Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Nathan Trulsen, a management consultant at Accenture, where he focuses on healthcare innovation and strategy. He is an alumnus of the Carlson School of Management and active member of the MacLaurinCSF community, which has helped shape his understanding of the Christian calling to business and economics. Opinions are his own and not those of his employer, Accenture.
MacLaurinCSF’s 2015-16 annual theme, “Desire & Knowledge,” is well-timed, as just this month Harvard Business Review declared, “Design thinking comes of age.” There is a deep analogy between design thinking and desire and knowledge: just as universities have prized a knowledge based on fact and reason, business managers have valued risk analysis, labor and capital efficiency over risk taking, empathy, and emotion.
But design thinking—prioritizing the emotional and imaginative side of being human—seeks to put creativity in the center seat of business strategy, owning up to the reality that desire and knowledge are more connected than largely acknowledged. As a Christian who seeks to give glory to God through my work, I am delighted that design thinking provides a more human approach to understanding innovation. And design thinking also highlights the need for moral formation so that we, all who aim to create value for customers, can serve their best, instead of their worst, desires.
What is design thinking?
Design thinking is a method for innovation and problem solving that involves deeper, pre-cognitive approaches to creativity, for which it has also earned the term “human-centered design.” Take the following diagram from the design firm IDEO:
Whereas traditional business innovation often focuses on balancing engineering and finances in order to create functional utility for consumers, design thinking focuses first on what customers desire in order to create emotional value. Each design firm and corporation will highlight their unique process for getting here, but key recurring themes in design thinking are:
- Putting humans first — When faced with the task of create a new product or service, the first step is observing how the customer experiences the current way of doing things. Without relying on the user to explain or quantify their thoughts, designers gain a deep, hands-on understanding of what moves people. Contrast this ethnographic approach to traditional business school training, where the best practice is for managers to use quantitative market statistics as knowledge.
- Creative brainstorming — Solutions are brainstormed freely and creatively, allowing team members to take the solution in any direction. Collaboration and flat power structures are important here, since any team member may have the solution. More and more businesses are dispensing with hierarchical organization of power in an attempt to foster collaboration.
- Prototyping solutions — After gathering as many solutions as possible, start rapidly creating models. Build physical replicas if possible, or, if you’re creating a service, create storyboards of how a consumer will experience the solution. Run these half-made solutions by the customer to get a sense for whether you’re going in the right direction. This sounds like extra work to managers who take a unidirectional view of work: define the problem, come up with a solution, and present the solution.
The designers of the world say design thinking isn’t new—and they’re right. What’s new is trying to take their creativity and human-centered practices and replicate them in other areas of society. IDEO was one of the first product-design firms that popularized design concepts for businesses. One hospital tasked IDEO with reducing the number of children that had to be sedated before having an MRI. So they designed a pirate-themed MRI machine and trained the MRI technicians to treat the scan as a pirate ship experience. The percentage of children needing to be anesthetized, previously at 80%, dropped precipitously and patient satisfaction went up to 90%. Traditional business innovation started with the technology and built an MRI machine. Design thinking started with patients and asked how they could enjoy an MRI scan.
Design thinking is especially helpful in an environment of rapid change, where it gives whole organizations, whether businesses or governments, a way to create new possibilities instead of being confined to analyzing and refining old ways of doing things. For example, design thinking has taken on an increasing role in moving the American health system from one organized around disjointed care and administration to one that focuses on increasing patients’ health and financial well being. Traditional health-insurance companies add social media, online chats, and web portals as service options alongside their call centers without providing access to cheaper and better care.
Enter Oscar Health, a startup insurance company in New York and New Jersey that wants to create health insurance that is “simple, intuitive, and human.” They give their members a seamless interface with descriptions of bills and procedures in plain English and access to cheaper, convenient health services. That’s only the tip of the iceberg for healthcare.
Why stop at creating public good? At Stanford, design thinking has moved beyond solving economic and social problems to solving the biggest personal life questions. Ainsley O’Connell’s analysis of Stanford’s “Design your Life” class is particularly telling. One student who took this class came away saying:
It really helped me understand what the concept of vocation was. [ . . . ] I had thought of it either as a narrowly religious concept or for a specific job. But it’s this feeling that I have true agency over my work, because I know what I stand for and I have tools to fix the things that I encounter in my life.
“Design your Life,” launched in 2010, has a waitlist of attendants as students seek the tools to discern what’s next after college. O’Connell even suggests that this class is filling the void created when Christian theology and moral formation were removed from campuses in the mid-20th century. On whether this class was created to address that void, course co-creator Bill Burnett says, “Design doesn’t speak to ethics and spirituality and all those things, but they work within its frameworks. Our only bias is, hey, we can make the future better.”
The running themes in design thinking are creativity, empathy, experimentation, and learning by doing. Making design kinetic—observing people, creating models—requires designers to be viscerally in the world in a way that reminds me of Christian author James K.A. Smith’s description of practical knowledge in his Cultural Liturgies trilogy. Smith leans heavily on anthropology to show that people are loving beings as well as thinking beings. Experiencing the world through our senses creates a knowledge that is often more convincing than disembodied ideas are.
There are two key takeaways for Christians to consider:
- There is cause for celebration. For the business person who views their work as part of God’s creation mandate to cultivate the world, design thinking is a welcomed movement. By putting humans first, design thinking allows us to build businesses around the purpose of “creating a customer,” as Peter Drucker famously said in 1953. With its focus on brainstorming and experimentation, design thinking also allows us to “employ the whole man,” for “this approach focuses on man as a moral and a social creature, and asks how work should be organized to fit his qualities as a person.” In a digital age in which machines have become more “intelligent,” performing cognitive tasks once thought untouchable (driving cars, walking across uneven floors, constructing sentences), design thinking helps us simplify the noise of technology and asks what it means to be human. Design approaches in business make this human-centered vision of work a reality.
- The moral formation by which our desires are shaped takes on renewed importance. People have never lost their nature as moral animals, but just as academia separated desire and knowledge, the market has been conceived as unfeeling and value-neutral. While economists teach that markets are amoral, every good marketer knows that products sell better when the product is worshiped. As our universities and markets recover the language of desire, we must be aware of how desires are formed and to what extent we are asking our customers to desire created things over the Creator. Pope John Paul II, in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, wisely noted that “a great deal of educational and cultural work is urgently needed,” for “of itself, an economic system does not possess criteria for correctly distinguishing new and higher forms of satisfying human needs from artificial new needs which hinder the formation of a mature personality.”
So on one hand, we have design thinking and its method for creating experiences that resonate with our innermost being. Its use of empathy and experimentation employ the desires God imbued in us that swim below the surface of our rational action. On the other hand, we are left asking which stories and experiences will swoop in to form the moral imagination to which human-centered design caters. IDEO co-founder Dave Kelley looks to science fiction authors for inspiration. The Christian story, rich with imagery of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, is a forward-looking story of hope that transforms our desires so that we worship the Creator instead of created things. I am excited for this year’s conversations about desire and knowledge as I seek to understand human-centered design in a way that provides goods, services, and a life consonant with the Kingdom of God.