Be Like a Blowfish: DT’s Dynamic Mindset

27.03.2018 |

Episode #2 of the course Introduction to design thinking by Lee-Sean Huang


Yesterday, we learned the basic steps of the DT process: Discover, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test, Repeat.


Method and Mindset

Before we go deeper into what we need to do in each of these steps, let’s discuss what we mean by the “method and mindset” part of our working definition for DT.

A method is fairly straightforward to understand. It’s a way of doing things, like the instructions in a recipe or how-to manual. A mindset is somewhat foggier and more abstract. A mindset is a way of looking at the world, an approach that involves intuition and tacit knowledge. A scientist’s mindset might be one of doubt, skepticism, and a bias toward concrete evidence and replicable experiments. A lawyer’s mindset could be characterized by meticulous attention to details and a bias toward reducing exposure to risk.

As you can see from these examples, different professional cultures and disciplines imbue their practitioners with their own mindsets, which complement individual personalities. Getting back to DT, we can describe a skilled design thinker’s mindset as a dynamic one that fluctuates at different points in the process between a more open “creative” mindset and a more closed “critical” mindset.

Learning when to open and when to close is one of the hardest parts of DT and is best learned with practice over time. If we stay open indefinitely, then it is hard to make concrete progress or make choices that move our projects forward. If we stay closed all the time, then we may be missing out on opportunities for more divergent thinking and disruptive innovation.


Be a Blowfish

To help visualize what we mean by the design thinker’s dynamic mindset, picture a blowfish or puffer fish. Blowfish can transform between two states: a deflated “pliant” state (open and creative) that allows them to swim between rocks or a coral reef with agility, and an inflated “prickly” (closed and critical) state that allows them to take a stand and defend themselves against potential predators.

Let’s look again at the stages of the DT process and map these stages to the most appropriate mindset.

In Step 1, Discover, design thinkers need to be pliant. This means being active listeners, deferring judgment, and being open to new perspectives.

In Step 2, Define, we want to be a bit prickly and critical. What exactly is the problem we are trying to solve? What is out of scope at this time? This requires us to make some hard choices and tradeoffs.

When we get to Step 3, Ideate, we want to be pliant again. This is where we apply “yes, and” thinking to brainstorm and generate many different ideas and creative concepts. It is okay to go a little crazy and absurd here, as these wacky ideas can help get us out of our usual patterns of thinking and problem-solving to arrive at innovative solutions.

Step 4, Prototyping, requires us to be prickly again. While the Ideate phase required us to suspend judgment to come up with potentially innovative and disruptive solutions, now we will need to narrow down our ideas in a smaller number of concepts to move forward to prototype. This is a time to bring back a realistic understanding of business goals and technical constraints to help us thin the herd of ideas.

With Testing, the final step in the DT process before we repeat and iterate the cycle, we need to be pliant and open again. Nobody gets a concept or a prototype right the first time; that is exactly why we need to prototype and test those prototypes with real users and customers. While we get feedback from these test users, we need to stay open minded to criticism and ideas so we can refine and improve our design concepts.

Now that we have this overview of the DT method and mindset, we will go into more detail about what each step of the process entails. In the next lesson, we will dive into the Discover phase to understand how contextual inquiry, or observing and interviewing our users with empathy, can help uncover hidden needs and opportunities for innovation.


Recommended book

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck


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