Design thinking

How-to get your team ‘in’ on that insight

You’re out with friends, two of which went to the same high school. They glance at each other and laugh at something from the past that to you, doesn’t make any sense. 

That annoying feeling is not dissimilar to attending a design research presentation. Those who were there get ‘it’ but the majority who weren’t feel left out; the empathy fails to scale. 

This isn't just a research problem, it's a business problem.

This has been addressed by Nick Bowmast a Design Researcher from New Zealand who proposes we drop the game and ‘frame’ rather than ‘tell’ our teams about research.

What intrigued me about Nick’s approach is it’s unpretentious. With practice, it can be used by anyone to inspire teams to focus on building what people truly need, which in my mind is the essence of design thinking. 

Frame, don't tell

As User Experience Designers, we get so focused on the ‘user’ that it’s easy to forget that one of our main tasks is designing an experience for our team. Nick’s story framing method is a recipe for bringing the magic back to the office. 

The trailer

This first step is about boiling down the moments that mattered into a video trailer. Film highlights get those awkward moments out in the open and reveal contrasts between users so your team can drop their biases and instead focus on empathy.

In my experience on Hijacked, a website for college students in Australia, huge differences were found between social users who screaming out to share their opinions and students that were shy and had perhaps had relocated from the countryside.

These users looked to the platform as a way to make friends and be ‘in the know’ and was essential knowledge to share with our developers and the team at large.

A trailer would have been very effective to introduce the team to the quirkier nature of some of the participants without getting too attached to one story over another. 

Get the team together to watch the trailer.

Get the team together to watch the trailer.

Hot tip: if management can’t attend the whole session be sure they join in to watch the trailer.   

The profiles

Next step is to divide the group into 3 teams to watch 2 x profile videos to watch and dissect. The aim is to select videos featuring different contexts, interests, pains, needs and attitudes towards your product. 

You want raw moments where they gaze into the distance, or inhale through the teeth before answering a question
— Nick Bowmast

The more texture, contrast and personality you can capture in these videos the better. It will make users more memorable and help your team become real advocates for their ‘people’ which is your goal as a story framer. 

To support your team give them 1-page guides for structured note taking where they can write a factual description, categorize their observations and create summaries.

Smaller teams filling out 1-page guides.

Smaller teams filling out 1-page guides.

Share and compare

Bring the teams back together to share their profiles. Guide your team by prompting them to explain their top 5 observations, top 3 challenges and opportunities.

This is a sticky point where each of the teams get excited as they begin to champion the quirks and insights of each story.

It feels like the experience changed them, just like it changed me
— Nick Bowmast

Looking back, I wish I had applied this approach to a broadcasting network who were looking to figure out how to better serve parents and children with their video platform.

As a research team, we learned so much amount about parenting styles, developmental psychology and the sheer chaos and fear around helping kids grow up.

If we would have exported these learnings into contrasting profiles videos it could have been a constant reference point during the strategy and development process. 

Sharing and comparing observations and insights.

Map it

Hot tip: invite management back so they can see how the trailers have transformed into a journey.

When everyone is back in the room guide them through a large-format visual summary that takes up an entire wall. A map this size will encourage everyone to see, touch and physically pin their observations on the map.

For me, this is the most powerful part of Nick’s approach as it’s the ‘now what’ moment where stories become actions the team can build from.

If done well this map will be your product DNA brought to life by stories that have been preserved by being told and re-told throughout the development process.

Mapping the journey with the whole team.

Mapping the journey with the whole team.

A great example is Airbnb who have broken out the moments that matter from user stories and displayed them around the San Francisco HQ.

The ones they’re nailing are in green, ones they are doing well at are white and the ones that need attention are in yellow and are a reminder of what’s working and what can be improved as their product evolves.

‘Belonging anywhere’ wasn’t a single moment; it’s a transformation people experienced when they traveled on Airbnb
— Douglas Atkin, Global Head of Community, Airbnb, quoted in Fortune Magazine, 2017
Key moments in the Airbnb user journey which acts as a traffic light type guide for the team.

Key moments in the Airbnb user journey which acts as a traffic light type guide for the team.

This gentler process of discovering rather than dictating insights has the power to bridge the experience gap.

So now, everyone can get ‘in’ on that insight.

Check out the full details of Nick 'Bomo's' Story framing process and video

Pixar's lessons in Design Thinking

'Remy in the Kitchen' concept art by Robert Kondo (2007) (Pixar Studios).

'Remy in the Kitchen' concept art by Robert Kondo (2007) (Pixar Studios).

In the modern age of story-telling, Pixar are without doubt THE master craftsmen. While any company synonymous with Disney is bound to be blessed with more than a little magic, Pixar’s creativity is grounded in process and design thinking.

Research, iteration and collaboration are the foundations for creating characters that are both appealing and believable keeping billions enchanted for more three decades.  

Pixar’s design thinking process, unpacked;

Immerse yourself in research

Pixar's creative process kicks off with research by immersing the team into a particular place. For the film Cars, illustrators and technical designers went on a month long road trip to experience America’s oldest highways and collect photos and memorabilia along the way.

Pastle sketch by   Bill Cone   during the research phase for Cars (2006)

Pastle sketch by Bill Cone during the research phase for Cars (2006)

This technique is similar to Ethnographic Field Studies in UX Design where research is used to help unearth new ways of seeing by being an active participant.

Documenting the highway 'Cadillac Ranch' photograph by Bob Pauly (2006) (Pixar Studios)

Documenting the highway 'Cadillac Ranch' photograph by Bob Pauly (2006) (Pixar Studios)

Iterate, constantly

Once the initial mood has been explored, Pixar designers commit to quick and dirty sketches and prototypes to help viewers feel instant empathy with the story.

“We wanted Remy and Emile to be charming and immediately accessible, but we also wanted emphatically to say they are rats” (Sculptor Greg Dykstra).

The secret to nailing a character is in ensuring that it's believable.

“In all phases of our process we work from rough to fine. With a character like Woody, we start designing on paper and then move to refining his shape, first as a sculpture and then in the computer. Every step is crucial in ensuring the character looks appealing”. (Sharon Callahan, Director of Photography)
Third iteration of Woody by  Bud Luckey    (1995) (Pixar Studios)

Third iteration of Woody by Bud Luckey (1995) (Pixar Studios)

This phase of characterisation is not dissimilar to persona development and storyboards in UX Design where research is used to unearth people's pains, desires, and emotions. The goal of which, is to create a product that satisfies a need and captures their attention.  

Can a lamp have emotions? This Luxo Jr. storyboard by  John Lasseter    proves it true (1986) (Pixar)

Can a lamp have emotions? This Luxo Jr. storyboard by John Lasseter proves it true (1986) (Pixar)

This mode of ‘thinking with your hands’ via sketching isn’t only relevant for characterisation; it’s the quickest and most universal way to get an idea across.

In my experience, sketching in design workshops helps everyone to feel engaged in the process and breaks any fears around new ideas or ways of working.

The realisation of a character has also become quicker in the last decade due to introduction of 3D printing as a form of rapid prototyping.

3D printing enables designers to link form to traits such as Carl's stocky physique to his stubborn personality. This method of making also creates a more seamless transition between sketching and animation as the dimensions of a character have been expressed and resolved from every angle.

A grumpy looking Carl from UP! Sculpture by  Greg Dykstra  (2009) (Pixar Studios)

A grumpy looking Carl from UP! Sculpture by Greg Dykstra (2009) (Pixar Studios)

Striving for ‘Simplexity’

One of the most profound elements of Pixar’s design thinking process is their use of selective detail or ‘simplexity’ to express a character’s fundamental emotional qualities.

‘Simplexity’; the art of simplifying an image down to its essence. 

The art of Simplexity achieved by  Albert Lozano  in Inside Out (2015) (Pixar)

The art of Simplexity achieved by Albert Lozano in Inside Out (2015) (Pixar)

This concept drew my attention to Pixar’s appreciation for the psychology of line, form, colour and texture which is essential to the creation of emotionally rich characters.  

Who knew a line could express so much emotion? Drawing by  Ricky Nierva  (2015) (Pixar)

Who knew a line could express so much emotion? Drawing by Ricky Nierva (2015) (Pixar)

Keep pushing the envelope with collaboration

Unsurprisingly, Pixar have access to the dream team of collaborators when working on a film. Industrial designers, sculptors, photographers, illustrators and model makers all bring a fresh perspective to the story using their skills to realise a character’s humanity.

Industrial Designer  Jason Deamer  draws functional movements in WALL-E (2008) (Pixar)

Industrial Designer Jason Deamer draws functional movements in WALL-E (2008) (Pixar)

Model maker  Bryn Imagire    realises form and texture for UP! (2009) (Pixar) 

Model maker Bryn Imagire realises form and texture for UP! (2009) (Pixar) 

While access to Pixar’s design resources are not necessary for success, an appreciation for the design process is. By taking the time to immerse yourself in research, iterate without fear and collaborate is the best way to achieve product-market fit.   


Is your start-up fit to launch?

About the interviewee:

Cinnamon Pollard has been passionate about digital since 1995 when she landed the role of Unit Manager / Webmaster of the ABC Multimedia Unit.

Working with start-ups in particular has ignited Cinnamon’s passion for tech and all things digital design leading her to start her own consulting company specialising in the early phases of the business cycle where big decisions have to made fast!  

I had the pleasure of working with Cinnamon on the launch of Hijacked - a platform for students to share their voice across every campus in Australia.

What do you look for when assessing a brand's product-market fit?

There are four key ingredients I look for:

1. Does the product solve a tangible problem for a well-defined target user?

Entrepreneurs are usually very excited about their concept but don’t have a defined target market and value proposition for their users. 

2. Does the product disrupt the market or improve on an existing solution?

The only way to know the answer is to research, build, test and iterate!

3. Do I see a Product – Market Positioning?

I look for a message the brand can position in the mind of the user and a defined market-entry strategy to ensure you can hit the right people, at the right time with the right message.

4. Do they have the ‘A team’ in place to execute on the plan?

You can have the best product and marketing strategy in the world but if it’s not executed and optimised well by an experienced team it will most likely fail.

Product Market Fit

Can you explain the steps in your process? 

Every project is unique and I am engaged to work on projects at various stages in the product lifecycle.

As a result, I try to keep my process flexible to suit each project and compliment each entrepreneur’s skill set and requirements.

My consulting style is collaborative and whilst my approach is always user-centric, I like to keep a holistic view of each project - the team, culture, product, marketing, customer experience, data requirements, finance, legal and HR systems and the technology infrastructure that will support the business - all inform the process.

I firmly believe that you can never truly know whether your concept will work until you have tested it with actual users.

My advice is get a minimum viable product an ‘MVP’ or minimum loveable product into the market as quickly as possible so the real testing and learning can start before you have committed to a product roadmap.

I use a combination of Lean Startup principles and Agile project methodology. I am a real stickler to process.

The 10 steps in the product development process I undertake:

10 steps in the product development process

Can you explain why ‘Design thinking’ tools are such an important part of your process?

I draw on the Human-Centred Design Approach. It's a process that starts with the people you are designing for and ends with new solutions that they love because they are tailored to suit their needs.The result is innovative solutions that are grounded in market desirability and business viability.

Design thinking tools allow you to develop a clear picture of the particular audience for a product or service you are designing.

They help you capture a user’s motivations, frustrations and the “essence” of who they are.

They help you understand who will actually be using your service or product and can be used to make key design and functionality decisions during the UX process.

For example, personas are handy to pull out when you are trying to communicate what the user experience should be like to stakeholders, designers, developers and anyone else involved in a project. They are also really useful in helping you create realistic user journeys.

One of the personas Cinnamon & I developed for Hijacked

One of the personas Cinnamon & I developed for Hijacked

Market research can feel lengthy and expensive. When has it shaped or changed brand strategy?

Market research can be lengthy and expensive but it can also be quick and cheap if you are clever about how you go about it.

Research has informed, shaped and changed product and brand strategy in every project I have worked on over the past 20 years.

Just yesterday a client and I decided to change the target market and MVP of an online building and construction tool.

We originally set out to build a product that we thought was going to solve a problem for commercial and residential builders. After delving a little deeper with some in-depth interviews we discovered it’s actually the demolition contractor who we are solving the problem for - which of course changes everything!

On campus research with real students was essential when preparing to launch Hijacked

On campus research with real students was essential when preparing to launch Hijacked

What are the biggest mistakes brands make when transitioning from launch to a high-growth period?

Brands and businesses are like living things in that they transition through life-cycles. Brands go through four broad stages – new, growth, mature and revival.

Brands have unique marketing requirements at each life stage.

In the “new” stage the key challenge for the brand is building differentiated and targeted awareness - ‘What is it?’ and ‘how does it appeal to the highly targeted group of early adopters?’ are the two key questions a new brand must answer.

When a brand transitions from start-up to high-growth the biggest challenge is alienating their core user group as they move from early adopters to mass market.

Early adopters, by their very nature will drop your brand for the next big thing, but you need them to stay supportive long enough for it to penetrate a mainstream audience.

Always a challenge; crossing the chasm of the technology adoption cycle

Always a challenge; crossing the chasm of the technology adoption cycle

Two key reasons why early adopters will drop a brand like a hot potato in its growth life stage:

1. Not having strong, clear and consistent brand

This includes guidelines, messaging, personality, purpose and voice.

2. Failing to stay focused.

They begin to see the business growing successfully and start looking for expansion opportunities too early which can be fatal.

With limited resources businesses must stay focused on capitalising on the original market opportunity. 

Keeping focused and not stretching the brand too wide or too thin too soon is what separates a successful brand from a passing fad.

A huge thanks to Cinnamon Pollard for sharing her wisdom and experience.