During a recent presentation I did, the question was asked: So when did this whole “design thinking” trend get started? It’s an interesting question and I don’t know that there’s a definitive answer. The term seems to have been coined years ago at IDEO by the firm’s co-founder David Kelley, and it has been part of the Stanford University design curriculum for some time. In the last couple of years, design thinking as a concept has gone mainstream, even to the point of generating a backlash in the design world.
The definition of the term varies, depending on who’s using it and how. While writing about it, I cobbled together my own definition, using bits of other people’s definitions, and ended up with this: Design thinking is a process that endeavors to solve problems and create new possibilities, generally by relying on empathic research (studying people to figure out what they need) combined with creative experimentation and extensive prototyping and refinement. Yes, I know it’s still a bit clunky.
As to the question of when and how this methodology came into being, it undoubtedly evolved over time, in various places. But when I interviewed David Kelley for Glimmer, he talked about a critical turning point in that evolution—a time when the creative methods of design seemed to merge with social sciences such as psychology and sociology. And there was one person in particular who helped bring about this fusion: Jane Fulton Suri.
The tale of how Fulton Suri, a trained psychologist, ended up in the design world, is a fascinating one. I guess you could say she got into design by accident, though more precisely it was due to a series of accidents—all of them occurring in England during the 1980s, including a string of incidents in which people were cutting off their own toes with lawn mowers. As this was happening, the British government was understandably perplexed: What was going on? And what could be done about it? Jane Fulton Suri was tasked with answering those questions.
Fulton Suri had done some previous work with government agencies, serving as a kind of psychologist/detective. Her job was to investigate various types of accidents to try to understand their root causes. She did not rely on just reading accident reports; her approach was to go right to the source, interviewing victims and asking them, ever so politely, to recreate the mishap. “I wanted to understand the context in which these problems occurred,” she says. “That means you have to get out there and go to people’s homes, and then get them off the sofa. I’d say, ‘Okay, now take me into the tool shed. Show me where you were and what you were doing.’”
Fulton Suri utilized the full range of her psychology skills: “Perception, cognition, interrelating with people and getting them to open up and remember—I was using all of that,” she says. She had to put people at ease “so that they felt free to share the truth of what happened.” And she was very careful to avoid judging them. “For many of these people, it was kind of cathartic in a way because they had someone who was interested in them but who wasn’t going to tell them how stupid they’d been. I would say, ‘Right, now let’s figure this out together so it doesn’t happen again.’ ”
When Fulton Suri began looking into the incidents involving people losing toes to the rotary blade of a popular type of lightweight electric lawnmower, the first thing she observed was that the compact upright machine resembled a vacuum cleaner in some ways. “This led to a sense among people that it was a casual piece of equipment like a Hoover,” Fulton Suri says. As she had accident victims re-enact their experiences with the machine, she found they were using it like a Hoover—running it back and forth in front of where their feet were planted. (And to make matters worse, people were using it “while wearing their carpet slippers or flip flops,” she says.)
During these reenacted scenarios, Fulton Suri also learned that a number of accidents happened not during mowing, but while people were carrying the machine across the yard. The mower had been designed to start up when you gripped the handle—“so people were constantly turning it on accidentally,” sometimes while the blades were near their feet.
These findings led to the establishment of new government standards requiring built-in safety features on products such as the electric mower; in subsequent versions, users had to perform a much more deliberate “double action” (pressing a button and holding a lever simultaneously) to turn on the machine. The wave of toe-mowing incidents came to an end.
Fulton Suri took a similar approach with incidents involving handsaws and severed fingers, as well as traffic accidents in which motorcycles were hit by cars changing lanes (Fulton Suri learned that drivers were so focused on, say, the big truck in their sideview mirror that they would fail to see the motorcycle in front of the truck). The research work led to government mandates for daytime running lights on motorcycles.
While Fulton Suri took pride in her work at the time, there was one aspect of it that left her feeling dissatisfied. Both in her work for the government and in earlier consulting she’d done for companies on product safety issues, “I was being brought into the process after something had already been designed,” she says. “And it just always seemed obvious to me that if you could have seen these problems in the earlier design phases, many of these problems could have been avoided.”
In the late 1980s, while Fulton Suri was in the U.S., she met the designer Bill Moggridge, who subsequently hired her to help his firm, ID Two, apply more psychology-based research to its design projects. “For a design firm to have a psychologist on staff was unusual at the time and it was a risk,” Fulton Suri says today. “There was no tradition of having someone from the social sciences come in at the early stages of design, to try to anticipate problems and needs in advance.” When Moggridge joined forces with David Kelley to start IDEO in 1991, Fulton Suri came aboard and helped the firm break new ground in using empathic research at the upfront stages of design, as well as throughout prototyping and refinement. Kelley didn’t need to be sold on this approach—he’d been part of the design education program at Stanford University, which long stressed the importance of “human factors” in its design teachings.
At IDEO, Kelley was excited by the potential of taking the Stanford need-finding approach a step further with the aid of trained social scientists. “It was an important change,” he told me, “because it meant that as a designer, instead of feeling that you had to figure everything out from your own point of view, you could actually go looking for latent needs by studying people.”
And so much the better if you could do that accompanied by someone with a keen eye for spotting those needs. During one of his early encounters with Fulton Suri, Kelley relates, “I was standing next to her and we happened to be in front of a Pepsi machine and Jane said to me, ‘Do you think it’s right that the Pepsi can comes out at your ankles?’ And I thought, Not once did it ever occur to me it’s weird that people have to kneel down to get their drink. At that moment I realized that working with Jane was going to really help take off my blinders.”
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