The Left Brain, Right Brain Myth
It was previously believed that there are two types of thinkers: the analytical, left-brain type, and the creative, right-brain type. Of course, we should all know by now that this is a myth and both sides of our noggin play equally important roles in how we think. However, specialty in an industry is indeed real and sometimes one can get too specialised and rigid in a particular field, resulting in an inflexibility in problem-solving or an inability to think outside the normative paradigm.
As such, it is imperative for us to recognise that we can apply both analytical and creative thinking skills to solve problems as well as to generate new ideas. Just like how it can be useful to be methodical when it comes to designing creatively for a specific purpose, we can also apply creativity when it comes to solving a problem.
In this piece, we’re going to focus on the latter; specifically, design thinking and how we could use it for problem-solving especially when the problem itself isn’t yet clear. And to illustrate, we’ll be exploring an example of how we can stimulate home ownership growth here in Malaysia.
What’s the Opposite of Design?
Before we go any further, it is important to establish a clearer idea of what design thinking is, and the best way to help with that is to first identify the opposite of design. If design can be defined as emotional, indirect, and solution-focused, the opposite would be calculated, linear, and problem-focused – which are the traits of engineering. Often in engineering of any kind, be it civil, mechanical, or software, we are already presented with a clear problem to address or an objective to achieve, and it is a matter of solving our way there. Engineering is essential when we already have a clearly defined problem, however, there are times when even the issue itself is unclear.
It should be worth pointing out that opposites can be complementary. Coming up with the winning idea alone isn’t enough because once the problem has been identified through design thinking, analytical (engineering) thinking can step in and bring the idea to life. We will be focusing on the modern, five-stage model proposed by Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, also known as ‘d.school.’
Say, you’re a bank and you want to build a home ownership website. With enough software engineering prowess, you may end up with a slick website that lets you apply for a mortgage directly online. But that doesn’t necessarily address a core issue, which is the fact that house prices keep getting higher and many people could no longer afford the initial down payment. This is where design thinking comes in. Before even beginning to build the website or come up with a business model, you must first identify the problem itself – what is slowing down the rate of home ownership and how can the website help stimulate the growth?
Stage 1: Empathise (Learn from Other People)
Perhaps the most important of all, stage one is to empathise with the people experiencing the problem, which is easier said than done. Often, the one tasked with solving an issue may have a hubristic view of the situation, quick to come up with solutions that may only address the problem on a superficial level. Empathising involves engaging with the people affected, hearing them out, and learning about their experiences and motivations. Also important, is to be able to have an open mind during this stage and be aware of our inherent biases and preconceived notions. And finally, remember that feedback from the extreme end of the bell curve is the most insightful input – something that the mainstream group couldn’t provide.
All the information and pain points identified in this stage will be crucial during the next stage and during the development of the solution, as the solution will be based on the most accurate understanding of the target market.
To circle back to the low home ownership issue mentioned earlier, a hubristic approach would be to create a website that pools all available homes for sale around town, thinking that the problem is due to lack of home vacancy exposure. This is a good first step, but again, it only addresses a superficial issue. When you empathise with the people you’re targeting, the picture becomes clearer. When you start to focus at the ends of the bell curve, you’ll notice that folks with the lowest income in the group could no longer afford the high house prices, and those with the highest income often don’t have the time to be sourcing and submitting documents.
Stage 2: Define (Find Patterns in the Problem)
Once the data have been gathered, it is time to define the problem in stage two. All the observations and defined problems can only be progressed into a solution once we specify the core problems. As always, the definition has to be based on the user’s perspective and not yours, and it has to be on a personal level.
Even though having the sense of empathy is still important in this stage, what truly defines a successful stage two is the ability to have an informed intuition by finding patterns in pain points. This wouldn’t be possible without putting ourselves into the users’ shoes, and all of these would also be moot if we didn’t keep track of the data gathered.
Using the aforementioned example, a self-centred definition would be, ‘We want to increase the number of people getting mortgage from us by making it easier for them to view available homes and apply for a loan.’ However, by incorporating empathy we’ve discussed earlier, a better definition from the perspective of the user could go something like, ‘We need to make home-ownership more accessible by surfacing vacant and upcoming homes that are otherwise hard to find, lowering the barrier of entry in down payments, and making monthly instalments more flexible.’
Stage 3: Ideate (Generate Design Principles)
Stage three is when it’s time to ideate design principles and possible solutions. This is important because even if you’ve already found a good solution to design on, it pays to get as many alternatives as possible, based on different perspectives of the problem defined earlier.
It doesn’t matter which method you use for brainstorming, however, don’t just stick to one. At the end of the initial ideation phase with one brainstorming method, pick another method and go through the process again. You’d be surprised that a different brainstorming method might free our minds into looking at the issue with a fresh perspective, to find even better design principles. Above all else, never stray from empathising with the users and from the clearly defined issues determined earlier.
Back to our example. At first, the brainstormed solution you could come up with may only be focused on the perspective of the lower income bracket. This design principle involves lowering the down payment or stretching the tenure so that the monthly instalments are lower. But doing so alienates the folks on the other end of the spectrum. Remember, those in the upper income bracket may care more for a seamless home application and approval process – one that doesn’t involve having to physically visit the bank and the housing project’s office several times to submit paper documents. Your new design principle should also incorporate a seamless application process, which would also benefit the other income brackets. There might be practical limitations to make ideas tangible; lowering the down payment may not be possible, in which case you would have to completely ideate from another perspective. Instead trying to sell a home outright, first allow leasing/renting of the property, and make available the option to purchase that very house at some point later, with the total rent paid so far offsetting the house price – a transaction also known as rental-purchase or rent-to-own.
Stage 4: Prototype (Make Ideas Tangible)
Prototype is stage four and it’s usually where the fun happens, when the ideas are brought to life. Do not worry if there are a lot of design principles generated earlier to be turned into specifics; that’s the whole point of prototyping. It is a process of making those ideas tangible in an agile and low-cost scenario. Because of the inherent biases that we may have, it is also imperative that the prototypes should be shared with people from outside of the design team or even with outside focus groups to poke holes in the prototypes.
Remember that the purpose of this stage is to test the viability of the concepts generated earlier, and the aim is to single out the best possible solution out of the many. Every single prototype should be examined to see if it is accepted, needs improvement, or is just downright rejected, based on the different user experiences and perspectives. By the time you’ve singled out the best solution, you would’ve already gained a clear understanding of the solution, it’s inherent limitations, and new challenges unforeseen earlier. More importantly, you would also get a perspective on how end users are motivated, how they would use the solution, and how they would think and feel while using it.
Let’s say your winning ideas for stimulating home ownership have been established and modelled. One of the prototype that you came out with may involve having a straight-through home application process, from picking a home to getting a mortgage, all in one website. But based on the problem definition you’ve determined in stage two, and ideas you had in stage three, that prototype only addressed one of the issues. To truly lower the barrier of entry and offer flexible payments, your website needs to show vacant and upcoming homes, allow renting first and buying later, and have a straight-through application process without the need to visit any physical banks (at least not initially).
Stage 5: Test (Iterate Versions Rigorously)
The test in stage five is not to be confused with similar tests done in the previous prototyping stage. At this point you’ve already distilled to a few, if not a single best solution to solve the issues defined. The prototype is still far from perfect, so here we’re utilising the focus groups or evaluators earlier to rigorously kick the tyres, for you could iterate the solution until a final form takes shape.
Even though this is the fifth stage, more often than not it is not the last and the test results obtained in this stage can and should be used to revisit the earlier stages which we’ll talk about in the next chapter.
Your home ownership website is beginning to take shape. During the testing, some of the challenges not previously seen are beginning to surface. Because rent-to-own will push monthly instalments higher, even with a lower barrier to entry, there may be a group in your target market that still prefers the good ol’ down payment and mortgage route, and your current version of the website is excluding them. Knowing this additional information could help you to empathise with that group and update the problem definition – it is not just lower barrier to entry and ease of application, but also lower monthly instalments if possible, though that may prolong the loan tenure.
A Non-linear Approach
It is worth emphasising that, while we ran through the stages in a linear fashion, design thinking shouldn’t be constrained in that flow. In reality, design thinking is best approached in a non-linear way. The different stages can be conducted in parallel, the results of which can be used to inform one another.
Even if we were to initially look at design thinking linearly, the results of each stage can determine how far back we will need to return. Test findings may determine that a better prototype is needed, or that the idea needs to be scrapped for a whole new one. Sometimes, prototypes we have couldn’t obtain what we set out to achieve, because we didn’t clearly define the problem to begin with, or that we didn’t empathise enough with the target audience to find out what they really want or need. Understand that going back to earlier stages isn’t a fault of your or your team’s making – reiteration in design thinking is a feature by design. We’ve seen how projects get pushed through to the end, only to fail, because of the sunk cost and how the team is unwilling to take a few steps back to re-evaluate the problem definition and pivot when necessary.
After testing your prototype home ownership website, you could choose to go back to prototyping to include a path on the website to directly apply for a home mortgage and add an option to stretch the loan tenure longer to lower monthly instalments.
Empathy, Data, and Attention to Detail are Key
A company looking to innovate or to solve unclear problems will have to mobilise the whole organisation to think like a designer, and design thinking is a way to codify the process into a template that can be replicated. While thinking out-of-the-box can be difficult due to self-imposed constraints and mindsets, the codification of design thinking allows for those not trained as designers to think like one, and to use creative tools to problem-solve a vast range of unclear challenges.
All these are easier said than done, and to truly master design thinking, we believe that empathy, data, and meticulousness are key. Data, while advocacy of its importance is already a cliché at this point, still is the best tool we have to find patterns that confirm or deny our earlier intuition. William Edwards Deming, an engineer and statistician, once said, ‘Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.’ However, without empathy, we can flip the quote around and say that, ‘Without insight, you’re just another person with data.’
To wrap up our example of the home ownership stimulus project, if you’ve approached the project with a more self-centred view, we might still end up with a decent property aggregator website with links to mortgage services. However, to truly address your market’s need, you’ll need to think like a designer, and sometimes the best possible solution may involve shifting the paradigm to an entirely new concept like rent-to-own. It is not easy, but nobody said it was.
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