In-house design thinking


I have been working on this article for a while, researching similar processes and the origins of them. I have looked at UX (User Experience) tools, UCD (User Centred Design), HCD (Human Centered Design), design thinking, lean UX… the list goes on! – there is a lot of information out there. I am in the industry and still struggle to differentiate between them. A recent experience made me think…

A few weeks ago I attended a conference about UX. One of the talks was about “IBM’s design thinking”. They had taken concepts built and developed by David and Tom Kelley (Creative Confidence) and Tim Brown (discussed in his book Change by Design) and various others and put their own spin on it. The speakers spent over half an hour describing their concept of “hills”, “sponsor users” and “playbacks”. I still don’t quite know what each of the points means!

If you are an external agency working in isolation, away from the client, then only the agency needs to understand the process as long as deliverables are met.

You could set up an in-house team in the same way, only interacting with the stake holders at the end of the project,but this is restrictive. People within the company will probably have a lot to offer and can really contribute to the process. The key point of creative confidence is that everyone can be creative. Harnessing the creativity of industry experts in the right way can be hugely beneficial.

IBM base their principles on strong foundations but jargon and theory overpower it. It is amazing how terms that seem obvious mean different things to different people and some can have a negative effect. IBM use the term “hills” to describe a goal or direction. This was described to me using the metaphor that in combat you would aim to get to a point- to the top of a hill. You have a general plan but you have to adapt on route. They then apply this to the work environment – define a hill and then start the development towards that goal.

Without an explanation this means nothing. A “hill” could be interpreted as a barrier or a tough uphill struggle ahead. Instead of getting people on board and wowing them with modern thinking and innovative processes you do the opposite.

One way around this is to hide the process. I have found that this results in the team discussing the process but actively avoiding using the terminology. It is like Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort –  “the one who should not be named!” This mystery results in exclusion of the people you want to engage and is potentially even more destructive.

I want to present a process that is clear and needs very little explanation. It should be open and welcoming. If the method and terminology is simple, the barriers are taken away and the potential for great ideas to emerge is increased.

I also want to encourage creativity by emphasising phases that really facilitate idea generation.

There are three common beliefs around maximising innovation and creativity:

  1. “Good design thinkers observe. Great design thinkers observe the ordinary.” Tim Brown, Change by Design.
  2. Innovation can be measured by the time taken from receiving a brief and creating a prototype… the shorter the better.
  3. Creativity comes, not from good solutions, but from forming the right questions.

A little more on these three points…

  1. When you are close to a process or a domain you sometimes miss the obvious. It is harder to observe the things that you take for granted. There may be inefficiencies that are overlooked because there is an assumption that as it has always been like that it is the best way. In Tim Brown’s book the context of this quote is more about the ability to take inspiration from anywhere and everywhere- the walk to work, how things are designed in the office. I am taking this and focusing it on a project but taking that open minded inquisitive mindset.
  2. The human brain learns the most from error. The faster you fail the quicker you learn. It seems that the education process rewards success but experimentation is the best way to improve and uncover better solutions. People are scared of failure. If you are able to experiment (and fail) early then you can develop quicker and more cost effectively. There is a misconception that you lower the risk by getting through a project without failing but in actual fact you lower the risk by finding out where the failures are early on.
  3. A mentor and past employer (Baz Thakur from Havoc Design) once told me that you are only as good as your brief. This is so true. Creativity is restricted by the way that you frame a question. Pose the question “How might we redesign this four legged chair with a back rest” and compare the outcomes with the question “How might we sit at a desk” or even wider “how might we operate a computer in the office.” Each question may result in the same outcome but the scope of the question restricts or opens the potential outcome. Framing the task is key to opening the solution generation.

Taking all of this on board I have developed this cycle:

Joseph Shaffery in house design thinking

  1. Observe the ordinary – Observe the users, talk to the experts, look at extreme users, generate personas based on what you see, look at data around the current process, look at similar situations for inspiration, try out the process or product you are studying for yourself.
  2. Form questions – pull together the research and look for trends. Form questions around areas for improvements. Ask why are we doing this to understand if the question is being asked really will lead to the solution you desire. Are you answering the correct question?
  3. Experiment and evaluate – Generate ideas, test them out with people. Sketch wire-frames, test them with people, build prototypes, test with people, polish the designs so that they look like the real thing,… you guessed it… test with people.


This is not a three step linear process. It is a cycle. When you have experimented then this becomes the thing you observe and user test. More questions arise and with this more experimentation.

This process itself should be iterated and improved; observed, questioned and experimented. I welcome any feedback, especially from anyone who has tried to use this approach.


As part of my research I have collated infographics of some of the most common design/UX  processes.

Recommended reading

Creative confidence, David and Tom Kelley

Change by design, Tim Brown

Source of cover image Change by design, Tim Brown

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2 Responses

  1. Lou Harris says:

    Great article Joe, a bit of a head scratcher but I like your direction. Particularly the speed point. I find that my most successful ideas / creations are the ones that take the least time….

  2. Ben Brown says:

    I like the ideas and everthing makes good, practical sense.

    I think one thing often overlooked in iterative processes is when to stop the iteration – what may also be considered the success criteria. Often we worry about the process we follow and less about the outcome we are aiming for. I wouldn’t overcomplicate the process but I believe it would be worth understanding when and how to evaluate success.

    After all, the outcome is what we are paid for in most cases!

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