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Change by Design – Tim Brown April 19, 2010

Posted by Hong Hu in Uncategorized.

“Design Thinking” is a phrase that has been thrown around very often these days; it refers to incorporating design tools and practices in all levels of thinking and planning: the holistic and interdisciplinary approach.  Its essence, however, is more difficult to grasp. In his book “Change by Design”, Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO, used real life examples and success stories to carefully define what design thinking is all about and how it should be practiced.

The heart of design thinking is its focus on users, as Tim puts in the Chapter two “Converting need into demand – or putting people first”.  To design a product or service people would enjoy, one must first carefully observe the behavior and values of intended users. IDEO has been able to demonstrate the importance of empathy in the design process. IDEO designers spend hours or days out in the field talking to average end users. It is not some simple survey or questionnaire, they carefully listen to what people say (and not say), and watch what people do (and not do). By placing humans at the heart of designs, IDEO is able to produce designs truly welcomed by users.

Tim also stressed the power of fast prototyping, which is what IDEO is quite famous for. The idea is:  whenever someone has a design that could potentially be good, built out the design in the roughest detail possible, test the prototype, and learn from its strength and weaknesses. As an agile web developer myself, I can easily see the benefit of such practice. In web businesses, web pages can be cranked out very quickly in rough quality, what we call “minimally viable product”. Web performances are also easily measurable with advanced analytics tools. Web businesses have had great success combining the two: build a minimally viable product very quickly (usually in a matter of few days), measure its performance, and move on to the next iteration. Only such practice can adapt to the fast moving pace of web space and still produce great product.

Design is more than creating tangible products; very often the experience created behind a product or service should also be the center of the design process. The key, as Tim puts it, is to encourage users to actively participate instead of passively consume. By participating, users are more invested in the product/service, thus able to emotionally attach to it and thus enjoy the emotions. One of Tim’s examples is emergence of Web 2.0. Web 1.0 is characterized by static pages providing viewers information, while Web 2.0 businesses such as Facebook and MySpace, require the users to fully participate in the content creation process and connect with other users, making the experience much more human-centric and engaging.

Having created several websites and web products, I would like to think of myself as a designer of product and experience. Through my work, I start to recognize the importance of the principles of “design thinking” outlined in Tim’s book. In fact, I believe successful Internet startups share has the same principle of design thinking in their culture: user-centric, fast prototyping and experience design. For example, when my first web product was defeated by a competitor’s product that is functionally inferior but easier to use, I began to appreciate the importance of UI (User Interface) and UEX (User Experience). I realize that spending weeks trying to tweak out the right design with fast prototyping and A/B testing is never a waste of time and money. I has also see from experience that startups who listen closely to the feedbacks of customers and act on the feedbacks are much more likely to succeed. In short, the principled outlined in Tim Brown’s book on Design Thinking is universal and applicable to fields beyond the immediate realm of design.



1. Helene Cahen - May 2, 2010


I appreciate your review and you perspective on how you have started to apply the design thinking principles in your work. While more books and education around design thinking have been developed in the past couple of years, yet many organizations are not applying these concepts. What do you think may be the obstacles to design thinking becoming more main stream?

2. Tim Brown - May 3, 2010

Thanks for a nice summary of Change By Design. I would make one point about what users to focus on. It is not so much average users that are valuable in the creative process as extreme users. Indeed I talk in the chapter on social innovation about users in the bottom of the pyramid being the most extreme, and therefore the most valuable, users of them all. It is by looking at the extremely young, the extremely sick, the extremely competent, the extremely incompetent, the extremely old or the extremely enthusiastic that we get to the truly valuable insights and ideas.

3. geoff elliott - June 4, 2010

Hi Tim,

I would be very interested in your view on how DT relates to systems thinking and the various approaches which include but are not limited to soft systems, viable systems modeling, systems dynamics, total systems integration, systems engineering, and critical systems heuristics. To me, systems thinking is meta discipline and literacy where on the one hand people dominate the problem and its setting to where on the other hand things dominant the problem and its setting. It is a continuum.

ST is to me is a way of viewing the world via different lenses in order to generate and evaluate options noting there cannot be a single solution to an unbounded wicked /messy problems.


geoff elliott

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