Design Thinking: Leveraging creative problem solving

  • Emma Sims
  • Oct 25, 2017
Engineering

Last month, I was lucky enough to attend a +Acumen workshop (in collaboration with frog Design) to learn about design thinking, and was inspired to bring these concepts back to the Software Engineering team at AlphaSights. Acumen is an impact investing organization and a partner of AlphaSights through Knowledge for Good, our social impact business unit. We work with their team at no to low cost, connecting them to experts who have the knowledge they need to improve their investment decisions into social innovations across the globe. At the event, I practiced using design thinking to solve challenges that Acumen’s portfolio company, Green Energy Biofuels(GEB) is currently facing. The workshop was facilitated by Jini Sebakunzi, who’s working on the ground with GEB. I’m a designer on AlphaSights’ engineering team with a passion for social impact. I was excited to see how design thinking can apply to social entrepreneurship.

What is design thinking?

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, defines it as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” At its core, it’s focused on using empathy to reframe challenges and generate solutions that best fit the needs of specific groups of people.

The basis of design thinking boils down to these stages (which can happen simultaneously and/or out of order):

  1. Discover & Define a challenge, often one with no obvious answer
  2. Ideate and come up with as many solutions as possible
  3. Evaluate & Refine the solutions that make the most sense
  4. Test & Iterate to incorporate feedback
  5. Deliver solutions that are technologically feasible, user-centered, and in line with business strategy

How does design thinking help social entrepreneurs?

1. Discover & Define

We learned that GEB manufactures and distributes smoke-free cookstoves (read: renewable energy) for underserved populations in West Africa. The problem is that they only have contact information for 1% of purchasers! This makes it hard to get customer feedback.

The challenge? How can GEB use Ambassadors, who sell and distribute their product, to incentivize customers to provide their contact information?

The first step was to ask clarifying questions to better understand GEB, their customers, and their Ambassadors.

2. Ideate

We brainstormed, wrote our ideas on Post-Its, and stuck them on posters to discuss further.

Jini discusses the feasibility of some of our ideas

3. Evaluate & Refine

Jini walked around and led a group discussion evaluating the Post-Its. He pointed out what could work and what wouldn’t. We evaluated and refined our ideas. Jini’s bringing our ideas back to his CEO to work through possible solutions.

How will design thinking help my team at AlphaSights?

I can use design thinking to tackle challenges we face on the Software Engineering team. Since I joined the team in March, we’ve worked towards becoming more proactive, rather than reactive, when iterating on our products. We conduct interviews to see what’s troubling our users. Defining the root of the problem comes next. We then whiteboard different solutions. We move forward with refined ideas and make them tangible by creating prototypes and testing them with users. We aggregate all of the feedback and iterate quickly.

Design Thinking is for Everyone — Including You

Design thinking is for everyone — not just designers. Next time you discover a problem, either at work or in your personal life, try using this methodology to devise a solution that gets at the core of your problem. In summary:

1. Discover & Define 

Empathize. Really understand who you’re solving the problem for. Ask tons of questions.

2. Ideate

Explore as much as possible. Don’t be afraid of suggesting an idea you think might be a bad one — bad ideas don’t exist at this stage!

3. Evaluate & Refine

Get practical. Which ideas will work? What constraints should be kept in mind?

4. Test & Iterate

Ask for feedback. Iterate rapidly and improve on your initial ideas.

5. Deliver

Solve the problem!

Thanks to AlphaSights and Natanya Meyer, the Social Impact Manager of Knowledge for Good, for sponsoring my ticket to this workshop. I’m excited to bring this knowledge back to AlphaSights and share it with my teammates.

If this article piqued your interest and you’d like to join a company like mine, we’re hiring.