I do this work which is called “service design” at the moment (the name changes every five minutes). You could describe it as a form of business analysis and product design, but from the customer/end user’s point of view.
It’s derived from the concept of “human-centred design”, which, at its best, alternates periods of unfettered creativity with experimentation/data-gathering in search of great solutions to difficult problems.
What I like about HCD, service design and their close cousins (UX, CX, etc) is that they brazenly pinch useful activities and modes of thinking from other disciplines (for example: journalism, acting, sciences, ethnography).
As I’ve roamed around the industry in Melbourne, I’ve met lots of different kinds of people, seen how different sorts of design teams operate and even been given the opportunity to help design a human-centred design course.
Here’s how that works:
Don’t waste time “selling design”. Practice quietly and let people spot the benefit
Lt. Columbo doesn’t buck for promotion to a desk job. He’s comfortable out on the street, getting the work done. He doesn’t tell you how smart he is. His actions speak for him.
Among designers, a response to this might be, “If you don’t sell the power of design to upper management decisionmakers, you’ll never get the chance to use it,” or, “It’s got to happen ‘top-down’ — without senior support behind you, you won’t make a dent”.
With enough time and resources, by all means, be a “thought leader”, trumpeting the majesty of design and running kickoff workshops with CEOs. Columbo gets into trouble occasionally with people demanding he be “taken off the case”, and when he does, he’s glad to have the support of his bosses.
But I’m one man in a wrinkled overcoat, so I want to spend most of my time selling design by doing it, with teams and stakeholders.
Take time to prod and poke the solution that is forming — wait before pulling the trigger
It’s not enough for Columbo to decide whodunnit. He can’t act on his intuition until he learns what motivated it. Until he can reverse-engineer their method. He conducts lots of experiments along the way to make sure he’s headed down the right path, and to keep his options open as long as possible.
Take pre-made practices, models and frameworks on board but don’t let them distract you
Columbo knows standard policing methodology, and he brings it to an investigation, but he often breaks out of it to solve cases others can’t. He has evolved his own way of doing things over time, and it consistently surprises people — even other police officers. Most cops don’t make omelettes for the wives of missing persons.
Academic ideas are good to have in your pocket, but not if they blind you to what is really happening in front of you. You can’t assume what works with one “case” will work in another. What’s learned through practice creates frameworks, not the other way around.
Speak to “ordinary people”, whether they’re involved with the problem or not
This is inherent to human-centred design so shouldn’t need to be repeated here — but there’s no “human-centred” without input from humans. Columbo gets many great ideas when speaking to civilians, whether they’re witnesses, or even random people unrelated to the case he’s working.
Columbo shows humility. He doesn’t assume he’s an expert — but he doesn’t assume “experts” are experts, either. Experts can be misleading, for reasons of their own.
You will feel physical discomfort. This is normal when outside your comfort zone
Columbo often puts himself in strange or unwelcome situations to get the information he needs.
You may not be an acrophobe being stunt-flown in a plane by a murder suspect, but you will encounter awkwardness as you look for clues.
You are probably on the right track — and if you aren’t, what you’re learning will still be useful. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb puts it — “in a natural environment, a stressor is information”. Prepare as much as you can, and then get out of the office and learn something about your subject, or about yourself and the way you react to things.
Be as friendly and accommodating as possible with stakeholders, but provoke when you think you’ll learn something from it
Columbo is unfailingly pleasant in his interactions with everyone, even (especially) if he believes them to be a cold-blooded killer. He loves to learn from his suspects about domains or technologies with which he’s inexperienced, even as he’s incessantly badgering them.
Occasionally, though, he lets the mask slip and becomes aggressive with people — when no other approach will work, if he believes lives are in danger, and, most importantly, if he believes he’ll get the information/reaction he needs.
I think it’s reasonable for a designer to be deliberately provocative for the same reasons.
True stories are meant to be long, winding and boring. Conveniently tight stories are probably a whitewash
Columbo baffles everyone he meets with stories that seem to have only a tenuous linkage to the matters at hand. This reflects the “mess” he’s compelled to sort out inside his head.
In this essay about creativity I talked about “brain soup”; the way factoids or experiences from long ago meet new information to create new ideas.
Columbo finds solutions by letting observations stew in his head. When he observes something new, he voices, out loud, its relationship to what he’s observed before — which often means a story about something his brother-in-law once did.
Compare this to the way Columbo’s suspects operate. Each works long and hard to create a water-tight alibi for their crime; a perfect story nobody could refute.
Except Columbo always does. And the trigger is that sense of a story that’s just “too perfect”.
Don’t trust perfection, and don’t hone the stories you tell your clients too completely. Letting them see a little of the grime on the undercarriage might bring them that reality check or deliberate provocation you need.
A little bit of flair and showmanship is the icing on the cake
As much as designers want to be taken seriously and not simply be “the people who decide what colour the buttons should be”, there’s no need to hide your light under a bushel entirely.
Human-centred design can be a revelation to people used to working in more conventional ways. Even Columbo allows himself a magician’s flourish sometimes.
Wear rumpled clothing and pay little attention to your appearance
This is probably not one to live by, although I’m guilty of it.
Might be good for changing expectations and separating yourself from the typical “Big Four consultant”, at least.