Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

Alternatives and Facts

Photo of tile floor seen from above with men's shoes and three directional arrowsDoes diet soda keep us thin or make us sick?
How can we be sure that humans are a major cause of global warming?
Will we ever know if the Russians interfered in our election?

Americans clearly lack confidence in the institutions that affect their daily lives – governments, organized religion, banks, and the news media among them. As trust in institutions has dropped over the past twenty years, our access to information has exploded.

Contrary to the gospel’s assurance that “the truth will set you free,” many now seem to subscribe to the notion that the truth is unknowable. A steady stream of conflicting and/or confusing information will do that.

It causes anxiety and indecision.

Patience is a virtue – except when it’s not
Wisdom is difficult to come by, as one tried-and-true piece of advice often conflicts with another.

Look before you leap.
Strike while the iron is hot.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Out of sight, out of mind.

Birds of a feather flock together.
Opposites attract.

The fact that both can be true only underscores the complexity of designing for human beings.

The firehose effect
We now have access to a greater volume of information, delivered instantaneously to our fingertips, than our brains have the capacity to process. It changes the way we think and the way we behave.

Moore’s Law is based on the insight that processor speeds for computers double every two years. This remarkably prescient, 50-year-old observation, might also explain how society has seemingly moved from a seven year itch to a seven second twitch.

With a multitude of choices, the fear of missing out (FOMO) fuels the pursuit of the newest shiny object – a tactics-obsessed mindset that leaves most people neither current nor effective.

Finding perspective
Like day traders following the minute-by-minute fluctuations of the latest trendy stock, when we evaluate changes in marketing through a short enough window of time they can seem wildly unpredictable and confusing. But time is a paradox. Step back far enough and changes seem much smaller and gradual by comparison – and much easier to explain.

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.
– Albert Einstein

A good designer moves between short- and long-term perspectives to find direction and insight. Details matter, but so does the big picture. There is a method to balancing the two.

  • Start by asking questions. Listening, observing, and collecting information provides the context to understand the problem. It’s important to set aside assumptions.
  • Analyze and combine ideas and insights. Define success, propose a strategy, and align the people necessary to make it happen. Leave room for the plan to evolve.
  • Explore possibilities. Give ideas physical form to evaluate the merits of one option versus another. Refine and repeat the process.

Does it pass the eye test?
I’ve worn glasses or contact lenses since I was 25 years old. My right eye is naturally better at seeing things far away. My left eye is better for viewing things up close. It’s known as monovision, and has grown more acute as I age.

My optometrist could make both of my eyes great for reading tiny type, but everything in the distance would appear blurry. Instead, my prescription is a compromise between the two, with my brain asked to synthesize the visual stimuli and make sense of it.

I’ve spent the past two weeks working through treatment for an infection in my left eye. In addition to an increased sensitivity to light, this has messed with my depth perception and ability to focus as my brain struggles to adapt to impaired input. Regular headaches ensue.

As we choose which marketing channels, strategies, and tactics to pursue, and debate what appear to be conflicting facts, keep both eyes open. Trust that a more holistic view of what you’re seeing will lead to more effective solutions.

After the Post-It Notes Are Gone

A wall filled with yellow and pink Post-It Notes shot as a close-upLate last year, I attended a design thinking workshop. There were about 30 people in attendance, all interested in exploring ways to respond in the wake of the presidential election. As the facilitator noted, there are as many ways to get involved and take action as there are people.

It was a lively morning. Stories were told. Ideas were shared. And, of course, by the end of the workshop, the walls were covered with Post-It Notes.

As my small group was wrapping things up, one person asked: “How can we maintain this momentum? I would love to see something come of this effort.” We exchanged business cards and made vague promises to follow up. In January, I initiated a group email. One person declined, one never responded, and I had a beer a few weeks later with the fourth member of our group.

And that was that.

From idea to execution
I have participated in dozens of design thinking exercises and brainstorming sessions and, sadly, experiences like the one above are not uncommon.

Today, more than ever, when organizations face wickedly tough challenges, they may turn to a problem-solving technique known as design thinking, or human-centered design.

The process is well-defined and intended as a collaborative exercise. It begins with empathy – seeking out and understanding the needs of your intended audience. Once the challenge is defined, ideas are generated – the more the better. Prototypes are built and tested as the process moves closer and closer to the best solution.

Except when it doesn’t.

Unfortunately, with the design thinking process, there is often too much thinking and not enough doing. Despite the increase in recognition of design thinking from the press room to the board room, why has it largely failed to deliver on its promise?

Probably because that messy iterative part of the process – after the fast and fun idea generation session is finished – is really hard to do well.

An uphill battle
The most common mistake that leaders make is buying into the notion that a lack of good ideas is restraining an organization’s growth and innovation. Usually, it is the follow-through that is lacking.

Design thinking, like Six Sigma or other common business processes, is reassuring to executives. It offers the promise of a tested methodology – a step-by-step process that leads to a desired outcome.

When a new process is initiated, leaders often assume that the biggest hurdle has been cleared and turn their attention elsewhere. In fact, the toughest challenges remain.

It takes real commitment to fend off resistance when strategy turns to tactics, resources are redirected, and new ideas clash with the status quo. Long after the idea generation stage, it takes highly-determined individuals – with ongoing, explicit engagement at the highest levels – to overcome organizational inertia.

Design thinking is, by definition, iterative and open-ended. In an impatient, results-driven environment, people are tempted to jump at the first plausible solution – and look no further. Most people don’t have the security, authority, or attention span to embrace uncertainty.

What’s more, it’s human nature to seek out the familiar. Studies show that most people are more proficient at completing short-term, immediate tasks – doing what we are told to do – rather than thinking of new ideas and executing them.

Define and clarify the problem
Design thinking isn’t magic. It’s a method for solving problems with the user in mind. When design thinking attracts the attention of business executives, if executed poorly, it runs the risk of undermining rather than reinforcing the value of design.

It’s easy to get excited about new ideas. Two additional techniques familiar to designers might help transform those good ideas into better outcomes.

One way to refocus and test the viability of the discovery – or idea generation – stage of an assignment is to draft a one-page creative brief. This includes:

  • An executive summary that provides the context for the assignment.
  • The purpose of the project – what is the current state and how do you want to change it?
  • A defined target audience – prioritized, if more than one.
  • Specific objectives. What do you need to do to make this project successful? By what measures will this project be considered a success?
  • A timeline. Nothing happens without a deadline.

The creative brief refines and prioritizes project goals and establishes both a blueprint for design development and criteria for measuring the project’s success going forward.

Think more effectively
Despite the absence of evidence that brainstorming is an effective method for generating more and better ideas, it has become a time-honored technique. Its value may be more about bringing the team together. People enjoy feeling like they are a part of the process.

Design thinking exercises provide a similar value.

Research shows that individuals are better at divergent thinking – thinking broadly to generate a diverse set of ideas. Groups are better at convergent thinking – selecting which ideas are worth pursuing.

Is it possible we have the creative process backward?

Instead of convening to dispatch a pile of Post-It notes at a project’s inception, maybe we would be better off gathering as a group after working independently. This sounds a lot like a critique – a staple of my days in college art and design classes.

In a critique, fellow classmates (or project team members in a business setting), offer constructive evaluation and analysis to push the best ideas forward. This provides more structure to propel an open-ended, iterative process toward a conclusion.

Think and do
Designers are uniquely suited to contribute when there are problems to be solved. They can visualize options as well as analyze and synthesize information. Designers learn how to think that way through practice.

When design thinking is trotted out as a cure-all for the world’s problems, it can undermine the value and contributions of designers. It over-promises and under-delivers.

As Helen Walters, a writer and researcher of innovation, notes: “Design thinking isn’t fairy dust. It’s a tool to be used appropriately. It might help to illuminate an answer but it is not the answer in and of itself.”

Leap of Faith

Photo of a cliff diver doing a backflip into the ocean at sunsetA friend of mine graduated from high school when she was four years old. She wasn’t particularly precocious. In fact, she had lived a similar number of days as our classmates. It’s just that she happened to be born on February 29 – Leap Day – and her birthdays don’t happen as frequently as most. Oh, to be an anomaly!

What can we learn from a Leap Year that applies to design any time of year?

Solving a problem
In Ancient Rome, there wasn’t enough information to make calendars very accurate. Early astronomers began to suspect that the Earth does not orbit the sun in precisely 365 days. Adding one day every four years was a corrective measure that kept the calendar in balance over time.

Many design problems mirror the evolution of our modern-day calendar. At the beginning of a project, a designer may not know enough to offer a better solution. First, we must establish a set of goals and determine what we don’t know. Through acquiring insights and exploring options, we design a way to meet or exceed those goals.

Design is most valuable when it is functional. As Steve Jobs once said, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Always improving
There are few things more bland than the company newsletter. At one time, there was a reason for it to exist. But in most cases, people have long since stopped asking why it is needed or what might be a more effective way to share bad snapshots from company picnics.

Designers never stop asking questions. Is this necessary? Is it effective? What if we try …? Why do they …? To avoid just going through the motions, it’s critical to build in time to refine and improve designs.

The ancient Greek astronomer Aristarchus (310-230 BC) is generally credited with being the first person to propose that the earth orbits the sun. Julius Caesar popularized a calendar with 365 days and 12 months, with a leap day added every four years. 15 centuries later, Copernicus produced a mathematical model of our solar system. By 1582, Pope Gregory’s revision of the Julian calendar began to be recognized as even more accurate.

These days, deadlines are measured in days, not decades, but a successful design process is an iterative one.

Getting noticed
The most powerful use of design occurs when a company uses it to separate itself, its products, and its services from the competition. This is only possible because there is so little good design out there or conversely, so much that is bad or mediocre. Isn’t it ironic that if the general level of design were better, this powerful strategy wouldn’t work?

The previous paragraph was written almost 30 years ago by the legendary designer, Saul Bass. It remains true today.

The Leap Year is a curiosity, an outlier. It wasn’t created for strategic advantage, but it does get noticed. In addition to serving a functional purpose, good design stands out. In an undifferentiated market, that’s incredibly valuable.

Making the case
Ask a designer, and there is no doubt about the value of good design. It’s a self-evident truth. Others are less willing to take that leap of faith.

Galileo was branded a heretic by the church. For centuries, his scientific discoveries were rejected. Likewise, designers must justify their costs and efficacy to leaders who seem to take their cue from H.L. Mencken: “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

Fortunately, there is a growing number of companies that champion the power of design. And more consumers are interested in choosing products and services that solve problems, make life easier, continue to innovate, and stand out from the crowd.

That doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by design.

Related content:
Why is the extra day added in February?

Trick or Treat

A collection of colorful Halloween candy organized by typeEvery Halloween, children walk neighborhoods dressed in costume in search of sugary snacks. Jack-o-lanterns, spooky skeletons, the crunch of leaves underfoot. For one night, it’s all good fun – all treats, no tricks.

Many firms are taking a similar approach to offering pro bono services to nonprofit organizations – gathering for one night in a whirlwind of design, costumes optional. The Nerdery, a Minnesota-based web design company, hosts 24-hour website makeovers in several U.S. cities. Students at the Un-School of Disruptive Design aim for social change in its intensive, one-day workshops.

The energy and good will generated by these events is undeniable. But is it possible that they are more trick than treat?

Scrooge
At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, I believe design firms should offer the same level of thinking and service to nonprofit and pro bono clients as they do for the ones who have an adequate budget.

Some might consider this opinion uncharitable.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers.”

“Something is better than nothing.”

True enough.

Believe me, I understand the allure of the design blitz. Take the creative shackles off. Think fast. Don’t get bogged down in bureaucracy. It doesn’t hurt that this model often results in good publicity for the donating firm or individuals either.

Treat the cause
The problem is that one-day giveaways create a misconception about the value and power of design. Design as surface decoration is like giving a hungry family a handful of miniature candy bars when they really need a way to put food on the table next week, and the week after that.

If it’s actually possible to complete a project in 24 hours – to “rebrand” an organization or redesign its website – then what are the for-profit clients paying for? What’s taking you so long?

When you shortchange the design process – discovery, strategy, design, and implementation – you can treat the symptoms, but rarely the cause. You end up with short-term solutions for long-term problems.

There are many things you can do in 24 hours. Solving complex design problems isn’t one of them.

Let’s aim higher.

Perpetual Beta Mode

Illustration by Tom Fishburne. People sitting at a table thinking about different types of lightbulbsI coach my son’s sixth grade basketball team. If there’s one thing I know from watching youth basketball, it’s that there is a very slim chance that five players will do exactly what they’re supposed to do at any one time. It’s a fluid game.

Despite that, my boys want to learn “plays” – a set of instructions that determines who does what in hopes of putting the ball in the basket. They want certainty. My most difficult task as a coach is to provide structure while teaching them to read and react to dynamic conditions on the floor.

Middle schoolers are similar to CEOs in one way – they are accustomed to working in a linear fashion. Projects have a beginning, middle, and end. It’s more important that work is handed in on time than done well. And recess is always right after lunch.

More organizations are starting to see the folly in adhering to a rigid system of working. In its place we are finding a more adaptive approach, one where continuous learning moves the organization closer to its goals.

Perfection is overrated
Nobody wants to be the “logo cop.” When I am asked to help with a new identity or brand refresh, clients will often regale me with stories of crimes committed against their logo. “How can we stop it?” they plead.

Seeking brand consistency is a worthy undertaking. And while consistency has value, it should really be considered the floor – not the ceiling – of achievement.

Do your logo guidelines document all the things “thou shall not do” to the logo? Time spent getting every last detail right remains an often fruitless effort to exert control over people. Instead, invest in setting a clear and compelling brand strategy – a foundation from which people can identify relevant stories for your audience.

A brand and messaging guide should serve as a launching pad, not a stop sign. Establish recognizable patterns – absolutely – but accept and encourage variation and evolution as the natural state of your brand.

Small bets
Solving problems is easy if you have a formula, but it only works when all the variables are known. In rapidly changing times that’s rarely possible. Key information is missing. Opportunities are fleeting. Solutions fail.

We cannot solve today’s problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. – Albert Einstein

Agile project management is rooted in software development, but its methods are now being used broadly. Why? It promotes adaptive planning, ongoing improvement, and a rapid and flexible response to change. Done well, it accelerates execution.

Similarly, designers are taught to solve problems through observation, idea generation, and rapid prototyping that responds to user needs. It is an iterative approach that produces solutions that traditional methods cannot. Done well, it accelerates ingenuity.

Both methods address uncertainty by placing many “small bets” – ideas that can be tried quickly and cheaply. This practice reduces the risk of missing the mark and increases the chance for true innovation. Small bets reveal what works, what doesn’t, and how to improve your ideas.

Minimum viable brand
The Industrial Revolution may be a distant memory, but the transformation of production methods and processes continues unabated. And today, it’s not just about manufacturing. Any service that can be turned into a cheap commodity will be. Want a logo for $99? Done. Want a website that designs itself? Sign up here.

The speed and agility of the marketplace almost guarantees that whatever big idea you’re working on has probably already launched. “Wait and see” turns into “missed the boat” in the blink of an eye. But just because it’s available doesn’t mean people will want it.

Frankly, it doesn’t really matter if your letterhead is the perfect shade of white, or if people like your Facebook page. It is necessary, however, to rally colleagues around your brand’s strategy.

At a minimum, this would articulate your brand promise (what you stand for), what separates you from competitors, who you seek to engage (your audience), and what you want to say (key messages) and show.

If these basic brand elements are clearly understood and communicated within an organization, you can launch ideas quickly, on demand, with fewer resources.

Beta is better
Perpetual beta testing is useful for measuring performance, understanding user preferences, and previewing new ideas. It embraces change as necessary to ensure customer satisfaction. It also guarantees that the most time and money will be spent on the most effective ideas and projects.

Traditional organizations move slowly, learning little, as they seek certainty in an uncertain world. Modern organizations create, listen to feedback, and continue to improve.

Related content:

Is It Time to See Brand Guidelines in a New Light?
What Are Little Bets?
Start-Ups Need a Minimum Viable Brand

Illustration (above) by Tom Fishburne

Stop Planning

Photo of a businessman staring at a complex mazeA new leader arrives, delivering a jolt of energy and new ideas to the organization. Meetings are held, committees are formed, and consultants are hired. Slowly, over several months, a consensus vision begins to emerge. With much fanfare, a presentation is made and documents are broadly distributed. And then? The strategic plan goes to collect dust on a shelf … right next to the one that preceded it.

If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans. – Woody Allen

The typical strategic planning process is nothing if not an exhaustive review of “the way we’ve always done things.” Heavily reliant on analytical thinking meant to assure reliable outcomes, strategic plans pretty reliably fail to leverage an organization’s initial burst of momentum into lasting systemic change. Why?

Nonlinear truths
The justification for having a strategic plan is valid. One would no sooner go on a long road trip without a GPS than cook an unfamiliar meal without some sort of recipe. Except, things aren’t going to go exactly as planned. Life is not linear.

Strategic plans tend to be rigidly focused on achieving specific, measurable, realistic goals – not on increasing the capacity of the organization to adapt to changing conditions along the way. The risk of inaction grows when control over direction and implementation of a strategic plan is consolidated under a few senior executives.

Without developing creative problem-solving skills throughout the organization, and explicitly encouraging and supporting new ideas (a.k.a., risk), people are less inclined to embrace new initiatives. In this scenario, the best that can be hoped for is a slightly – and temporarily – more polished status quo, an organization that essentially ends up right back where it started.

Hybrid thinking
In order to solve the really tough problems, the ones that increase an organization’s reach and impact, employing only analytical, top-down thinking won’t be enough. Increasingly, the most innovative ideas spring forth where intuition intersects with analysis. We need everyone to start thinking more like designers.

Indeed, the University of Toronto’s Roger Martin, noted author of The Design of Business, argues that “design skills and business skills are converging. To be successful in the future, business people will have to become more like designers.”

By this, Martin isn’t suggesting that CEOs should start scribbling designs on napkins, but rather he is suggesting there is a better way to think about solving problems.

Building capacity for change
Herbert Simon, a renowned social scientist who focused on organizational decision making, said anything concerned “not with how things are but with how they might be” is actually design. An organization that adopts a designer’s mindset expands its capacity for generating and implementing new solutions to challenging problems. Methods include:

  • Empathy for the end user   Who are you trying to reach? To understand current behavior, you need to understand your audience, their motivations and experiences, and any barriers they have to changing behavior.

After studying students busing trays in a Northwestern University cafeteria, a cross-disciplinary team’s slight change to a conveyor belt reduced water use by more than 40%.

  • Multiple perspectives  Too often, organizations become insular, looking at problems from a very narrow point of view. Pursuing focused collaborations with smart people and organizations that share your goals, but have different backgrounds and expertise, dramatically expands the probability of unexpected mashups and breakthrough ideas.

Steve Wozniak, an electrical engineer and computer programmer, teamed up with Steve Jobs, a marketing whiz and visionary, to build the Macintosh computer and accelerate the personal computer revolution.

  •  Trial and error  We need courage and resilience to try things that might not work. To reduce risk, the goal should be to learn more by testing ideas quickly and cheaply in a perpetual state of discovery and refinement. People need permission to fail, and to learn from their mistakes.

John Bielenberg, a prominent advocate of using design for a better world, has a tendency to do something he calls “thinking wrong,” which means, “Whatever you’re supposed to think, or make, or say – do your best to do the opposite, and see where it takes you.”

Moving forward
Excuses are always in abundant supply. Almost any effort, any organization, would benefit from additional time and money. If you’re waiting for perfect conditions, then you might as well quit right now.

To build organizational capacity – to turn those strategic plans into meaningful actions – requires more people thinking and working like designers. When we have embraced design as part of our ongoing working process, we can create new processes, systems, products, and services that improve people’s lives.

Related content:
Business People Need to Become Designers (video)     
Building Strategic Capacity by Design

Too Much vs. Too Little

bears_153480112Once upon a time, there was a little girl with golden locks who was fond of breaking and entering. This is a story so familiar that most people would have no trouble providing the missing details or drawing conclusions about the protagonist’s questionable character.

When marketing communications miss the mark – when they fail to get it “just right” – audiences are unable and generally unwilling to fill in the blanks for you. They are left unmoved, puzzled, or annoyed.

Some marketing has style, but lacks substance. Some is as dry as the Sahara and just as hospitable. There are too many words, or too much white space. There’s not enough contrast, or the point size is too small. Can you make the logo bigger?

Like alchemists, writers and designers craft compelling stories by striking a delicate balance between familiarity and surprise. Our most common pitfalls occur when we favor what’s easy over what’s important.

Information vs. Understanding
When I was studying design in college, my professor prefaced a poster design assignment with his Rule of 20/10/5. If someone is standing 20 feet away from your poster, they probably won’t be able to read everything, but you want them to be able to absorb the most important information at a glance. At ten feet, your design should allow people to pick up additional details. At five feet away, you want to reward them for investing the time to thoroughly study your design.

Nowadays, whether it’s a poster, a website, or product packaging, writing and designing with a similar approach helps answer one of your audience’s primary questions: What’s the takeaway?

There is no shortage of data to be mined on any topic under the sun, but audiences need us to help them extract meaning from this overwhelming glut of information. HHComms-InfographicInto the breach, we’ve seen the popularity of infographics grow exponentially.

The problem is that most of them, like the one above, cram a lot of information into a single space without actually adding any clarity to a complex topic. They are eye candy – if you like arrows and charts and little icons – or toxic if you prefer that design is used to advance understanding.

Wealth_InequalityCompare the overloaded infographic to this video about income distribution in America, which deftly uses statistics to bring a complicated story to life. People are not inspired to act by reason alone. We must work harder to distill information into stories that have emotional resonance.

Certainty vs. Curiosity
One day, as a seven-year-old, my son declared himself the smartest person in the house. While he’s a bright young man, he was afflicted with a common cognitive bias known as the Overconfidence Effect – the difference between what people really know and what they think they know.

It affects all of us to varying degrees. In one survey, more than 90 percent of U.S. drivers considered themselves to be “above average.” 84 percent of French men estimate that they are above-average lovers. Without this misplaced confidence, 50 percent of those surveyed should rank above and 50 percent below the median.

How much confidence should we have in our own knowledge? And why does it matter for nonprofit marketing and design?

Adhering to common practices for the placement and display of information certainly makes systems run more smoothly, whether we’re navigating a website or an airport. Based on our online behavior, Amazon’s algorithms conveniently serve up a wide selection of things we may be interested in. But when we operate on autopilot – when we act with a degree of certainty that exceeds our actual knowledge – we can miss opportunities for deeper understanding and insight.

The best opportunity you’ve got to grow and to make an impact is to seek out the, “I don’t get it,” moments, and then work at it and noodle on it and discuss it until you do get it. – Seth Godin

Curiosity requires the humility to ask questions, to listen, and to incorporate new thinking. We should aim to be lifelong learners, like the computer science professor who worked a summer as a lowly intern for one of his former students just so he could find out “what the cool kids are doing” – and bring that experience back to his current students.

When curiosity becomes a habit, our recommendations are made on context, not conjecture.

Caution vs. Courage
In Minnesota, where I live, the locals are famously stoic. Blame it on our ancestors’ natural modesty, or blame it on the cold, but it’s the kind of place where “not too bad” means “good” and any display of excitement is tempered by fear of making a scene. We’re cautiously optimistic.

In a stable environment, risk aversion makes more sense. Conduct exhaustive research to better control and predict one outcome versus another. Seek to make the uncertain certain.

In a rapidly changing environment, like it or not, we’re asked to make many decisions without knowing every possible permutation. We need to recognize and accept our vulnerability.

What makes leadership hard isn’t the theoretical, it’s the practical. It’s not about knowing what to say or do. It’s about whether you’re willing to experience the discomfort, risk, and uncertainty of saying or doing it. – Peter Bregman

Courage is the willingness to do something when there are no guarantees. When we face tough challenges, we need to consider more than increasing the font size or the frequency of our social media posts. To encourage real progress – and not just fuss around the edges – we need to design changes to outmoded systems, not just play with pixels and paper. We need to encourage behavior change.

Invisible vs. Indelible
I have no easy fix for what ails traditional marketing and design. Most of the work has minimal impact. We need visionary nonprofit leaders. We need to rethink how we work. We need to expand perceptions of our value. We need to start today.

Will you join me?

Problem Solving is a Transferable Skill

Over the past ten years, the nonprofit sector’s growth in total wages and employees has outpaced the growth of both government and business. With so many smart, passionate people aligned to serve the common good, one might think we would start to see big improvements in the human condition.

Granted, there is an abundant number of wicked tough problems in organizations and communities around the world today, but it begs the question: Is our approach to solving these problems flawed?

As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In my experience, it’s more often limited organizational capacity – and sometimes a lack of imagination – that prevents more ambitious attempts at systemic change.

Designers can help move organizations beyond incremental or short-lived improvements by applying some of the same creative problem-solving skills used in their more traditional role. Here’s a few examples:

Identify the problem
In 2006, a small public university asked us to conduct market research to establish a stronger brand position for the school. The goal was to grow enrollment. For the next couple of years, with the help of the marketing materials and tools we developed for them, the university saw modest growth.

Asked to refresh the same university’s brand five years later, we found both the messaging and visual identity in shambles – and enrollment down. Digging deeper, we identified the biggest culprit as a lack of internal communication about and shared understanding of the university’s marketing efforts. We chose to focus the bulk of the budget on addressing those internal issues rather than creating new student recruitment materials.

To move forward, one must correctly identify the obstacles to real change first, budgeting time and money accordingly.

Ask big questions
I’m part of a team working with an organization that serves immigrant communities in a large metropolitan area. They would like our help leveraging the relationships built through their food shelf – the organization’s best-known and longest-running program – to move clients toward a more sustainable future.

Much of the funding for this work comes from a grant. One criteria for measuring the impact of the grant is to increase the amount of food distributed and the number of families served. That’s certainly one way to measure success, but wouldn’t distributing less food – shutting the food shelf for lack of customers – be a better outcome?

If we aim high, but not high enough, we end up fussing around the margins when we should be looking to uncover and address systemic design flaws. Asking better questions leads to better answers.

Assess available resources
When I began writing this blog nearly four years ago, according to the experts there was a “right way” to do it successfully. Specifically, it would require regular updates (at least 3-4 per week), bite-size morsels (no one reads long posts), headlines that promise easy solutions, and tireless self-promotion.

With limited time to invest in this endeavor, I had to determine what could reasonably be sustained. Anyone can write a paragraph or two on a given subject, but to explore issues in any meaningful depth – to provide value to my readers – requires experience and time. More than 100 posts later, an average of about two per month, I’ll let you judge if this has been a good investment.

Honest self-assessment can make the difference between doing many things poorly or a few things well.

Making progress
When designers and marketing professionals are asked to solve the wrong problems, it severely limits their value to an organization. Old habits, narrow thinking, small budgets – there are all sorts of reasons that real progress seems perpetually beyond our grasp. I believe that our most daunting challenges require creative problem solvers to break free of these constraints.

We’re ready when you are.

Think Like a Human

Rodin’s The ThinkerFor decades, empires have been built on a simple and consistent business model: We’ll sell you what you want, as long as you also get a bunch of other stuff that you don’t want.

Newspapers will deliver the news, as long as you don’t mind the ads. Cable TV providers offer your favorite shows wrapped in a package of obscure channels featuring llama-shearing marathons and dozens of tips for organizing your sock drawer. You’ve got to sit through the opening act before the featured band takes the stage. And, I’d be willing to wager, there were a few courses required to get your bachelor’s degree that have proven to be only marginally relevant to your subsequent career.

The missing link
A similar approach is often seen in website design. Organizations routinely put feature stories in a visually prominent place on the home page while more utilitarian functions and links are pushed to the margins. While it’s possible that audience research indicated a strong interest in these types of stories, it’s more likely that the organization has a keen interest in promoting them.

In my experience with usability testing, site visitors consistently show little to no interest in website feature content. It just gets in the way of finding the information or completing the task they came to the site for in the first place. Who’s serving whom?

Product designers can become enamored with new bells and whistles while sacrificing ease of use. Architects can create spaces that don’t adequately consider environmental impact or human behavior patterns. Governments create forms and procedures that are needlessly complex.

What do all of these things have in common? They all overlook – or undervalue – the experience of the end user: human beings.

The golden rule
Imagine if marketing and design excelled at treating others as we’d like to be treated. Imagine if your marketing, in fact, your entire organization, was guided by design thinking. Design thinking has emerged in recent years as a trendy package of processes geared to solving complex problems through creativity and innovation. Combining empathy, analysis, insights, and rapid prototyping, design thinking encourages multidisciplinary teams to keep the end user firmly at the core of any proposed solutions.

This is where theory and practice sometimes diverge.

Considering the end user, or customer, as a means of developing perceptive and effective solutions is not particularly new or mysterious – no matter what you call it. As the design thinking process is embraced by more people, it seems there is a lot more thinking than doing. For example, I’m not convinced that brainstorming generates more creative solutions (research shows the opposite may be true), or that the design process will always benefit from putting lots of people in a room with a pile of Post-It® notes.

Getting to know you
I do believe in developing empathy for an audience through research, and would propose a more accurate name for this type of problem-solving process is human-centered design. It’s not primarily about the thinking. It’s not about profits. It’s not a secret shortcut to innovation. It’s about delivering a product, service, or experience that fills a real human need.

That all sounds great, you’re thinking, but how does that work in the real world? I’m not an anthropologist or a psychologist and I don’t even own a white lab coat. No worries.

Like anything, human-centered design benefits from regular practice. Acquiring the tools, techniques, and experience require nothing more than time, a keen interest in the human race, and an abiding desire to solve problems.

Turning ideas into action
Diverge + ConvergeThere’s no shortage of good ideas. A human-centered design process uses divergent thinking to create many choices, helping  uncover new opportunities and generate more actionable ideas faster. The most critical skill, however, is developing an ability to evaluate those ideas, to converge on a choice and move forward. To do so, weigh your options against the following criteria:

  • Desirability: Throughout the process, listen to and understand what people need and want.
  • Feasibility: What is possible within your organization? Acknowledge the barriers, but optimism rules. Don’t shortchange yourself by aiming too low.
  • Viability: Great ideas are like currency, but money matters. Solutions need to be scaled to available resources.

The best ideas live where these three criteria overlap.

As consumers, we’ve come to expect that we can get exactly what we want when we want it, and there’s little reason to accept anything less. Consequently, marketing strategies that rely on bait-and-switch tactics or bundling desirable with less desirable services will become more difficult to sustain.

Human-centered design offers a better way to deliver services, products, and experiences that satisfy real needs, providing a new thing to think about – how to deal with all those happy customers.

Related content:
Human Centered Design Toolkit

Shifting Sands

 

Paradise BeachAt this time tomorrow, I’ll be strolling on a Caribbean beach with sand gently squishing between my toes. Meanwhile, as on most days, tens of thousands of nonprofit marketing and communications professionals will squirm uncomfortably as the sand shifts beneath their feet, wondering: How are we supposed to thrive in a perpetual state of transition?

As the old saying goes, the only one who likes change is a baby with a dirty diaper. Human beings are creatures of habit who tend to bristle when told they can’t do something – like order a super-mega-ton soda – and howl when a favorite social network changes the look of its interface. We tend to be more willing to accept change if we’re calling the shots … except when we don’t know which call to make.

Fumbling through nirvana
Navigating our magical WiFi world in our smart cars with our smart phones sure has a way of making us feel dumber than ever.

When trying to reach a target audience, the multitude of media choices is matched only by the limits of our personal bandwidth. The difficulty in determining what device or behavior will be the next lasting standard can cause indecision.

Quickly adopt the latest buzzworthy tactic (QR codes anyone?) and you risk jumping on the wrong bandwagon, wasting precious resources for middling results. Bury your head in denial and you risk irrelevance in the modern world. As Roger Martin noted in the Harvard Business Review:

By far the easiest thing to do is to see the future as so unpredictable and uncertain that you should keep all your options open and avoid choice-making entirely. The irony, of course, is that not choosing is every bit as much a choice, and every bit as impactful, as choosing to choose.

Psychologists have long identified pattern recognition as essential to human intelligence. What’s needed now, more than ever, is for recognition that “business as usual” is a pattern that doesn’t exist – the status quo is forever changing.

To make more intelligent choices, I believe we need to work on the following:

Ambiguity is the new black.
Have you ever noticed that people are rarely able to predict what will make them happy? This phenomenon is defined by author Tal Ben-Shahar as the “arrival fallacy” – the belief that you’ll be happy when you arrive at a certain destination: “Once I buy this dress … Once I get this job … Once I’m married …” Whether it makes us happy or not, we still need to make decisions. In order to make better ones, we need to develop and hone our ability to quickly and comfortably move between stages of relative certainty.

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
If we, indeed, learn from our mistakes, we sure try hard not to make any. Given two choices, virtually everyone would pick the “sure thing” over rolling the dice. We want to make a choice, and then not have to make it again – at least not for a good long while. We like knowing more than we like learning.

We need to embrace and practice a more iterative, non-linear method of solving problems. Don’t get paralyzed aiming for perfection. Rather, make many little mistakes quickly. As Thomas Edison said: “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

Building resilience
In both personal and professional environments, we need to improve our capacity to absorb ongoing transitions while still performing effectively. A more resilient system embraces diversity of thought and experience to avoid an “echo chamber” effect. As in farming, monocultures may be efficient, but can cause more harm than good long-term.

Additionally, we can’t wait for the quarterly report or the performance review to recalibrate our efforts. The tighter the feedback, the closer it comes to happening in real time, the better we will adapt to the rapid pace of change.

Process not product
One of the things that’s become increasingly clear, one of the things that hasn’t changed, is that a project’s structure is far more important than whether or not the final deliverable is a website or a magazine or a branding campaign. Process matters.

Developing the skills to adeptly navigate our rapidly changing marketing landscape can help you turn quicksand into a day at the beach.