Tim Brown on Design Thinking

If you don’t watch any other TED podcasts watch this one by Tim Brown. IBM sponsored TED at Oxford last year (no invite for me unfortunately) and Tim Brown (CEO of IDEO) presented on Design Thinking and had these ideas which I think apply equally to architectural thinking (is it different anyway).

  • Big problems need big solutions. Back in the 19th century Isambard Kingdom Brunel imagined an integrated transport system (he thought big). His vision was that of a passenger boarding a train in London and leaving a ship in New York. Big problems (global warming, health care, international security) need big thoughts to provide solutions. Focussing on the small may provide incremental change but will not provide solutions to some of the big, hairy problems we are faced with today. If we could focus less on the object (the individual system in IT terms) and more on design thinking (systems of systems) we might have more of an impact and be able to solve more of the really difficult problems there are out there.
  • Design thinking begins with integration thinking. Design thinking needs to balance a number of fundamental “forces”: what people want (desirability), what technology can provide (feasibility) and what can actually be built given the constraints of cost, resource and time (viability).
  • Design is (or should be) human centred. Although it needs to be both feasible and viable if it is also to be desirable then that needs to start with what people need. Here the needs we are considering are not what we want from the next version of iPod or Porsche but a safer, cleaner, healthier world. Understanding the needs of the multiple stakeholders that there are out there when building big systems is crucial of the systems are to be not only desirable but also useful.
  • Learning by making. Don’t just think what to build but also build in order to think. In todays model-driven world where we architects can often go off into a huddle for months on end we sometimes forget that the important thing is not a very fine model or specification but the thing itself. Prototyping is as important today as it’s ever been but we sometimes forget that getting our hands dirty by and building small-scale throwaway parts of systems is an important way of learning and understanding those systems. As Fred Brookes said, you might as well plan to throw one away because you will anyway.
  • From consumption to participation. Design of participatory systems where everyone is involved will lead to new and innovative solutions which may not have been envisaged initially. This is the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and in IT terms is best articulated in Web 2.0 and the whole social networking phenomenon.
  • Design is too important to be left to designers. Often the important innovations come not from the people charged with designing the system but from the people who are using  the system. Don’t forget that the most important stakeholders are the everyday users or the current system.
  • In times of change we need new alternatives and new ideas. We are living in times of great change and our existing systems are no longer fit for purpose. Design thinking needs to explore new and unthought of ideas without being constrained by current systems and ideas. Design thinkers need to be multi-talented, left and right-brain thinkers. Hint: this will also increase dramatically your chances of staying employed in the coming years. Good design thinkers know that the key to a good and better design is asking the right question or at least framing the question in a way that will not constrain the solution. So, rather than asking “how do I build a better benefits system” ask “how do I build a benefits system that will result in more of the benefits reaching the people who need them most and less in paying people to run the system”. Of course this is hard because answers to such questions can sometimes have difficult or unpalatable side-effects such as people losing their jobs. The first step of design thinking is to ask the right question.

There are lots of ideas here and many of them resonate with the practice we in IBM call Architectural Thinking. I will return to some of these ideas in future blogs.

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