Friday, August 28, 2015

The Path of the 5 W's

This one is so obvious, the story almost tells itself. ;-)

One of the most powerful problem solving tools we have is the combination of curiosity and the courage to ask questions.  This technique also comes with a bonus; it lays the foundation for telling great stories. Paul J. Zak wrote about why we love stories in the Harvard Business Review last year.

Jak's research found that exposure to character-driven stories consistently influences unselfish behavior, like donating money to a charity. His team explored the reasons that stories are powerful motivators;

"We discovered that, in order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention. Then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters."

This is very powerful stuff and yet another example of why Design Thinking works better than other methods; Empathic Listening and Storytelling are the two key components which bracket the framework that Design Thinking occurs in. That can lead to very powerful stuff.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Problems are like puppies

One of the results of becoming a curious and courageous problem solver is that the world starts to look different. Things which once seemed frightening, or overwhelming, start to at least drift into the realm of possibility. It is within that "what if" space that the seeds of remarkable solutions take root and grow.

When you first notice that something is a source of frustration or difficulty begin by asking; Why?

Next, set out to learn as much as you can about the circumstances surrounding the problem. This usually involves coming up with a list of questions, initially based on what you know that you don't know. Those questions will usually lead to other questions as you start to discover what you don't know that you don't know yet. One useful tool is the method of the Five Why's.

Then, start talking about the problem with other people, both to get their perspective and  to uncover any further aspects of the situation of which you are unaware.

At that stage it's time to evaluate the scope of the problem and figure out what resources may be needed to solve it. You may be the only one with the problem, in which case it may be possible to solve it "on your own."

With bigger problems, the ones which affect other people, it's important to understand not only how much difficulty it is generating for how many people but why the problem has been allowed to exist.

This is where the process can start to get very interesting. Sometimes what looks like a problem to you is actually someone else's "solution." (There is a great book called "Are Your Lights On?" by Gause and Weinberg which explores that topic in a fun and interesting way.) This is where one of the less explored aspects of being  a "problem solver" comes up.

Simply put, there are times when someone else, or a whole bunch of someone elses, don't really want a solution. There can be many reasons for this. You need to uncover them. They often have to to with inflexibility. Someone decided to do things in a certain way at some time in the past, based on the circumstances at the time. If anyone ever answers; "I don't know, we've just always done things that way." you are probably onto something.

Remember, there are always two forces at work. Doing something for the first time usually implies an inefficient process because of all the unknowns. Optimization means reducing the effort and materials needed to produce an outcome which fulfills all the requirements. As a designer you represent change. Consistency is the opposite of variety. Without a flexible manufacturing process, change is bad. This is where the Kaizen Ninjas with their kanbans rule. Once the product is defined, don't change it, so we can build a lot of it quickly and efficiently.

At times *you* can start to appear to be part of the problem. That's usually not good because, in the vast majority of cases, you're going to need help to change things. Once you start looking like part of the problem, you become the thing which everyone else wants to change, or at least have go away.

This is where an approach based on Design Thinking really shines. When you are sincerely asking someone else about their problem, you look like help to them, or at least a curious stranger.  Under those circumstances the other person is much more likely to want your "help." If the problem is big enough, and affects enough people you may even have the seeds of a revolution, or at least a small start-up.

You got a problem buddy?

So, what is the key to helping those cute little puppy problems grow up into solutions rather than a pack of angry killers?

Ask yourself this question; When you pick up a mirror, is typically to get a better look at yourself, or as a way to unthreateningly look at others?

Questions can be like mirrors - their results vary depending on how they are asked and where they are pointed. Is the mirror a periscope or a Me-A-Scope?

Who me? I'm so cute and wonderful, how could I be a problem?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Design Thinking is About Feedback

Deming PDCA Cycle
This image reminds me of a conversation I had with a co-worker who had just installed a large and very powerful electro-mechanical system; He was gingerly adjusting some control inputs and observing the results. I asked him if there were any sensors on the device to monitor the output. There weren't, which explained why he was being so careful with the joystick.

There are dozens of examples of this all around us everyday. Railroad locomotives. Commercial aircraft. The Tesla Model S. For some of you it's a kitchen appliance. What these have in common is that in "the wrong hands" they can do a lot of damage.

Control theory is an interdisciplinary branch of engineering and mathematics which deals with the control of dynamic systems and how their behavior is modified by feedback. The core idea behind Control Theory is that the behavior of a system can be regulated thru a process of measurement and adjustment.

Feedback Loop
In control theory, a system which does not monitor it's output is referred to as running "open loop." Such systems can create dramatic, unpredictable and costly results. Remember the stock market “flash crash” on May 6th, 2010 or the Tacoma Narrows Bridge? Start with a complicated and slightly unstable system, disturb it at the right moments and the next thing you know, its "out of control."

PDCA as a Controlled Design Process

As designers, we create systems that can be very dynamic, have many inputs and often produce unexpected results. Both our design process and it's outputs can benefit from the use of feedback.

This is what Design Thinking does. It utilizes user feedback to refine the output of the design process.

This raises an interesting question; How many times thru the cycle do we need to go before we're sure we have it right? Again, Control Theory may offer some insight;

Many systems have something called Natural Frequency. Its the period of oscillation the system settles to when it's disturbed. For bells, organ pipes and guitar strings, it's the frequency they resonate at when struck or plucked.  There are other natural frequencies related to the rotation of the earth, moon and stars. Natural Frequencies even exist at the atomic level. We also call it oscillation.

Another aspect of oscillating systems is that they run down. Over time, the strength of the vibrations falls off. This is called damping. Critical Damping is the rate which reduces the time to settle to zero amplitude most efficiently.  The chart above shows the result of four different rates; Over Damped, Critically Damped and two Underdamped.  The total number of swings across the time axis is a little over five.

Let's re-context this idea to a design effort.  The goal is to stop the oscillations in the shortest number of cycles - with the least wasted energy. The distance from the x-axis is how far away we are from a solution that meets the customer's needs.  The distance to the right of the Y axis is how much time it takes to converge on that solution. You can think of the numbers on the x-axis as periods of time; minutes, hours, days, years, the duration of your current project schedule.

If we define Critical Damping as having a perfect understanding of all the customer's needs at the beginning of the project (Features, Performance, Schedule, & Budget) we converge on the best solution with the least wasted effort and the shortest amount of time. It's optimally efficient.

Typically there are unverified assumptions and ambiguities at start of a project. We resolve these by asking questions, rapid prototyping and testing solutions on the stakeholders. During that process we're often somewhat off course, but continually correcting. The under or over damped paths take more time to traverse and use more resources in converging on the final solution. 

The Critically Damped curve is actually within 10% of the final goal in less than half the time. The underdamped paths do cross a 90% point sooner, but they still need further correction, consuming more resources to undo mistakes. The smallest area under the curve, (resources used) comes from the Critically Damped path. 

Here is another expression of this idea taken from Mattson and Sorensen's Fundamentals of Product Development;

This graph illustrates the percent of improvement in a prototype as the number of iterations increases. Model 1 gets a 20% imorovement. Model 2 improves it further by about about 37%. By Model 3 the rate of improvement begins to really fall off, but the solution is nearly 80% of the way to completion.

Interestingly enough, starting with an understanding of even half of the problem produces convergence in the same amount of time as a critically damped solution, but uses a bit more resources. This is how Design Thinking shortens schedules and reduces costs by using customer feedback to refine the solution more quickly and efficiently, a.k.a "Lean".

The analogy isn't perfect, but if we consider design to be a process of learning and correction with needs as inputs and solutions as outputs, it's instructive to realize that the time and effort needed to converge on a solution might be reduced by half over other methods. It also explains why empathically listening to the customer and acting on it is the most critical tool in the successful designers toolbox. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

How to Interview with Emapthy - in 15 Minutes or less

I came across this YouTube video tonight and really appreciated the message, plus it's very useful advise regarding how to Interview with Empathy.

Enjoy and definitely try this at home;