Design Thinking and Learning

By Simon Rupniak February 14, 2018

Same thinking, same results loopI’m on my way back from the annual Lumesse Kick-Off, an event for internal staff that runs on the day after our awesome public event, the Learning Lounge. Highlights of the public event are available on our website, but I wanted to share some insights from a talk on applied design thinking that wasn’t in the public programme, simply because it’s one of the most inspiring talks I have seen for a long time.

Chris Hildrey is an architect and designer-in-residence at the London Design Museum, where we held both events. He shared several examples of his work, including one that struck a chord with all of us. It was an inspiring and emotive story that gave us all hope that good design might just save the world.

If you have a chance to visit the Design Museum or see Chris talk, I thoroughly recommend you do. In the meantime, here’s an abbreviated version of his story and some takeaways that will improve the outcomes of your next project.

Like any project, this story started with a problem

If you had unlimited funds at your disposal, how would you solve the issue of homelessness?

You’d probably start by giving every homeless person a house and then some other forms of support – access to health services, a bank account, an opportunity to learn new skills, that sort of thing. Of course, in the real world you wouldn’t have access to unlimited funds. In fact, local authorities have very little funding, which are only set to decrease further in the coming years. Meanwhile, homelessness is on the rise. This poses a much harder design problem; how do you solve the issue of homelessness, without access to significant amounts of funding? Many would conclude that we either have to compromise – providing as much help as we can until the money runs out – or change our focus to the funding problem.

We’ve all been in a similar position with our own projects, haven’t we? Well, here’s something else I learnt from the neuroscientists at Learning Lounge this year – our human brains are lazy, and this is a lazy conclusion. Blinded by our assumptions about the problems that homeless people face and the solution required, we’ve made a fatal but common mistake – we’ve conducted a superficial analysis of the problem that draws on what we already know. We haven’t asked enough questions and as a result, we’ve missed a very important distinction in our problem statement.

Good design is all about asking the right questions

Chris did something good designers do. He analysed the problem – really analysed it. What is homelessness? Why are people homeless? Why do so many that are made homeless, stay homeless? This is hard work, it’s much easier to define a problem based on things we already know – or think we know. In Chris’ case, analysing the problem meant speaking to local authorities, policy makers and, perhaps most importantly, empathising with his target audience – homeless people. Chris had to empathise in order to understand their plight, understand the root of the problem and design a solution that would have real impact. His analysis and empathy changed everything – they are also a central part of Design Thinking.

Once made homeless, you can no longer access the services that most of us take for granted – your connection to society and all the support it offers is severed. Without a permanent address, you can’t open a bank account, apply for jobseeker’s allowance, identity documents, child tax credit, income support, or in many cases find a willing employer to give you a job. This oversight has gone unchallenged for many years and as a result, most solutions focus on funding rehousing.

Providing every homeless person with a house is an important step on their journey back into mainstream society, but it’s also prohibitively expensive for most local authorities and often a temporary address isn’t sufficient to access these services either. Here begins a cycle of helplessness and homelessness. For Chris, the cost of housing was a design constraint, not a distraction. The issue was the address, or lack thereof. So what if you could give someone a permanent address, without buying or renting any physical property at all?

According to the charity Empty Homes, there are as many as 200,000 vacant properties in the UK and each one has an unused address. In addition, there are hundreds more unused addresses (the number 13 doesn’t exist on many UK streets). Working with the Royal Mail, Chris reassigned these unused addresses. They became proxy addresses such that someone wouldn’t need to reside at the property in order to use the address – all they needed was the postal ID. Any essential correspondence was forwarded wherever it was needed. Chris created a system that pulled in proxy addresses from a database and printed them so they could be distributed and that’s it – the vital support network and connection to the rest of society is re-established. The scheme has been trialled in London and is soon to be extended further.

Three things that will help you apply Design Thinking to your next learning project

Design Thinking is broader than I am going to describe here. However, I do want to highlight what we can learn from Chris in the way he applied Design Thinking to his challenge and how you can do the same to improve your next project.

Be brave

If you want different results, you’re going to have to do things differently. That takes courage but the consequence of sitting still and plodding away is much worse. L&D departments need to react, adapt and move faster than ever before. If you don’t do this, some faster, more manoeuvrable competitor will leave you, your employees and company behind. You’ll be left reeling in their dust, wondering what just happened, so be brave now.

Focus on what people need, not what you think they need

Design Thinking works from the bottom up, not from the top down. Far too often, we forget to empathise with our target audience. As a result, we miss opportunities to offer them something that they actually need – support that they can use to help themselves. To be clear, I’m not saying you should just think about them – you should talk to them and observe their behaviour.

Ask them what their challenges are and find out why they do things the way they do. You might even ask them how you could support them to do things the right way. I’m going to guess they won’t ask for lots more knowledge delivered through a 40-minute elearning module. The solution might not be obvious, and you shouldn’t expect them to give you all the answers, but listen to what they have to say so you can fully understand the challenge. Whatever results from these honest conversations will be far more useful to them in the long run.

Finally, when you know what your learners need and you’re ready to talk solutions, give us a call.

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