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Step Zero: The Step Before you Start the Design Process.

It's not just about the design process, it's about who is in it from the start that will make it work.

Time and time again, the design thinking process (or Human- Centered Design) continues to be a way into the future that we believe in wholeheartedly. It has proven to be a strong tool that is able to invite in large amounts of complexity and diversity to any challenge and spit out something that works better (and usually with fewer resources), coupled with much higher engagement from everyone involved!


However, it only works if the many important details and mindsets are followed along the way by the people in it. The inclusion of people into the process needs to be intentional- and the selection needs to happen well before the design process starting line. We call it “people before process” in the design teams at DSIL.


We step back before we begin and map the process from start to finish. This allows us to identify the largest elements that need to be considered along the way in order to make sure we are working for the greater vision and not based on the bias of the team, or any one individual on that team. Of course, each client and project will have different people to pay attention to. That’s what makes design thinking fun! It’s one big puzzle you can’t do alone. From those elements, we can look at who inside and outside of the team can help build understanding along the way.


In the academic world, this process of choosing the right people is called interdisciplinary design, in the development and business world, stakeholder mapping. More simply, it means asking the question of who can add depth of experience and technical views to the thinking? Who has the right resources, and who may stop an innovation from happening at all if they are not involved?


Here are the big two questions we ask in this phase before we begin:


1. Who will be on your design team?


When co-creating with our clients we think about who else we can invite in to expand perspectives, offer multiple truths and speak to differing realities. Constructing a design team with many lenses will more organically offer a holistic systems lens (to better understand the whole system and how it works at its different levels) throughout the process. The more we can see the whole system, the more gaps we catch along the way in whatever we build. Not coincidentally, fewer gaps in the design emerge and sustainability triumphs, or lasts a bit longer at the very least.


No matter what you are trying to build using design thinking, the current system it lives within is a reality that cannot be ignored. More useful innovations emerge when you can stand on those realities as you prototype new solutions from there rather than above it so make sure you have people who understand it and are willing to talk about it honestly.


The old adage is true- “we don’t know what we don’t know” and we will unconsciously create biased teams if we aren’t careful. Paying attention to must-do #1 ensures you invite the people in who help you bring understanding and build better innovations.


2. Did we invite in the people who want to be there?


It matters that you have stakeholders at the table that want to be there. As philosopher Michael Bratman has stated, “intention is a mental state representing commitment for the future, a state which requires planning and forethought, the very foundations of successful design.” Look for people who are invested in the innovation that the process will produce if followed well, and also dedicated to the process of experimenting with others around them and being open to the outcome that emerges.This is no small task and collaboration is hard!


It doesn’t always mean that people don’t care if they don’t want to be at the table. It sometimes means that right now they don’t have time. Let’s be practical! No matter what is the reason, involve people who are able to show up and be invested in what you are doing.


Here are some questions to guide you:

  • Who cares about this?

  • Who realistically has time?

  • Who is invested in the end goal for the right reasons?

  • Who has a lens that may be important? Is there a phase when we need to invite in more people/groups?

  • Who is a good team player to have on board?

  • Who is creative?

  • Who are we missing here that would have some insights?

  • Who else is affected, or could be affected by the new design?

In terms of practicality, this step may feel like a no-brainer, yet in the field, we find little design firms do this, probably because it adds more time and the world seems to feel like we don’t have much of that! Regardless, we all often forget about people in the process although they are fundamentally tied to each other. Whatever you do, find the time and always, always, start with people.

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