Don’t think innovation, think usefulness


“We need you to design a gadget for blind people. The gadget will be attachable on the side of a cup, and when the poured liquid starts to overflow from the cup it would beep and alert the user. It’ll be battery powered and should cost less than 10 Dollars.” This, more or less, was the design brief the design team led by Victor Papanek and his students received from an instution that wanted to solve accessibility problems of the disabled with its services and products. Victor Papanek (22 November 1923, Vienna – 10 January 1998, Lawrence, Kansas), a designer, educator and a strong advocate of socially responsible design gave some time to his students to come up with their designs. A few prototypes emerged after some iterations and they were aesthically quite pleasent. When Victor Papanek intervened into this design process, without really checking the prototypes he asks his students if they know what blind people are doing currently to tackle this issue (Papanek is also a strong advocate of participatory design which is an essential part in socially responsible design). When students went on a field trip to observe the blind people within such situation, they learned that one trick blind people have developed is to stick their thumbs and another one is listening to the sound that comes out as the liquid is being poured into cup, since the sound changes as it approaches to fill the cup completely. Well, the first trick wasn’t really a solution but closer to the problem itself to solve, since with hot drinks you could burn your thumb and it wasn’t that hygienic really. But the second trick was something the team defintely needed to dig in and explore further. The sound was different with different cups, and people had just gotten famliar with their cups so they could follow the liquid filling from the sound. As a result what the team “designed” was a leaflet that had the cup brands with best acoustics written in braille alphabet.

This story takes place in 80’s, long before Design Thinking was a buzzword in the world of business and media, but I think it’s a primary example of what Design, and hence what Design Thinking is. It’s a mindset that approaches to the problems (or to the problem identification phase) with an open mind, minimum assumptions and focuses on the end user’s true needs. The aesthetics, visual appealing of the product (if it’s a product you are designing) does matter a lot, but the problem you are solving or not solving, the value proposition to the user comes first. If you haven’t nailed that, visual artistry can take you only so far.

This approach is slowly becoming common sense, but applying this in practice is quite a rocket surgery in some cases. That’s where the Design Thinking as a framework, with defined models like IDEO’s 3I (Identify, Inspire, Implement) and British Design Council’s Double Diamond model. Moreover, tools like Photo Safari (observe and document), Persona and Empathy Map, Mindmapping (keyword tree ),  Brainwriting ( silent brainstorming, replacing talk with post-its), Sketching, Storyboarding, Prototyping, Storytelling, User Testing definitely would come handy in the journey of creating “usefulness”.

-Cagri Akgul

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