I recently participated in a design thinking challenge with the following problem/:

“Design an ATM for children.”

Now, if you have the time, spend a few minutes thinking about this. I’ll put a random picture below so you feel pressured to take a break.

Kid who’s going to grab cash from ATM, lol

As a designer, I think most of us love to immediately start attacking the problem.

So I began by drawing up my affinity maps and creating a customer journey map for a child using a current ATM to try and identify pain points.

Then I started sketching out some basic concepts to address these pain points. Most of these pain points had to do with:

  • Language — trying to word the ATM processes in a child-friendly way
  • Digital Design — including more visual indicators of tasks
  • Physical Design — accommodating a large range of child heights and reaches
  • Security — ensuring kids can’t withdraw large amounts, ensuring kids don’t become targets of crime, etc.

There are probably many more areas I could’ve addressed and I’m sure some of these will resonate with those of you who thought about it earlier.

But partway through my sketching, something in the back of my mind kept prodding me. And this is when I realized I had missed a critical step in the design thinking process.

the question. Seriously do this.

I consider reframing the question to be the most critical step of the design thinking process. Trying to reframe the question in at least three different ways can give insights into the problem that couldn’t be found otherwise.

I reframed the question as follows:

  • How can we ensure kids have cash?
  • How can we guarantee children can pay for things?
  • How can we easily transfer funds from parent to child?

These are three of the “reframed” questions I came up with. And they led me down a very different road.

Cash is obsolete. I mean only old people carry cash.

While considering my new questions, I first tried to apply them to myself.

  • How do I ensure I have cash?
  • How do I guarantee that I can pay for things?
  • How do I transfer funds to and from myself?

This is when I realized that I rarely, if ever, use cash. And it is my firm belief that the trend will continue away from cash and towards an increasingly digital marketplace. (It’s also the firm belief of the majority of economists.) So in this way, I consider the original question to be flawed.

Creating a system to assist in the use of an antiquated system isn’t sensible and will ultimately lead to waste.

When I eliminated the first question:

  • How do I ensure I have cash? (Surprise Answer: I don’t.)

I was left with the two more important questions:

  • How can we guarantee children can pay for things?
  • How can we facilitate easy financial transfers from parent to child?

My answer. Plot twist.

I concluded that a debit card system would be a much more viable solution to this problem than an ATM. Once I came to this conclusion, I could address my original pain points in a new light:

  • Language — ensuring child-accessible checkout processes (explaining terms like tip and receipt in simpler ways)
  • Digital Design — including more visual indicators of tasks (for the checkout process)
  • Physical Design — child-friendly design, hard to lose, hard to break, fits in children’s pockets
  • Security — ensuring kids can’t use other kid’s cards, limiting the amount a child can spend

Now — feeling fully invested in the concept, I could begin again with my sketching. Ultimately, I designed a card with the following answers to the pain points:

  • Language — Terms like tip and receipt can be easily taught to children — however, creating an online system where parents could manage these settings in advance would be beneficial. Applying a 10% tip to all purchases that accept tips and having receipts automatically emailed to the parents would solve all potential checkout problems. Additionally, children’s cards could be encoded in a way that triggers an alternate user flow.
  • Digital Design 1 — The digital design that currently exists for many card readers is quite simple. But the addition of some explanation for when to swipe or insert the card would help children and adults. (Accessible design is good design!)
  • Digital Design 2 — As kids are getting smartphones at earlier ages, a wallet version of the card would also provide an additional way for kids to pay.
  • Physical Design — I imagine the physical design as being a much harder plastic. I also imagine the card being a square as opposed to a rectangle. The width would have to be consistent to allow for insertion into credit card readers, but a square design would allow for a bigger likelihood of fitting in some children’s pockets. (A reach goal: with the increase of card-readers that include tap-to-pay functionality, the card could be any shape imaginable! This has the potential to reshape applications in the adult world as well.)
  • Security — my solution for this involved a picture of the child on the card, as well as some identifying information. Then I realized — why stop there?! This debit card could serve as a form of government ID for children. This could lead to many other uses for the card. We don’t currently have a strong system of ID for children in the US, and so we don’t know the possible applications. But I can only imagine the possibilities once the concept was implemented.
  • Security 2 — Because it is a debit card, a simple online platform (and app-based) would allow parents to limit funds, approve charges and monitor spending in a way that cash wouldn’t. Cash has the potential of facilitating both criminal spending (drugs, alcohol, etc.) and unreasonable spending (In my time teaching I’ve witnessed a kid offer another kid $20 for a mediocre Magic card and another kid offer $100 for a Charizard [a pokémon] card. These sort of mistakes could be averted through a debit card system.)

Final Conclusion

Ultimately, I enjoyed this design thinking challenge. But my most important takeaway was the importance of “Reframing the question” as a crucial first step in the process. I’ve read a fair number of other designer’s answers to this question and their work is beautiful, their designs are wonderful and their research is thorough.

However,

I question if the point of design thinking is to come up with the best solution to the specific question, or if the point is to find the best solution to the larger problem presented by the question.



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