Design Thinking for Social Good: An Interview with David Kelley

David Kelley is the founder of IDEO and the Stanford

David Kelley shares the IDEO Design Process

Avi Solomon: Were the seeds of your future career planted in your childhood?

David Kelley: I don't know, I feel I was just a lucky kid. So many kids are not allowed to flourish their creativity. But I was the kind of kid that would take apart the family piano. I can remember I had a perfectly good bicycle I got for Christmas and a few days later I had sandblasted it and painted it a different color. Not that my parents understood why I was always ripping things apart and redesigning them but I was certainly tolerated. So I think it did contribute in a lot of ways. I wish for a lot of other kids that they could tinker like I did.

Avi: What led you to found IDEO?

David: Well, I had just fallen in love with design at Stanford. I was a regular engineer before I got to Stanford where I got into a program that taught the human side of engineering. I really fell in love with the notion of doing something for humans rather than just doing something technologically. Silicon Valley was just starting to do really well and then it became clear that a lot of companies had the need to have somebody who was sensitive to the design, the aesthetics, the humans and the engineering stuff. That combination seemed really obviously needed in Silicon Valley. That made it easier to start IDEO.

Avi: Is that what led you also to the importance of anthropological fieldwork in design?

David: Yes, Stanford had this thing called Needfinding. I had always learned about problem solving but Stanford taught me in that it was just important to worry about figuring out the kind of human needs that were worth working on and then doing the problem-solving. It just seemed to be much more interesting when you got to figure out what was the real problem you were working on.

Avi: So Needfinding is a way of locking onto the critical problems because there are so many problems to solve.

David: You're absolutely right. The way to do it is to go out and figure out what humans actually value. Having empathy for people was so exciting. You don't usually think of engineers as people people, so to speak, but my experience has been that when engineers really feel that something would be important to people, would have meaning in people's lives, that's highly motivating and it makes them work really hard.

Avi: It also increases the engineer's chance of success.

David: For sure. The way we used to do it before was by sitting around the room and figuring out what was a cool idea and then we'd talk people into wanting it. Much better to know what people want and then use your talent to design that.

Avi: What is your definition of design?

David: What I mean by design is doing things with intention, trying to decide what's important to somebody, building a bunch of prototypes and showing them around, developing a point of view and getting it out so that it has impact in the world. So design is really a process of making impact on the world by doing this kind of creation of something new to the world and then getting it out there.

Avi: If it's a process then how do you explain Steve Jobs?

David: Steve Jobs used a design process. He just shortcut it. I worked for Steve for many, many years in the early days of Apple and he had an uncanny sense of what would be the next thing, what humans want, that they would want it or not want it. That's not so common in an individual. Usually we have teams of people that do that but he was doing the same thing, which is basically predicting what people want and painting a picture of the future and then getting it out there. He did a very good job of that. Steve was an incredible guy but it doesn't get you around the fact that you have to try things out and see if they fit into people's lives and if people value them.

Avi: What are the characteristics of a designer?

David: The characteristics of a designer that I appreciate the most are this thing about having empathy for people, that you expect to get your big ideas from talking to people and your own experiences, that you have a bias towards action, that you're not going to sit around and noodle strategy details for a long time, you're going to actually go out and build something and show it to people and iterate the feedback.

Designers are more likely to build something and then refine it, rather than think they have the big idea all in one big jump. Then there's the notion of doing things with intention. Designers I know care about every little detail, they try to really understand the experience the person's going to have.

My students recently designed the experience of taking the train to San Francisco. As in anything we do we looked at everything that's involved with the customer journey. Looking up the ad and finding out what services and planning your trip, getting to the train station, getting through the lines, waiting, boarding. Then there's the riding the train but there's also finding your way when you get out. Designers do everything with intention so they care about every little thing. That's why the out of the box experience is really important. What every little sticker looks like is really important. That's characteristic of designers.

Stanford Design Thinking Virtual Crash Course

Avi: You have been quite open about sharing your design process.

David: What we do is put out a design framework as our potential process then we expect people to modify it to meet their own needs. So it'd be foolish for me to say "This is the process. Do this step, do this step, do this step." One size doesn't fit all but it is a recipe to learn. You add your own fertilizer and water and soil and you make your own process out of it.

The first step in the process is what we call the Understand phase: if you're going to work in a certain area you really need to talk to experts. We're generalists, we're expert at process but if you really want to do something, if you're going to design a new medical device, you have to really immerse yourself in it. So in the first step you end up studying the state of the art, going and talking to experts, doing research to bring yourself up to speed. You'd be really surprised how quickly you can get up to speed, even in a highly technical area, just from doing a little research and talking to experts. They'll tell you a lot more than you can use, more than you could ever imagine.

Then there's the Observation phase. There's plenty to learn from interviewing people but we think that you learn a lot more from being there. So we jump right out, we go around the world, we go wherever there's interesting people. If we're going to design a new gas station we'll go and see how they pump gas in Japan. How do they get gasoline where there's no gas station whatsoever? We just hang out, watching over and over and seeing what the issues are. We find that if we're going to have some kind of breakthrough, a lot of times we see it by just being there. We're watching nurses and we see how nurses have trouble with the shift change, or we watch somebody using a vending machine.

I was watching people pay for parking at one of those vending machines where you take your ticket and you put it in and just seeing all the trouble that they had, they're grimacing, they're panicking. So for us this is a lead to where there's an innovation that can be done. If you see somebody having trouble using something, or that they grimace or they're unhappy or they're scared, that's a place that we could really do innovation because we can fix that.

At some point by observing these people and building empathy for them you start to have insights about them. "Oh, they really do value this. It's not obvious at first that that's what they really value. They say they really don't do something but it turns out they actually do when you observe them." Because this thing's a team sport you have all these different eyes watching. We'll have the business person and the technology person and the psychologist or anthropologist, so they see different things.

My mentor, Bob McKim used to say "A fish doesn't know it's wet," meaning it's hard for an expert in one field to see clearly. So these teams that have people with different methodologies, by definition they're kind of naive. They have what we call child's mind, so they see new things to the world. And that gives them insights about what could happen, and also enables breakthrough products and services.

The next phase we call Visualize. Okay, now I've seen some problems, I know what I want, I have some big ideas from the observations that I've done. Now I want to visualize some possible solutions. I have developed a point of view: I think that the problem with checking into a hospital is that it's just too redundant. I think the problem is is you should be able to do things in advance of getting there, right? So that's my point of view. Then I start building systems. I start making physical things out of cardboard, I start making prototypes or I start making quick and dirty videos that show the solution. If it's a service like checking into a hospital I make a video of what I think would be a really cool, efficient, better way. I'm painting the future of what it would mean in that hospital by making a video.

Then comes the Iteration phase. I start showing the prototype around. This is the big win, because I haven't fooled around or tried to cover myself or be careful, I just cranked out a few possible prototypes or videos of the future and then I start showing them to smart people. It's amazing how people will help you. These prototypes that we make are not precious, they're quick and dirty. They just get our ideas out so that we can get help from other people. So now you're using the brain power of everybody else. Anybody can do these type of prototypes, right?

So understand, observe, visualize and iterate. The trick here is that the big deal is the iteration. Rather than planning incessantly you quickly come up with something, you show it to smart people, you show it to users, and then you do it again and again. So a lot of times with my students I give the same problem over and over again because you can always get it better.

Avi: You are bringing this process to the K-12 system?

David: I've always had an interest in K-12 because I really think that's where to start. What happens with kids is that they're wildly creative when they're younger and then if you follow them around the fourth grade or so they kind of opt out. Some large percentage of them say, "Oh, I'm not creative," so that they can't be judged. So somehow they've done something, they've drawn a picture of a horse and the teacher didn't like it so they've just kind of given up. And this is the thing we're trying to solve, which is we really believe that kids, if they have creative confidence that they're a creative person they'll use kind of both sides of their brain, they'll use the analytical stuff that they learn in school and they'll be open to using their intuitive mind, and they'll trust it, and they'll make better decisions. So that's the premise behind the K-12 lab at Stanford.

So by training teachers, by having kids come through, by us going into the classroom and teaching them design thinking and just using design thinking methodology to solve some of their problems we've had great luck and we're very proud of what's going on there. I really think that's the point: if you want to make a big change, get all the kids thinking of themselves as a creative person. They're just going to have that openness that will allow them to come up with new and different ideas that they can choose. When we talk about having ideas, we talk about fluency and flexibility. Fluency means you can quickly come up with lots of ideas like in brainstorming, but flexibility means that they're different one from the next. So you have lots of ideas and they're unique ideas. That's going to help you make a better decision.

I don't care if that's about something in your personal life or whether it's your job of curing cancer, having a better variety of ideas is going to make better decisions. So we think by ingraining that in students in K12 we can make a difference.