School by Design

Inspiring student-centered, intentionally designed schools


Five Things Every Design Thinker Should Do

You’re a seasoned design thinker: you’ve attended the workshops, used the process, and even championed design thinking in your organization. Now, you’re ready to go to the next level: use it for long-term, high-impact projects with diverse teams. You’ll learn and fail (and that’s okay – that’s the point), but here are a few tips to help you go pro!


1. Flex the Process
Most design thinking workshops go through the 5 phases (Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test) in this order, with a certain approach to each phase. But the truth is: nether the order nor the approach of each phase is set in stone. In fact, you can hurt your project and your team by forcefully transitioning to a phase if its not what you need.

For example, if you have a great idea that you believe really meets your students’ needs: Prototype it and use the testing phase as your empathy exercise. Understand your users through their interaction with the experience, then interview them to gain a deeper insight into their needs and your solution. Use the prototype as a medium to gain empathy. The trick: Don’t get attached to the prototype, be open to redefining the need, and push yourself to re-imagine the solution.

flex the process You also want to treat your team as a user. What do we do for users? We design for their needs! So flex the process to meet your team’s needs, without sacrificing the integrity of the process. If the team is struggling with discovering an insight, you should encourage them to take a leap. But, if you try and try and try, and you can’t find anything, then maybe you should go back to Empathizing, with a new focus. The trick is to ensure that you’re mindful of how you’re flexing the process, why and for how long. Push really hard before you do it, and try everything. But if you believe that you are missing something, don’t move forward and lose momentum, go back and have another stab at it – a focused stab.

2. Build a d.Toolboxtoolbox
“What about the ideas we don’t choose? I don’t want to lose them!”. “How did we arrive at this prototype?”. “We’re in separate offices, how can we share out post-its?”.

D.thinking is a great process, but it doesn’t come without its challenges opportunities. What to do? Design a d.tool! A d.tool is a solution that will help you leverage d.thinking in the best way possible. It can be software (this app lets you capture an image of post it’s then digitally manipulate them: move them around, share them in a slide show, and clean up that wall!). A d.tool can also be an alternative way to approach a d.thinking phase: I created a d.tool called Crumbs which allows busy team members to test prototypes easily (more tools in later posts!). A d.tool can be a template that helps organize your thinking, or drive your actions: Maybe you can have a checklist to drive your brainstorming for interview questions. You’re a designer, and you have a need- D.ZINE!

3. Take a Breather
I LOVE the energy at design thinking workshops- especially at the I think it was one reason I got hitched: neon post it’s flying, music in the background, everyone standing/laughing/DOING. It’s invigorating! And it gets you to DO something – given how we’ve been trained to fear mistakes, to be too-in-our-heads, to spend too much time behind our desks and not with our users.

keep-calm-and-reflectBut sometimes you need to take a breather. Especially with longer term projects, with big teams – when the process isn’t as “clean”. You make decisions, take turns, go off track. Fast-pace is part ofthe d.thinking, but so is making decisions based on insight. Reflection is an important pillar: Was our brainstorm skewed to one direction? Should we roll back two steps and question an assumption? Is our work schedule benefiting the process? What can we do differently next time? Take some time to reflect on the process and outcomes, with an action oriented mindset. The keyword is: reflection-driven action, not just reflection.

4. Nurture the Designer
in you. Design thinking is genius in how it captures the user-centered design discipline in a way so accessible. And the good news is: there’s so many layers. Go deeper to be better. Talk to other practitioners or read a book! There are entire books written about synthesis and there are many techniques in creative thinking and ideation. The Stanford (The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design) published a list of their favorite books on many topics from innovation management to a deep dive in Empathy to designing spaces. There are many fields around design thinking that you can leverage to become a better designer: creativity, product design, UX design, sketching, even negotiation!

4. Share your Wisdom
When we articulate our processes, we are forced to refine and critique them. But more importantly, we are motivated to search for patterns, think of extreme cases and consider concerns that others may have on them. This thought process makes us better designers. I just shared 5 tips – Your turn to share ONE. Blog it, Tweet it or write it on a napkin. Share the knowledge in the comments section or @EmanAbouelatta on twitter.


1 Comment

d.Tool: CRUMBS

*d.Tools are solutions that help d.thinkers leverage the design thinking process to its fullest.



You use CRUMBS to quickly test parts of your prototype as opposed to always testing it as a whole. This is helpful when you need to: deal with limited time, isolate variables or make quick progress.

  1. If you have an elaborate prototype that can only be tested next week, you can pick small parts of it and test them separately through out this wait period.
  2. If you’re not sure why your prototype fell apart in testing, divide it into crumbs and test each to identify the stuck points.
  3. And, if your team is overwhelmed with having to create a big prototype, have them create and test crumbs instead, thus creating a momentum of “little wins” that arms them for the big prototype.

HOW to use CRUMBS?

Start with determining what the separable parts of your prototype are. Perhaps you are designing students’ first day of school, where the “separable parts” would be: walking into school, meeting other students, attending orientation and having lunch.

Then, consider how you can divide these parts into crumbs that are small, yet will provide meaningful answers when tested. In doing so, consider not only the core things you’re testing but also the small decisions you’re making along the way. For example, one crumb could be: “getting to the assembly room, where the orientation is”. The question we’re trying to answer would be: “how do we best help students find the assembly room?” Although this is not a major concern in your bigger endeavor of designing the first day of school, it is part of the day, and therefore is worth designing! Crumbs can help you make the decision on how to “help people find the room” easily, and in a user-centered manner.

Finally, think of how you’ll prototype and test the crumb, regardless of your bigger prototype. For example, you can tell your friend to meet you at the assembly room, and send her directions on email. Then try it with another friend using signage. This way, you get useful insights without worrying about the big prototype! And, you don’t even disrupt your day!


Crumbs should be testable with minimal setup, in less than 10 minutes.