How to Make Better Life Decisions through Design Thinking and Prototyping

There comes a point when you can no longer rely on the Magic 8 ball to provide the best path for major life decisions. Stanford University lecturer Dave Evans has a better idea.

Dave Evans: There are lots of ways to think. And what you want is you want a toolkit of ways to think and you want ways to think to be aligned with the problems you're thinking about. So we talk about sort of four examples of ways of thinking. There's engineering thinking, which is very prevalent in modern society because we're a technical society and engineers solve pain problems to which there are clear repeatable solutions. Once I figure out how to build the Brooklyn Bridge I can build it again and again; it will work every time. That's a hard problem but it's a tame problem. It's well behaved. It will act tomorrow just like it acted today.

Business problems you use optimization thinking. There's no right answer to your branding, no right answer to your market share, but you can optimize and that's a different kind of thinking. Researchers do analytic thinking. They thought with a premise. They think thin slice it down. They've got a questioning the process. Those are ways of thinking. What we call wicked problems, that's a technical term developed by some urban planners at Berkeley back in the '70s, a wicked problem is one where the criteria for success are unclear, constantly changing; you won't know you got the right answer until you find it; and once you found it you can't reuse it again. You can't rebuild New York City somewhere else. You can't be Dave Evans again. You can't be somebody else again. So wicked problems are inherently human problems and they're messy problems and they're trying to intersect a future that none of us knows enough about.

So how do you do that? You can't analyze that. So you build your way for it. In design we build our way forward. And we build our way forward by sneaking up on the future through this iteration of prototypes; get curious; ask a question; understand it; try something; learn something; do it again, do it again until you get enough of an idea that you can implement and actually solve the problem.

We have two kinds of prototyping: engineering prototypes and design prototypes. I should also clarify every time I say the word design here I mean design as in designed thinking or technically human centered design. The design program at Stanford was formed in the '60s. It's over 54 years old. It's the eldest interdisciplinary program at the university, the marriage of art, human factors and mechanical engineering. It's actually located in the ME department it's where we technically work. And that design was conceived as an innovation methodology, not as craft. Most designers in the world were trained in the craft of design. Graphic designers can draw and lay things out and industrial designers can shape things. Even ergonomic designers can shape things in a particular kind of a way.

Stanford designers do design thinking and design thinking is a methodology, it's not reliant upon craft and so it's highly transferable. So when I talk about design prototype I mean a design thinking prototype. Engineers prototype things to prove that that tame solution to that team problem they figured out does in fact work correctly. I actually have a masters in thermal sciences. I haven't used it much but there you go. I used to know how to calculate flame speed and design a turbine engine. So if I'm going to design a turbine engine, I'm General Electric, I'm going to run prototypes in a big soundproof cinder block box so when it blows up people don't get hurt and prototype one and prototype two and prototype three are different variations on the turbine blades, on this big fan that spends 100,000 RPM and we're going to make sure that it works under stress conditions and if it breaks we're going to make a modification. We're going to get that engineering done right. That's engineering prototyping to prove that the idea I had works correctly. Because I already think I know what the answer is.

A design prototype is not to prove my end solution right, it's to find out what I want to do in the first place. So an engineering prototype starts with a conclusion, a design prototype starts with a curiosity. So when we do prototyping in design like what do I want to know more about? I can either think about that or I can try it. So this is the empirical embodied experience of going out and trying things. So, for instance, when I was the first mouse product manager at Apple many, many years ago we prototyped the mouse. Now the mouse was, of course, an electro mechanical device. It had this little ball and it had Schmidt trigger LED detectors in it that were brand-new technology and those things could be engineering prototyped. But whether or not you like the way it felt in your hand or rolling this thing around on the desk and then looking at the screen over there made sense to you, we had no idea how that was going to go. We had hundreds of prototypes. One button or two? I had long and religiously ideologically animated conversations with Larry Sessler and Steve Jobs about one button or two and modelessness and double clicking. There's no answer to those questions, you have to try them. So we did lots and lots of prototypes of process or experience and lots of prototypes of shape and we ended up with the mouse and the many mice we have today. Couldn't have engineered that, we had to design that.

Example of a life prototype. So there's a woman we know, actually an example who didn't do much prototyping. We'll call her Ellen. And she was an HR executive but loved Italian food and had always dreamed of having an Italian deli. And she decided to go for it. So she went for it. So she saw this old deli that was for sale. She bought it. She quit her job. She refurbished the whole thing. She redesigned it. She laid it out. She put in a little café because she wanted to replicate this experience she had living in Tuscany briefly. And then opened to great fanfare and was wonderfully successful. Nobody's successful the first time in a restaurant. It never happens, except she hated it. She loved the idea of it. She loved developing it but not running a retail establishment. I have to hire people all the time. Most of my employees are high school kids and they quit on you regular. I have managing inventory lists. None of the reality of running an Italian deli and café was really delightful to her.

Now the prototypes that she could have iterated, she could have started with visiting a lot of different Italian cafés and talking to the owner. She could have gotten a job as a bus girl actually waiting on tables, enough to be a waiter because they sort of have to be trained, but I can clear the tables and overhear the conversations and see if people are having as good as time as they think they will in my place. I can try catering on a weekend. I could cater my friend's daughter's wedding, that's not a very big commitment. No capital is outlaid. Do I really want to cook that much? Lots of ways to try, try, try, try, try before you jump off the cliff or buy the farm and that will give you feedback about what the reality really is. What prototypes and design do are they allow you to ask interesting questions, learn things, expose your assumptions and let you sneak up on the future. So prototyping is a great way to go through your life because nobody knows the answer.

Welcome to the world of tame problems and wicked problems. Dave Evans, Stanford lecturer and former product manager at Apple, opens the door on an interesting question: not all problems are the same, so why use just one cookie-cutter method of thinking to fix them all? We’ll arrive at faster and smarter resolutions if we customize our approach.

How do problems differ? Tame problems are non-volatile challenges where the conditions remain the same, and once you solve the problem (for example engineering and building a bridge) you can transfer that knowledge to other locations and build more bridges. Arriving at the solution can be difficult, but once you get there, it’s final. File it under done and dusted.

Then there are wicked problems which are notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to solve because the criteria for success are unknown and forever shifting, the knowledge is incomplete, it’s a symptom of another problem, the level of subjectivity is high, and the only way to know you have the right answer is by finding it. The cherry on top of all this wickedness is that once you solve this problem, you can’t apply the answer to something else. It’s usually a one-time only solution – like realizing how you should have lived your life only once you’re near the finish line. These are usually the most complicated human problems, for example poverty, political instability or education.

So what’s the best way to solve wicked problems? Evans is the world’s greatest ambassador for prototyping. He was the first mouse product manager at Apple, at a time when the mouse was a blank slate. There was no correct answer for how the mouse should look or function, but the Apple team had to anticipate what people in the future would want from this product. So they prototyped the living daylights out of it. The number of buttons, the size, shape, weight, texture, click sound – every variable was discussed and tested. "Get curious; ask a question; understand it; try something; learn something; do it again, do it again until you get enough of an idea that you can implement and actually solve the problem," he says.

Evans doesn’t believe prototype thinking is exclusive to retail or infrastructure, it’s highly adaptive to implement in our personal lives. This is the foundation of the incredibly popular Designing Your Life course he teaches at Stanford. When big decisions arise, rather than leaping into the unknown on a gut feeling or a guess, you can apply design thinking: ask questions, seek feedback, prototype yourself by undergoing relevant experiences and exposing your assumptions to reality. If this sounds abstract, Evans clarifies with a comprehensive example in the video above. What you should do with your life is probably the most wicked problem there is, but design thinking and prototyping allow us to make the most refined choices we can.

Dave Evans and Bill Burnett's book is Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life.

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