Category Archives: design thinking

Too Much vs. Too Little

by Dan Woychick

bears_153480112Once upon a time, there was a little girl with golden locks who was fond of breaking and entering. This is a story so familiar that most people would have no trouble providing the missing details or drawing conclusions about the protagonist’s questionable character.

When marketing communications miss the mark – when they fail to get it “just right” – audiences are unable and generally unwilling to fill in the blanks for you. They are left unmoved, puzzled, or annoyed.

Some marketing has style, but lacks substance. Some is as dry as the Sahara and just as hospitable. There are too many words, or too much white space. There’s not enough contrast, or the point size is too small. Can you make the logo bigger?

Like alchemists, writers and designers craft compelling stories by striking a delicate balance between familiarity and surprise. Our most common pitfalls occur when we favor what’s easy over what’s important.

Information vs. Understanding
When I was studying design in college, my professor prefaced a poster design assignment with his Rule of 20/10/5. If someone is standing 20 feet away from your poster, they probably won’t be able to read everything, but you want them to be able to absorb the most important information at a glance. At ten feet, your design should allow people to pick up additional details. At five feet away, you want to reward them for investing the time to thoroughly study your design.

Nowadays, whether it’s a poster, a website, or product packaging, writing and designing with a similar approach helps answer one of your audience’s primary questions: What’s the takeaway?

There is no shortage of data to be mined on any topic under the sun, but audiences need us to help them extract meaning from this overwhelming glut of information. HHComms-InfographicInto the breach, we’ve seen the popularity of infographics grow exponentially.

The problem is that most of them, like the one at right, cram a lot of information into a single space without actually adding any clarity to a complex topic. They are eye candy – if you like arrows and charts and little icons – or toxic if you prefer that design is used to advance understanding.

Wealth_InequalityCompare the overloaded infographic to this video about income distribution in America, which deftly uses statistics to bring a complicated story to life. People are not inspired to act by reason alone. We must work harder to distill information into stories that have emotional resonance.

Certainty vs. Curiosity
One day, as a seven-year-old, my son declared himself the smartest person in the house. While he’s a bright young man, he was afflicted with a common cognitive bias known as the Overconfidence Effect – the difference between what people really know and what they think they know.

It affects all of us to varying degrees. In one survey, more than 90 percent of U.S. drivers considered themselves to be “above average.” 84 percent of French men estimate that they are above-average lovers. Without this misplaced confidence, 50 percent of those surveyed should rank above and 50 percent below the median.

How much confidence should we have in our own knowledge? And why does it matter for nonprofit marketing and design?

Adhering to common practices for the placement and display of information certainly makes systems run more smoothly, whether we’re navigating a website or an airport. Based on our online behavior, Amazon’s algorithms conveniently serve up a wide selection of things we may be interested in. But when we operate on autopilot – when we act with a degree of certainty that exceeds our actual knowledge – we can miss opportunities for deeper understanding and insight.

The best opportunity you’ve got to grow and to make an impact is to seek out the, “I don’t get it,” moments, and then work at it and noodle on it and discuss it until you do get it. – Seth Godin

Curiosity requires the humility to ask questions, to listen, and to incorporate new thinking. We should aim to be lifelong learners, like the computer science professor who worked a summer as a lowly intern for one of his former students just so he could find out “what the cool kids are doing” – and bring that experience back to his current students.

When curiosity becomes a habit, our recommendations are made on context, not conjecture.

Caution vs. Courage
In Minnesota, where I live, the locals are famously stoic. Blame it on our ancestors’ natural modesty, or blame it on the cold, but it’s the kind of place where “not too bad” means “good” and any display of excitement is tempered by fear of making a scene. We’re cautiously optimistic.

In a stable environment, risk aversion makes more sense. Conduct exhaustive research to better control and predict one outcome versus another. Seek to make the uncertain certain.
In a rapidly changing environment, like it or not, we’re asked to make many decisions without knowing every possible permutation. We need to recognize and accept our vulnerability.

What makes leadership hard isn’t the theoretical, it’s the practical. It’s not about knowing what to say or do. It’s about whether you’re willing to experience the discomfort, risk, and uncertainty of saying or doing it. – Peter Bregman

Courage is the willingness to do something when there are no guarantees. When we face tough challenges, we need to consider more than increasing the font size or the frequency of our social media posts. To encourage real progress – and not just fuss around the edges – we need to design changes to outmoded systems, not just play with pixels and paper. We need to encourage behavior change.

Invisible vs. Indelible
I have no easy fix for what ails traditional marketing and design. Most of the work has minimal impact. We need visionary nonprofit leaders. We need to rethink how we work. We need to expand perceptions of our value. We need to start today.

Will you join me?

Problem Solving is a Transferable Skill

by Dan Woychick

Over the past ten years, the nonprofit sector’s growth in total wages and employees has outpaced the growth of both government and business. With so many smart, passionate people aligned to serve the common good, one might think we would start to see big improvements in the human condition.

Granted, there is an abundant number of wicked tough problems in organizations and communities around the world today, but it begs the question: Is our approach to solving these problems flawed?

As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In my experience, it’s more often limited organizational capacity – and sometimes a lack of imagination – that prevents more ambitious attempts at systemic change.

Designers can help move organizations beyond incremental or short-lived improvements by applying some of the same creative problem-solving skills used in their more traditional role. Here’s a few examples:

Identify the problem
In 2006, a small public university asked us to conduct market research to establish a stronger brand position for the school. The goal was to grow enrollment. For the next couple of years, with the help of the marketing materials and tools we developed for them, the university saw modest growth.

Asked to refresh the same university’s brand five years later, we found both the messaging and visual identity in shambles – and enrollment down. Digging deeper, we identified the biggest culprit as a lack of internal communication about and shared understanding of the university’s marketing efforts. We chose to focus the bulk of the budget on addressing those internal issues rather than creating new student recruitment materials.

To move forward, one must correctly identify the obstacles to real change first, budgeting time and money accordingly.

Ask big questions
I’m part of a team working with an organization that serves immigrant communities in a large metropolitan area. They would like our help leveraging the relationships built through their food shelf – the organization’s best-known and longest-running program – to move clients toward a more sustainable future.

Much of the funding for this work comes from a grant. One criteria for measuring the impact of the grant is to increase the amount of food distributed and the number of families served. That’s certainly one way to measure success, but wouldn’t distributing less food – shutting the food shelf for lack of customers – be a better outcome?

If we aim high, but not high enough, we end up fussing around the margins when we should be looking to uncover and address systemic design flaws. Asking better questions leads to better answers.

Assess available resources
When I began writing this blog nearly four years ago, according to the experts there was a “right way” to do it successfully. Specifically, it would require regular updates (at least 3-4 per week), bite-size morsels (no one reads long posts), headlines that promise easy solutions, and tireless self-promotion.

With limited time to invest in this endeavor, I had to determine what could reasonably be sustained. Anyone can write a paragraph or two on a given subject, but to explore issues in any meaningful depth – to provide value to my readers – requires experience and time. More than 100 posts later, an average of about two per month, I’ll let you judge if this has been a good investment.

Honest self-assessment can make the difference between doing many things poorly or a few things well.

Making progress
When designers and marketing professionals are asked to solve the wrong problems, it severely limits their value to an organization. Old habits, narrow thinking, small budgets – there are all sorts of reasons that real progress seems perpetually beyond our grasp. I believe that our most daunting challenges require creative problem solvers to break free of these constraints.

We’re ready when you are.

Think Like a Human

by Dan Woychick

Rodin’s The ThinkerFor decades, empires have been built on a simple and consistent business model: We’ll sell you what you want, as long as you also get a bunch of other stuff that you don’t want.

Newspapers will deliver the news, as long as you don’t mind the ads. Cable TV providers offer your favorite shows wrapped in a package of obscure channels featuring llama-shearing marathons and dozens of tips for organizing your sock drawer. You’ve got to sit through the opening act before the featured band takes the stage. And, I’d be willing to wager, there were a few courses required to get your bachelor’s degree that have proven to be only marginally relevant to your subsequent career.

The missing link
A similar approach is often seen in website design. Organizations routinely put feature stories in a visually prominent place on the home page while more utilitarian functions and links are pushed to the margins. While it’s possible that audience research indicated a strong interest in these types of stories, it’s more likely that the organization has a keen interest in promoting them.

In my experience with usability testing, site visitors consistently show little to no interest in website feature content. It just gets in the way of finding the information or completing the task they came to the site for in the first place. Who’s serving whom?

Product designers can become enamored with new bells and whistles while sacrificing ease of use. Architects can create spaces that don’t adequately consider environmental impact or human behavior patterns. Governments create forms and procedures that are needlessly complex.

What do all of these things have in common? They all overlook – or undervalue – the experience of the end user: human beings.

The golden rule
Imagine if marketing and design excelled at treating others as we’d like to be treated. Imagine if your marketing, in fact, your entire organization, was guided by design thinking. Design thinking has emerged in recent years as a trendy package of processes geared to solving complex problems through creativity and innovation. Combining empathy, analysis, insights, and rapid prototyping, design thinking encourages multidisciplinary teams to keep the end user firmly at the core of any proposed solutions.

This is where theory and practice sometimes diverge.

Considering the end user, or customer, as a means of developing perceptive and effective solutions is not particularly new or mysterious – no matter what you call it. As the design thinking process is embraced by more people, it seems there is a lot more thinking than doing. For example, I’m not convinced that brainstorming generates more creative solutions (research shows the opposite may be true), or that the design process will always benefit from putting lots of people in a room with a pile of Post-It® notes.

Getting to know you
I do believe in developing empathy for an audience through research, and would propose a more accurate name for this type of problem-solving process is human-centered design. It’s not primarily about the thinking. It’s not about profits. It’s not a secret shortcut to innovation. It’s about delivering a product, service, or experience that fills a real human need.

That all sounds great, you’re thinking, but how does that work in the real world? I’m not an anthropologist or a psychologist and I don’t even own a white lab coat. No worries.

Like anything, human-centered design benefits from regular practice. Acquiring the tools, techniques, and experience require nothing more than time, a keen interest in the human race, and an abiding desire to solve problems.

Turning ideas into action
Diverge + ConvergeThere’s no shortage of good ideas. A human-centered design process uses divergent thinking to create many choices, helping  uncover new opportunities and generate more actionable ideas faster. The most critical skill, however, is developing an ability to evaluate those ideas, to converge on a choice and move forward. To do so, weigh your options against the following criteria:

  • Desirability: Throughout the process, listen to and understand what people need and want.
  • Feasibility: What is possible within your organization? Acknowledge the barriers, but optimism rules. Don’t shortchange yourself by aiming too low.
  • Viability: Great ideas are like currency, but money matters. Solutions need to be scaled to available resources.

The best ideas live where these three criteria overlap.

As consumers, we’ve come to expect that we can get exactly what we want when we want it, and there’s little reason to accept anything less. Consequently, marketing strategies that rely on bait-and-switch tactics or bundling desirable with less desirable services will become more difficult to sustain.

Human-centered design offers a better way to deliver services, products, and experiences that satisfy real needs, providing a new thing to think about – how to deal with all those happy customers.

Related content:
Human Centered Design Toolkit

Shifting Sands

by Dan Woychick

Paradise BeachAt this time tomorrow, I’ll be strolling on a Caribbean beach with sand gently squishing between my toes. Meanwhile, as on most days, tens of thousands of nonprofit marketing and communications professionals will squirm uncomfortably as the sand shifts beneath their feet, wondering: How are we supposed to thrive in a perpetual state of transition?

As the old saying goes, the only one who likes change is a baby with a dirty diaper. Human beings are creatures of habit who tend to bristle when told they can’t do something – like order a super-mega-ton soda – and howl when a favorite social network changes the look of its interface. We tend to be more willing to accept change if we’re calling the shots … except when we don’t know which call to make.

Fumbling through nirvana
Navigating our magical WiFi world in our smart cars with our smart phones sure has a way of making us feel dumber than ever.

When trying to reach a target audience, the multitude of media choices is matched only by the limits of our personal bandwidth. The difficulty in determining what device or behavior will be the next lasting standard can cause indecision.

Quickly adopt the latest buzzworthy tactic (QR codes anyone?) and you risk jumping on the wrong bandwagon, wasting precious resources for middling results. Bury your head in denial and you risk irrelevance in the modern world. As Roger Martin noted in the Harvard Business Review:

By far the easiest thing to do is to see the future as so unpredictable and uncertain that you should keep all your options open and avoid choice-making entirely. The irony, of course, is that not choosing is every bit as much a choice, and every bit as impactful, as choosing to choose.

Psychologists have long identified pattern recognition as essential to human intelligence. What’s needed now, more than ever, is for recognition that “business as usual” is a pattern that doesn’t exist – the status quo is forever changing.

To make more intelligent choices, I believe we need to work on the following:

Ambiguity is the new black.
Have you ever noticed that people are rarely able to predict what will make them happy? This phenomenon is defined by author Tal Ben-Shahar as the “arrival fallacy” – the belief that you’ll be happy when you arrive at a certain destination: “Once I buy this dress … Once I get this job … Once I’m married …” Whether it makes us happy or not, we still need to make decisions. In order to make better ones, we need to develop and hone our ability to quickly and comfortably move between stages of relative certainty.

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
If we, indeed, learn from our mistakes, we sure try hard not to make any. Given two choices, virtually everyone would pick the “sure thing” over rolling the dice. We want to make a choice, and then not have to make it again – at least not for a good long while. We like knowing more than we like learning.

We need to embrace and practice a more iterative, non-linear method of solving problems. Don’t get paralyzed aiming for perfection. Rather, make many little mistakes quickly. As Thomas Edison said: “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Building resilience
In both personal and professional environments, we need to improve our capacity to absorb ongoing transitions while still performing effectively. A more resilient system embraces diversity of thought and experience to avoid an “echo chamber” effect. As in farming, monocultures may be efficient, but can cause more harm than good long-term.

Additionally, we can’t wait for the quarterly report or the performance review to recalibrate our efforts. The tighter the feedback, the closer it comes to happening in real time, the better we will adapt to the rapid pace of change.

Process not product
One of the things that’s become increasingly clear, one of the things that hasn’t changed, is that a project’s structure is far more important than whether or not the final deliverable is a website or a magazine or a branding campaign. Process matters.

Developing the skills to adeptly navigate our rapidly changing marketing landscape can help you turn quicksand into a day at the beach.

Simplicity Will Disrupt Your Business

by Dan Woychick

Last summer, my siblings and I established a family endowment in honor of our parents. Tom and Mary Woychick were lifetime volunteers, philanthropists of time more than money, who supported a wide variety of causes in addition to their church – from homelessness to veterans, at-risk youth to education. With this fund, we plan to provide financial support to continue their work.

Have you ever tried to give money away? It doesn’t seem like it should be that hard. In the process of vetting organizations to evaluate our options and establish parameters for giving and recognition of the gifts, we experienced a surprising range of responses.

Some organizations engaged us immediately, expressing gratitude for our consideration and outlining options for our gift. After contacting one nonprofit, I was passed off to three different people, each of whom failed to respond to emails or phone calls in a timely manner. One small, shoestring operation has been so overwhelmed with day-to-day commitments, that they have yet to suggest a suitable place to invest our pledged gift. And one organization – my Dad’s alma mater – never responded at all.

Complexity is not the enemy
Whether it’s Moore’s Law or Murphy’s Law, the world’s evolution seems to conspire against simplicity. As organizations grow, and employees come and go, it is difficult to establish and maintain clear processes for handling things … like in-bound inquiries, for example. But organizations, technology, and problems are not becoming less complex, so what can be done?

The real enemy is confusion. Anyone who has tried to navigate a television remote with too many buttons and too-small type, pored over an invoice from a health care provider, or attempted to speak with a real person at a credit card company can attest to the need for simpler solutions to complex problems.

Simple solutions don’t accomplish less. In fact, because they eliminate processes or remove barriers that prevent a superior customer experience, simplicity allows people to do more. Simple solutions, essentially, hide all the complex things that are going on behind the scenes so that less is required of the customer. They make it look easy.

Seeing like a customer
Most people are capable of recognizing a handful, if not dozens, of things – large and small – that should be improved within their organization. When one of these projects finally attracts resources to address the problem, the next trick is separating our own needs from those of our customers.

Recently the Minnesota Department for Revenue redesigned its website, which is good, because the site needed an overhaul. Unfortunately, based on personal experience making the monthly payroll tax deposit, everything from logging in to navigation has become more convoluted. Why would they do that? I can only assume the website works better for them – on the back end. It’s apparent they didn’t consider their users first.

It’s been said that the devil’s in the details, when truthfully it’s the human-centered details that matter. Developing more acute empathy for our customers is the key to designing better experiences for them. As Aaron Levie wrote for Fast Company, “It’s all about reducing choices and unnecessary steps, narrowing clutter, and adding a touch of class to boot.”

The bottom line is that simplicity inspires trust, which ranks among the most important of marketing objectives.

It’s not easy
Simplicity isn’t simple. If it was, there would be more of it, and it wouldn’t be disrupting sleepy little product categories or entire industries. Here are a few ways to start building a bias toward simpler solutions and a more customer-centered organization:

  • Examine your brand position. What promise are you making to your customers? A strong brand position not only brings focus to marketing strategy and tactics, it should act as a filter for decision making up and down the organization. When in doubt, which course of action best supports that promise?
  • Know what business you’re in. Southwest Airlines has become one of the most profitable airlines in the world, even though they do almost everything “wrong” – no seat assignments, no meals, flying to less-popular airports. Herb Kelleher, Southwest’s longtime leader, once said, “I tell my employees that we’re in the service business, and it’s incidental that we fly airplanes.”
  • Consider the entire process from start to finish. Everyone wants ROI these days, but marketing can’t be isolated from the rest of an organization’s operations and produce a long-term impact. It’s the equivalent of being asked to fix a car’s transmission and then being handed a bucket and a sponge. True simplicity – and marketing success – permeates an organization. It’s not just an add-on.
  • Ruthlessly edit. Practice saying “no” to additional features, processes, or services that dilute your focus. Reductive thinking – what can be removed, organized, or hidden – leads to improved customer experiences. George Bernard Shaw, in correspondence with a friend, once wrote, “I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” Take the time.

We live in a time of unprecedented turbulence, but one thing hasn’t changed – simplicity remains a tremendous advantage. What barriers are preventing your organization from being a disruptive force in the market?

Related content:
The Simplicity Thesis
Simplicity Isn’t Simple
Designing for the Obvious

Mind the Gap

by Dan Woychick

Politely but firmly, as any traveler boarding trains in London’s Underground can attest, an insistent female voice reminds passengers to pay attention to their surroundings. Unfortunately, there is no similarly effective system for urging those who work in non-profit organizations to “mind the gap” between the current and desired state of things.

Every night we ask our two boys to set the table as my wife or I prepare dinner. After the older boy asks “What are we having?” and the younger one distracts himself with the dog, almost invariably the conversation goes something like this: Is the table set? Yes. Everyone has forks? Yep. Did you set out cups? Uh-huh. Looking from the kitchen into the dining room, it appears both boys have cups but neither parent is so fortunate. Were you planning on giving your mom or me a cup? Oh! I didn’t know you wanted one.

Whether it’s due to existing organizational systems and culture, our education, or our job description, too often we find ourselves overmatched by the problems we’re asked to address. Hampered by a fixed-view, linear mindset, there is a gap between the problems we face and the skills we bring to bear in solving them – almost a planned obliviousness.

A dynamic environment
Few things exist in isolation. Sick people need doctors. Cars need fuel. And a flower needs sun, soil, water, bees, and an environment free of feet to stomp on it or tires to run it over. In all endeavors multiple factors affect one another, yet our response in the face of complexity has been to evolve into a collection of specialists where one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing. As the Epicurean Dealmaker observed:

As the body of scientific and technical knowledge swells exponentially, scientists and engineers by definition simply must become narrowly focused specialists. You cannot be effective as a scientist or engineer nowadays if your knowledge spans too broad a field.

He continues:

But who will aggregate and balance the competing viewpoints, suggestions, and research programs of all these specialists in highly complex microdomains? Who else but someone who has been rigorously educated in the general discipline of how to think, of how to evaluate competing claims and conflicting evidence under conditions of extreme uncertainty?

Who else but a designer?

Inconceivable
Before accusing me of being delusional, let me explain. Most people think of design as an act of creation. Among other things, designers make products, buildings, posters, and websites. But design is as much – if not more – about how we think than what we make.

If you had customers facing physical danger in the course of receiving your product or service, it’s safe to say that fixing this problem would be a priority. Less alarming, but similarly, if your website was difficult to navigate or your process for thanking volunteers was too slow, these might also be identified as problems worth solving.

These are all design problems. And, since design is part of everything we do, all of us have a stake in thinking like designers.

Recognizing patterns
Psychologists have long identified pattern recognition as essential to human intelligence. It’s the only way our powerful, but limited, brains can process massive amounts of stimuli. Imagine reading, playing chess, solving equations, or understanding human behavior – all rely on keen recognition of patterns.

The problem with relying only on specialists, is that the patterns they’ve learned can make it harder for them to consider and integrate new thinking. They know too much.

Design thinking is a structured approach to generating and developing ideas to meet a specific challenge. Fostering the conditions in which insider knowledge meets outsider perspective encourages the kinds of questions and breakthroughs that remain largely absent with a more insular approach.

Solving problems
What’s needed now, more than ever, is for recognition that “business as usual” is a pattern that doesn’t exist – the status quo is forever changing. We need specialists with their deep, but narrow, expertise to collaborate with less linear, more iterative thinkers – the designers in our midst. In other words, in an age of increasing specialization, we need to be paying attention to both the forest and the trees.

When that happens, we’ll make a regular habit of improving our organizations, not just our logos and websites, and eliminating the gaps between what exists and what is possible. As the web application developer and founder of 37Signals, Jason Fried, has said: The design is done when the problem goes away.

Related Content:
The Cognitive Cost of Expertise
Design Nations