Friday, April 21, 2017

3E’s of Design Thinking: Experience, Empathy and Experimentation

“Can you tell us what Design Thinking is in five-ten minutes?” I get this question often these days. Sometimes I am participating in a conference call and the participants want a gist of DT in a short time. In such situations I prefer to talk about the 3 E’s of design thinking: Experience, Empathy and Experimentation which address the three questions: What are we designing in DT? Where do we begin? And; How do we course-correct? Let’s look at each of them briefly.

Experience: Design Thinking is about designing experiences – ideally end-to-end experience. My father applied for a new passport a few weeks back as his current passport is about to expire. He was out of the passport office in half an hour. Before he could reach home, he began to get SMS messages telling how his application is progressing. His new passport arrived home in three days. This experience was radically different from what he had gone through when he applied for his passport for the first time twenty years back. Whether it is a movie, restaurant, grocery shopping, taxi, commute to work, performance appraisal, one-on-one meetings, we remember events in terms of experience they create for us. In particular, we tend to remember emotional highs and lows. Hence, design thinking focuses on the design of peak emotions – positive and negative. In my father’s case, the progress reporting of the passport application through SMS worked as an anxiety suppressing tool. And the delivery in three days of the new passport created a delight.

Empathy: Our emotional responses are strongly correlated to our anxieties and aspirations. In fact, a large part of our emotional response is supposed to be automatic – almost like a button press. Hence, DT suggests that we start with empathy, by understanding the anxieties and aspirations of our customers. This is not easy for multiple reasons. One, as Kiran Bedi realized on her first day as Director General (Prisons) at Tihar Jail in 1993, people may not trust you and hence they may not reveal what they feel. Second, people themselves may not be aware of their deeply held beliefs and Three, you may not know who your customer is.  Hence, DT suggests that we do immersive research, which involves observing potential customers them in action in their own context, focus on gaining trust before going further in the interview process and if possible, try to live like them – at least for a few days. This may lead to deeper insights which further help in framing the right challenge.

Experimentation: No matter how much one tries, one can never be confident that you have framed the right challenge. Moreover, a technologist may start with a solution – a mobile app or a new measurement device. In either case, DT suggests that you test your assumptions as often as you can by going back to the customers. This principle is called – fail early, fail often and fail inexpensively. In a complex environment, only rapid iterative experimentation can lead to the understanding of right problem and hence a better solution. Hence, rapid prototyping is given a lot of emphasis in DT. If you are thinking of a new mobile app, can you quickly design screen shots and show to a few people and get their feedback? The rate of experimentation is considered very important. Hence, we look at ways of doing 1-hour, 1-day and 1-week prototypes.

In short, Design Thinking is about designing Experiences, Empathizing with customers and rapid and iterative experimentation.

Monday, April 10, 2017

What if implicit order is more fundamental than explicit order?

We all carry some notion of order in our everyday life. For example, when our room is in a mess, we say that it is disorderly. Alternately, if the dinner table is arranged properly with the plates, spoons, glasses, we say, things are in order. When we refer to order (or disorder) we are mostly referring to only one type of order – explicit order – order perceived through our senses. There is another type of order which is called implicit order. When we see a seed sprouting, we assume that the tree-ness – with all its characteristics of the shape, color, size - was implicit in the seed. Otherwise, how would it know what kind of a tree it should turn into? That information about tree-ness which is embedded in the seed is an example of the implicit order. Sprouting of the seed is an example of how an explicit order (the tree) comes out of the implicit order inside the seed. When the tree bears a fruit containing a seed, the explicit order gets transformed into an implicit order. So in nature, things are going back and forth between implicit and explicit order. Traditionally, science has assumed that explicit order is more fundamental than implicit order. But what if implicit order is more fundamental? That is what we will explore in this article.

Let’s first try to get a better idea of what an order is. David Bohm defines order as similar differences and different similarities. For example, when we classify all living organisms into animals and plants, we are observing different similarities – animals and plants as different among similarity of living organisms. And when we see that one principle such as the law of gravity governing so many types of motions, we are observing similar differences – law of gravity as similarity among different types of motions.

When we fail to observe any order, we call it disorder or randomness or chaos. Sometimes, what appears to be random has some order implicit in it. For example, computers are known to generate random numbers. However, what is underlying this random sequence of numbers is a program that generates this sequence. Thus, if you know the program and the input it takes (called seed), then the sequence is no longer random. Similarly, when we observe a coastline in a map, say that of Mumbai, it may appear random. However, it is known to carry the property of a fractal dimension – an order, an example of similar differences, implicit in it.  Thus what is random in the explicit world, may have an order in its implicit counterpart. For a cool demonstration on how explicit order turns into implicit order and vice versa, check out this video on ink droplet in glycerin experiment.

For the past several centuries, especially since the scientific revolution of 16th century with discoveries from Galileo, Newton, Descarte and later Darwin, Einstein, Watson-Crick etc. science has considered explicit order as primary. But, what if the implicit order is really more fundamental? And the explicit order is just a reflection or unfolding of an implicit order – like the tree-ness in a seed unfolding into a tree? Science, after all, hasn’t cracked the theory of everything yet, has it? So, it is possible that implicit order is more fundamental. If so, what is its biggest implication?

The biggest implication is that knowledge is always incomplete. Why? Because, it is always based on explicit order. Any knowledge is similar to knowing some characteristics of a tree based on its outer features without knowing the underlying program that generates the tree from a seed. By design, we won’t know implicit order, EVER.

If you really see what this means - i.e. knowledge is always incomplete, then it may come to you as a rude shock. Because it would mean there won’t be a theory of everything, EVER. Moreover, EVERYTHING that you know or believe, especially values you cherish as absolutely true, in science, religion, arts, society, in family relations is incomplete. It is tentative. It may be relevant in your current context, but it may be irrelevant in some other context.  If you really see that every knowledge as tentative, why would you ever be upset about anything?

All this is true, if implicit order is more fundamental than explicit order. Of course, explicit order may indeed be more fundamental than implicit order. Then, fighting for my knowledge, what I value, may be really worth it.

Hope you at least consider the question open: What is more fundamental, implicit or explicit order?

For more information on implicit vs explicit order (or implicate vs explicate order), check out: