By: Executive Education

A Bootcamp alum shares a simple and important lesson about what it takes to quickly move from learning about design thinking to applying it.

When it comes to applying design thinking, it’s never too early to start. Just ask Susan Newman.

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Susan is the Director of METER Food at METER Group Inc, a family-owned scientific device manufacturer in Pullman, Washington. Susan attended the d.school’s Design Thinking Bootcamp in March 2016. When she started her Bootcamp experience, she had heard about design thinking, and didn’t want to have anything to do with talking to customers, especially about their feelings.

"Feelings are silly,” Susan remembered thinking at the time, "and I don’t really care to talk about those. So, I’m just going to stay here and do my work."

The CEO of METER Group, who also happened to be the founder’s son and former d.school alum, eventually talked her into going to the d.school. He realized that Susan was a promising member of the team, but she needed a new perspective. “My lack of empathy is what brought me to the d.school.”

METER’s CEO sent her to California with a big challenge — one with zero margin for error. The product at the center of Susan’s challenge was METER’s water activity meter, which is used to determine whether food is safe for people to consume. The product had a poor user-interface design, and Susan was tasked with making it better while delivering the same reliability and accuracy.

Bootcamp is akin to drinking from a firehose. There is a wealth of information presented in a very short period of time, and Susan wasn’t sure how she would retain it all. While taking a walk around the d.school, she noticed a sign that read, “d.school starts now.” That’s when it hit her: It would be impossible for her to retain everything she was learning during Bootcamp. The only way to make sure she used it all was if she started applying what she learned immediately.

So, Susan got on the phone.

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Before Bootcamp was over, Susan called her team members and organized five customer visits for the week after d.school. Her meeting with Wendy, a food scientist who focuses on packaged snack food, changed everything. Wendy, along with two lab technicians, was running thousands of tests annually using METER’s water activity meter. The meter wasn’t the only device Wendy and her lab technicians were using, however. There were a number of other devices in Wendy’s lab, each of which were producing hundreds of readings.

The readings were recorded by hand and transferred to a spreadsheet, which was then printed out and kept in a binder. That meant Wendy had numerous binders full of records, each with a very high risk of being inaccurate.

“We know that one in every twenty written records is inaccurate,” said Susan. “The problem with that is, Wendy is responsible for the safety of the food we eat.”

Not only that, but Wendy needed to keep the unwieldy binders in order to meet the frequent and demanding audits of her lab’s work. Susan dove in, asking Wendy about her experience with the water activity meter. Wendy wasn’t interested in the meter. In fact, she loved her water activity meter, telling Susan, “If my AquaLab was a man, I’d marry it!”

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Instead, Wendy showed Susan other aspects of her lab, including the numerous devices she had to work with and the laborious record-keeping process. The entire time, Susan kept asking questions and observing Wendy to discover how Wendy was thinking about her work, what might delight her and how her work experience could be improved.

Susan and her team eventually realized that to design for Wendy, they would need to pivot. They were trying to solve the wrong problem. The design challenge wasn’t about the water meter at all. It was about reducing the number of transcription errors. The errors were eroding her staff’s morale by making them feel less important. Even after doing the hard work of recording hundreds of results, her staff was constantly being chastised and felt they were doing poor work.

The paper records rested at the heart of the team’s lowered morale and frustration. So, the team got to work. Susan took what she learned in Bootcamp and worked with her team to build low-resolution prototypes. The team used rubber bands, cardboard boxes, digital tablets and 3D printers to make at least 19 prototypes that were tested on 75 technical users.

“It’s the quantity,” said Susan, "We had so many prototypes and user interactions that [it was] incredible."

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The work paid off. A little over three months after Susan left Bootcamp, the team released the first version of SKALA, a touchscreen interface with a USB tower able to take in readings from other lab devices. It replaces manual record keeping, which all but eliminates the errors that result from hand-written records. It also makes satisfying audit requirements easier. “SKALA has been changing lives,” says Susan.

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Rather than wait to implement what she had learned, Susan biased towards action. It’s all about making that choice to move quickly, she said, “You can get on the phone and make plans for next week. Get your day-one meeting scheduled, pull a team together regardless of experience level, and create a team space to teach and start prototyping. Make a plan to start going out and prototyping for what you’re doing. That’s the only way you’ll remember your awesome d.school methods.”

It has been a year since Susan attended Bootcamp, and METER Group has embraced design thinking more broadly. Even the corporate chef is on board, using design thinking to improve the queueing experience. Susan also has more resources at her disposal now. When she first started her design work, she worked solely with junior engineers. Now, she has access to more experienced talent.

“Within six months ... senior engineers wanted to come with us on those customer visits,” said Susan. They had heard stories of cardboard boxes being used in conversations with customers -- interactions that would be anathema and embarrassing in any other context. Energy and excitement were brewing, and they wanted to know what it was all about.

“[Design thinking] has changed our culture pretty quickly, really. It’s only been a year for us and design thinking is a term every employee at METER Group can now tell you about."

The story has a double happy ending for Wendy, the food scientist with whom Susan collaborated, too. She was so “awesome” that Susan hired her.

Susan’s advice to those starting to learn design thinking is simple: start now.  

“Start, get going and love it. Love your customers. Make them happy, and do your thing,” she told a recent Bootcamp cohort. "Take what you observe from your users and learn from those experiences. Bringing a product to market using the d.school culture and approach that enhances user success in their industry…that’s the best part."

Written by Emi Kolawole

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