Infusing Design Thinking to Drive Idea Generation

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Tshepo Matjila talks with Jéan Raath about how a human-centred approach can infuse design thinking to drive idea generation and convert needs into demand.

[Jéan] Brother, as always, a pleasure to chat with you. For those out there who don’t know you, I have to ask; if Tshepo Matjila could erect a billboard right now, what would it say and why?

[Tshepo] (Laughs) I hope that doesn’t happen but in the unfortunate event that it does, I think the caption could be: Tshepo Matjila – Generous spirit. Applied Thinker. As someone who’s passionate about collaboration and sharing, I think it’s important that we give more than what we take.

[Jéan] Wow, that’s a great approach to life and keeps good company with the theme of our discussion topic. As a segway into the world of design thinking then, what have you been up to lately and, more pertinently, how has your reading of this book influenced that initiative and your approach to it?

[Tshepo] As a senior consultant, the pressure is always on us to lead the way in terms of new thinking and frameworks that enable our clients to better deliver value via change initiatives. As a result of my exposure to Design Thinking, we’re building offerings and training solutions for clients and colleagues to discover this human-centred design approach.

The framework challenges how you view change initiatives and how you think in general. It’s amazing how we have always been led to “assume” that we know [the people] whom we are designing for and understand what they need from our solutions.

Design thinking blows that outmoded thinking out of the water and rewires you into being more human-centered.

[Jéan] “Change by Design” is littered with ideas on how organizations and individuals can engage in creative exploration. This notion of customer-centric problem-solving that you refer to isn’t really a new or radical idea though. What are some of the unexpected truths you were confronted with and why do you feel they matter?

[Tshepo] True, there’s a lot of truism in the book but I guess where it makes the “needs exploration” more unexpected is in the tools used to do so. 

Many of the thoughts on deep empathy and unarticulated needs discovery are original and take us into new realms. The interdisciplinary nature of the Design Thinking team-composition is also something I found refreshing; especially outside of scientific enquiry. 

Often [multidisciplinary] teams are brought in [at various stages of an initiative] and then try hard to impose their speciality lens on the project. Design Thinking, however, moulds a common purpose and vocabulary throughout the project lifecycle which ensures that teams deliver on the unmet needs of the customer. 

Ethnographic research yields much deeper insights and powers better solutioning. Nestle’s Maggi’s Masala noodle range is a great example. Nestle seconded its product engineers to learn the cooking and dietary practices of Indian families and saw how certain spices were central to their daily cooking routine. They went back to the lab to design a product that infused the key ingredient – masala – and fortified it with vitamins they had observed was lacking in  these diets in order to make it a nutritious, healthy snack. Best of all, it is quick – taking all of two minutes to make. This is design thinking at work 🙂

[Jéan] You touched on team composition. In the last few years I’ve noticed a movement from multidisciplinary teams (drawing on the knowledge of different disciplines but staying within their boundaries) to interdisciplinary ones (analyzing, synthesizing and mixing disciplines into a coordinated and coherent whole) – an exciting shift that fits snuggly into the design thinking framework. What are some practical elements analysis practitioners can adopt or apply in their discovery and implementations of solutions?

[Tshepo] Charlie Hill, CTO of IBM Design, recently observed that as analysts we tend to work in a “waterfall-y” way,  robbing us of an interdisciplinary perspective and its latent power. 

We need to start getting customer experience experts, marketing specialists, code engineers, creative technologists, product owners, project managers and other relevant individuals involved at the point of project inception and keep them engaged throughout the project delivery phases.  

Hopefully, by doing this, we ensure that we always maintain the empathy and customer’s point-of-view throughout the creative exploration and solution design phases of the project.

[Jéan] I might be reading a bit into it (pun intended) but there seems to be a thesis that suggests innovation can only be achieved through intuition. How does one reconcile anecdotal observation with the huge traction big data (data collected in massive amounts to form patterns on a specific subject matter) and analytics (a way to analyse data to get to some sort of understanding of the patterns) are getting out there? Do you think they can co-exist?

[Tshepo] Immersion/Customer Intimacy or Empathy is not just about human intuition discovery or understanding – it’s about really walking in the shoes of the customer to understand where their main unmet needs are, because that is the innovation gap that it creates. 

Data generally provides insight into past occurrences and although it can be used to “predict” certain things, it doesn’t guarantee a 20/20 vision. Only a living, walking and talking human being can tell you what their “real” lived issues or needs are. Let’s also not forget that people often find workarounds when a complete solution doesn’t exist – therefore a presence in customers’ natural environments, yield more insights to support the definition of the design challenge or the problem statement than just looking at and analysing data.

Design thinking leaves room for data scrutiny in its process of analysing and synthesising the volume of collected ethnographic research data. The data collected builds insights, which enable the design thinkers to transition to the “definition” phase of the design challenge (or “point of view” in design thinking lexicon), it is not the main concern – it is supplemental to the environmental immersion phase.

[Jéan] Thank you, Tshepo. Those are some great insights to chew on! I’m sure we could keep going but for the sake of our editor we should probably wrap this up. If you don’t mind, I have one more before we go; What is the worst piece of advice (business or personal) you’ve ever received and what has it taught you?

[Tshepo] The worst career advice I received, was from my uncles-in-law. One, a lawyer, advised me to go into law because there was lots of “money” in the profession. The other discredited law and advised me to become a doctor [a career he was transitioning into] instead because of its longevity and the fact that doctors live well. 

I was in Grade 9, impressionable and still contemplating which career I would pursue post Grade 12. I ended up in IT Consulting, it doesn’t pay as much as the careers my uncles-in law suggested, but, in my view, it is the best decision I have ever made. I am content and I’m fulfilled.

Infusing Design Thinking to Drive Idea Generation’ with Tshepo Matjila was first published in the Inter-View Report 2017

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About Jéan Raath

Jéan is a keen conversationalist and part-time alchemist whose passion for making average things great led him to a career in business analysis and all things product. He believes in second chances, big fires and better stories!

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