decisions and that’s the closing part, that’s the going down part.

Understanding. You are doing discovery, you are learning what the problems are. You are understanding the problem with what we are trying to solve, who is the audience, or who are the people that are going to be the users of it?

Defining.  And now that you have a really clear picture of what is your problem but also what is not your problem which is the part down where you decide what’s not in the scope of our work because it’s really easy to get side tracked if you don’t narrow things down.

Ideate. This is where you expand your thinking and you go broad, you go wide. This is what we call 10x Thinking at Google. We say there are no bad ideas, every idea is going to be a step on the road to that winning good idea. And the more the better.

What you want to do is go for volume. Like it’s better to have really bad ideas than have one really good idea at this point because you want to have the volume to inform your next steps.

Prototyping. So once you have gone crazy and have all of these crazy ideas and you want to have that safe place where people can contribute. And after that we are going to start the work of prototyping and testing.

The thing about prototyping is that the more rough and the more simple the prototype, the prototype that can speak to the concept the most simply, is the winning prototype.

So if you are trying to do too much with your prototype and you test it, you don’t know what’s actually being tested.

So your prototype needs to be really simple and that’s why we say it’s better to make a lot of different prototypes than to do one really good prototype similar to the ideas. Like if you have three different ideas, make three different prototypes and don’t try to put all of those ideas into one prototype.

And the prototype can be anything. Like if you are designing web solutions, then maybe the prototype is a web interface. Or if you are designing a car, maybe it’s the car. But you want to think about the critical experience that you are trying to test.

Reiterate. The last step is critical. You have to reiterate. You have to go back to the beginning and say, ‘Does this match our thesis? Does this match what we wanted to achieve? And if not, can can continue that cycle?’

The cycle of going up and down these two hills on the graph does not have an end. It’s endless. And it happens in big ways. You can take an idea through the graph and it also happens in small ways. So like when you are defining something, maybe you make a little prototype and talk to somebody. And it helps you define things.

[0:00] In your daily work you go through this process by yourself, a team of designers or is it a multi-disciplinary team?

So when I’m at my desk and I’m alone and I’m maybe moving some pixels around, it’s my job to go through these steps quickly with myself and decide is this the best idea? Can I think of something more crazy? Can I talk to somebody and test my idea? Can I see what they have done? Can I do some research?

But it’s also the responsibility of the engineer. Like how is the best way that they can implement a design? Is it the responsibility of the CEO? Is this the best way to organize my company and my team so that they can move fast and be able to innovate.

Design thinking is everyone’s responsibility it’s not just one profile. And it happens in a lot of different ways.

If you are making a product, like let’s say the insurance product, you have a lot of different stakeholders in the insurance product. You have the people who after the product is created they are going to sell it.

So you want to talk to these people and say, “Is this something that you can sell? Is this a story that makes sense when you are trying to sell?”

You want to talk to the people who are doing the customer support. Like what kind of design thinking do they bring to the table?

Everybody has their own view and respective angle to the problem. And you want to respect those, you want to be able to give everybody that voice and allow everybody to take part in design thinking.

So it’s easy to say, “Design thinking is everyone’s responsibility.” and then just expect them to do it. But really it’s the culture that you are in that encourages it.

And often times that comes from the top. So the people who are in charge kind of set the tone for the culture a lot of the time.

[0:00] It seems like design thinking is just a model for successful tech corporations but it’s not, it’s actually for any kind of organization. So, How do you see having this impact on any other company’s product development and the business in general?

You are right. It comes from the Stanford School of Design and it’s very tech centric. We like to talk about it out here in the west a lot. And it can be tied maybe to start up culture and things like that.

But it is a critical thing for all types of businesses and organizations, not just businesses, like in my family I have a wife and two kids and we try to use design thinking. We try to think about how we are teaching our children to be good humans and what education we want to give them.

We try to use design thinking when we are deciding on what vacation we want to take.

And hopefully it’s not like we are busting out our charts and saying let’s [inaudible] vacation. It’s like a part of our culture and we can have the respect for each other to respect our ideas and somebody is going to say something crazy and be like, “That’s interesting, how can I add on that?”

There is this really good example of design thinking that we talk about a lot here when we are doing presentations on design thinking and stuff. And it’s actually not a tech company that we talk about. It’s Crest, the toothbrush company.

Maybe you’ve seen this, but it’s like the number one seller of all toothbrushes by far. And I don’t know if it’s Crest, maybe Oral B. I don’t know what it is. But then they show the prototypes of their toothbrush and their critical thinking. Like what do people want when they are brushing their teeth? And what leads to a good toothbrushing experience?

And they have all these crazy ideas. There is one that I remember which is my favorite one, imagine you are holding a toothbrush and there is the stick, the part that you hold. And then the head branches off like the shape of a Y and there are two brushes on each arm of the Y.

It’s supposed to get on each side of your tooth. And it’s just a crazy idea. Somebody was like, “why don’t we?”  And nobody told them no. Somebody said, cool let’s try it.

So they went through all of these prototypes and they found what was good about that one.

You’ve seen those toothbrushes that have the blue on the side, like those brushes that are a little bit more firm on the outside and softer on the inside. Like, that all comes to play into the final product.

That’s a really great example of design thinking and innovation and it’s not even a tech company, it’s a toothbrush company.

[0:00] What challenges do you see for developers or any technical role to adapt to these methodologies?

In my experience, it’s a mental thing. So we go to school when we are young and we are taught to think in a certain way. And we are taught to ask certain questions. And if we ask the wrong question, then it’s wrong.

So for example in school you have to ask permission to go to the bathroom. You have to ask permission.  We are very interested in authority and everything is structure and organization. So we ask permission to go to do this, or permission to join this team, or permission to work on this project.

And the problem is that we believe falsely that we need permission for things.

But I think that if we were able to somehow break, and this is very hard because I’m a father and so I see my kids and I’m just like, “Please, please clean your room. I just want to live in a nice place.”

It’s very hard but you have to enable them to make that choice for themselves for them to want to join the team or work on the product or, in my case with my children, to clean their room and to not have them fixate on authority.

Because once they leave behind the idea that they need permission to be creative or to think of a new idea or to try something new, once they leave the permission behind then they are free to do anything and try and fail and try again.

I think that’s one of the biggest complications or the biggest roadblocks to installing design thinking into an organization or a community is that people are waiting around for somebody to give them authority.

And we work very hard at Google to try and overcome that. In fact I’m on a team and just yesterday we were talking about innovation and the management of the team that I’m on is putting into place new steps in our workflow to kind of try to foster the idea that we can make work that fails.

And so without going too much into that, when we have presentations and we are presenting our ideas, now it’s also required that we present crazy ideas.

You know Google’s famous 20% of your projects, our team says to use judgement but you can spend 20% following a crazy idea and we want to see it.

The main meeting where things are approved or not, this is ready to launch can we go? We want you to share crazy ideas too.

That does two things. Number one, it enables the designers and the thinkers and the engineers and the product managers, that enables us to start thinking weird which is good. But also it’s going to push the buttons of the authority.

That’s one way that we’ve been thinking about design thinking here and how to bake it into our culture is that we are requiring things that are not going to work.

[0:00] What advice do you have for companies that want to implement design thinking?

It’s definitely difficult to change your habits, like, change the way you’ve been thinking and working for so long.

What I’ve noticed is that as much as I say you don’t need permission, if we didn’t obey the traffic lights, if we didn’t obey the laws of human decency, or things like this, we would have chaos. It would be no good.

The problem comes when people believe that it’s only through permission that we can ever do anything on our own or anything new.

So setting that aside, permission is a big deal in our culture. So one of the fastest ways that a company can implement design thinking into their culture is to leverage the need that we have for permission and authority and put it into place using those means.

I just made an example where here at Google how it’s required now when we are making presentations to present those crazy ideas. It’s required and that comes from the top.

And I think one of the fastest ways to get a cultural shift is to come from the top down.

But it’s very hard and it takes responsibility from a lot of people and you have to hold them accountable and sometimes people are resistant to change depending on their risk tolerance. But generally that’s the fastest way I think.