Design thinking in action at Methven: Embracing empathy, problems, and prototyping

Focus groups kill good ideas, and other pearls of wisdom.

Earlier this year, NZTE’s Better by Design service sent 35 New Zealand companies to San Francisco to meet with and learn from the world’s design heavyweights. The third US Study Tour included visits to IDEO, Google, Intuitive Surgical, Survey Monkey, SYPartners, Cisco, and others. Here's Methven group R&D manager Jeremy Gear's take on the experience.

jeremy gear methven better by design thinkingWhat were the tour highlights for you? What stood out the most?

One thing that really struck me was the theme that we saw in the very large companies such as Cisco and Google of actively trying to negate the negative effects that a global or very large organisation can have (i.e. difficulty changing momentum or low agility which heavily affects their ability to innovate).

What they all want to do is to create the culture of a new start-up business within the larger organisation as this creates a much better environment in which to foster innovation. They create incubators within their companies with small teams that they then fiercely protect from outside influences within the company (even to the point of completely hiding stuff from the CEOs, in the case of Cisco) until they deem their ideas to be at the right point ... then they are able to leverage their financial and other extensive resources to commercialise their innovative ideas, product and technologies.

It was also instilled into us that collaboration and partnering pays. The first question these companies all ask of others (including their direct competitors) is “how can we help you?” followed by “how can we help each other?” This is something we can certainly learn from in the New Zealand design landscape.

The tour taught us the value of working with the right people. The quote of the week went to Google who told us "Better a hole than an a#$%hole!” They pick people who:

·       Have a bias to action. They do not wait to be told - they seek out new opportunities

·       Have business acumen as well as technical skills (most have MBAs and technical qualifications)

·       They are prepared to wait – the interview process at Google has been known to last up to one year (!)

Finally, the learnings around design thinking and human-centred design really resonated with me, including:

·       Having empathy for your user is paramount

·       Fail early when it’s cheap

·       Prototype cheap, often and learn from it by listening to real users’ feedback

·       Focus groups kill good ideas!

·       Fall in love with the problem, not the solution! The solution comes from a deep understanding of the insights you gain from interacting and having deep empathy for your user…

... I could go on but you get the picture - there was an awful lot I took out of this!

What is the most significant action you have taken since you returned to New Zealand?

We have started to introduce the organisation to design thinking methods. I have done the Gift-Giving Project from the Stanford University d.School with around 45 people at Methven New Zealand.

The Gift-Giving Project is a 90-minute (including debrief) fast-paced project though a full design cycle. Individuals pair up to interview each other, come to a point-of-view of how they might design for their partner, ideate, and prototype a new solution to "redesign the gift-giving experience" for their partner.

Plans are afoot to do this in Australia early next year. It’s a great way to learn about design thinking by doing. You are engaging with real people, designing based on the information they have given you and learning from prototypes.

We are also going to be doing an empathy interviewing session with a team of people from Methven with assistance from NZTE’s Better by Design out on the streets – bring it on! (Empathy interviewing involves talking to people on the streets and asking them specific questions to understand their  thoughts, emotions, and motivations, so that we can determine how to innovate for him or her. By understanding the choices that person makes and the behaviours that person engages in, we can identify their needs and design for those needs.)

I have also:

·       Actively passed the learnings on to my team and encouraged them to act on these insights. (It’s working!)

·       Written out lots, and lots, and lots, and lots ... and lots of post-it notes to help us visually explore our ideas.

·       Been very consciously working on my Duos within the organisation (two people working together – “the smallest atomic unit of trust”) and thank you Keith Yamashita (Chairman, SYPartners and Co-founder, Unstuck) for opening my eyes to the concept of being “mindfully great” in what you do.

How would you like to implement the tour learnings long-term?

I want to continue to embed the design thinking methods throughout our entire business across all disciplines. The focus is on New Zealand at the moment ... then Australia, the UK and China long-term.

What are your plans for Methven over the coming months/year?

We have some exciting projects in the pipeline. We will be exploring new channels that we are unfamiliar with so a great chance to utilise some of the design thinking methods.