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Interview with Barry Katz, IDEO first Fellow, on Design Thinking.


I met with Barry Katz at IDEO’s office in San Francisco; we talked about Design Thinking as a philosophy, the importance of not believing in a miracle recipe and how data is transforming the process.

Barry Katz is IDEO’s first Fellow and Professor of Industrial and Interaction Design at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, and Consulting Professor in the Design Group, Department of Mechanical Engineering, at Stanford. He is the author of six books, including (with Tim Brown) Change By Design, and most recently, Make it New: The History of Silicon Valley Design (MIT Press, 2015). 

How would you define Design Thinking?

New products and services usually come from either pushed by tech capabilities of a company or pulled by market opportunities, but with Design Thinking the focus is on users, we start with human needs. Design Thinking is an approach to solving problems, based on needs.

Much of what Design Thinking is about is the ability to re-frame a problem. When clients come to us saying ‘We need this thing’, we go back to them with a slightly different question or challenge. We bring in a different angle and that can have dramatic results.

Focusing on users does not mean we do market research; we leave the big, quantitative studies to our clients. Our approach does not replace quantitative studies, we complement it.

We don’t look for averages; we look for ‘extreme users‘ because we look for needs and inspiration.

IDEO is considered the parent of Design Thinking, did you really invent it?

There is a lot of controversy about who coined the term, but it was way before IDEO! IDEO did introduce the concept to a mainstream audience, and Change by Design, by Tim Brown, IDEO’s CEO, that was published 10 years ago, certainly helped popularize the concept.

IDEO started as a consultancy bringing together engineering capabilities and design expertise. It was only after a decade of working mainly on industrial design and engineering, including  about 50 products for Apple, that the human and behavioral sciences were added to the mix. From then on, everything was going through the lens of users.

What are some well-known examples of products or services that Design Thinking helped bring to life?

 IDEO designed the first Apple Mouse. Let me tell you this story: Steve Jobs walked in and asked 6 recent Stanford graduates if they could design a "mouse". Everyone said ‘Yes, of course’. But none of them knew what a mouse was, it didn’t exist yet.

Silicon Valley designers, in the 80s, would be challenged to define the properties of entirely new category of products, not just designing and re-designing existing products. IDEO designed the first e-book before the Kindle and the 1st commercially successful PDA, the ancestor of the iPhone.

Beyond Industrial Design and the electronic products you just mentioned, Design Thinking is now being applied to services, business challenges, processes. How do you see Design thinking evolving?

Yes, Design Thinking seems to be getting bigger and bigger. I was just part of a new project: helping a group at the Stanford Medical School launch, not products, not services, but new processes. We are suggesting that teams working on healtcare improvment identify the entire spectrum of stakeholders: not just doctors and nurses, but perhaps pharmacists, ambulance drivers, orderlies, and of course patients and their family members. We’re trying to mobilize a team of stakeholders, as part of the solution.

It’s a very different type of project than classical product design, but the key aspects of the methodology of design Thinking are there: going out and meeting people, making sense of what you observe, and re-framing the problem, brainstorming, prototyping, piloting and testing.

Increasingly, we find ourselves using Design Thinking to tackle societal challenges: How might we help Americans become more generous in donating blood? How might we improve the voting process in L.A.? These challenges don’t involve Design in a traditional way, there’s no obvious limit to Design Thinking.

Some other exciting projects we’re working on today are around mobility and autonomous transportation: How might we better transport people, objects or spaces? What if, instead of commuting, we would have mobile offices that would pick up people along the way and provide a full set of office capabilities?

In the end, it’s about exploring a verb - How might we better transport, engage, support, etc.—not just a noun. It’s about designing human experiences, products and services that support that experience.

User insights are key to Design Thinking, how do you see your capabilities evolve considering that Data is becoming critical when it comes to identifying micro-insights?

That is a very timely question! IDEO just acquired a few weeks ago, Datascope a data science company, based in Chicago. Data science is becoming bigger and bigger and we need to embrace it, as it allows to collect micro-observations.

Here’s a story I really like about a micro observation that changed the course of a project: We were working on a new syringe for diabetes patients, and interviewed a woman who needed 6 injections a day. We didn’t ask her what type of new syringe she would like: that’s not her expertise. But she’s an expert at her own life, so we asked her when the disease really got into the way of her being the person she wanted to be. She told us that she was on a first date in a restaurant with a guy she really liked and at some point he glanced at her open purse and saw the syringe. The guy never called her back because he just assumed she was a drug user! This anecdote influenced our design: we were inspired by a stylish, luxury pen, something a woman would carry in a purse, next to her lipstick and sun-glasses. Because of her story we changed the language of the product from "medical instrument" to "lifestyle accessory".

So looking at the small things can make a difference, and data can help us do that.

 There is so much content on Design thinking out there now, it’s almost an open source methodology, that anyone can use and apply on there own. How do you feel about that?

It does make me a little nervous. It never imagine that it would be crystalized into a fixed methodology and I do worry about making it a ‘machine’, the ‘5 steps’ you have to go through and "tada" you get an iPhone. Design Thinking is not a recipe, it’s a philosophy.

When we launched IDEO U, or put our Human-Centered Toolkit online, some worried that we would be giving away our secrets. But the secret sauce does not make you a chef. I think having access to what happens back stage, and integrating clients into a Design Thinking process does not make them experts, but it does allow them to understand how much a chef can make a difference.

That being said, I do believe that pieces of the process can be internalized: learning how to re-frame questions, learning how to engage users, how to create rapid prototypes and test them on sample populations, etc. These are things that corporate clients walk away with and can replicate with success within their organizations.

 What would you say is the biggest impact of Design Thinking for corporate clients?

 James Pattell, a Stanford professor who teaches a class on design for extreme poverty, recently remarked to me that innovation is a slow, methodical process punctuated by bursts of ‘lightning’, and that Design Thinking puts people in situations that increase the likelihood that those bursts lighting will happen.

I'm also inspired by the observation by Sam Yen, SVP at SAP, which has been successful at implementing Design Thinking as a way to transform their organization: Design Thinking is a great way of scaling creativity throughout an organization.

It’s actually not complicated to find creative talents, but it’s really hard to have them spread their creativity in a productive way through out a company; it’s usually pretty disruptive. Using Design Thinking as a way to scale creativity, and allow everyone to contribute, is an impactful way of putting this philosophy to work.


Over the years FABERNOVEL developed its own Design Thinking capabilities. We leverage this philosophy for new services we design and help corporate clients train their teams and embrace this user-centric mindset. If you are interested in Design thinking, get in touch with François Truong for European projects or Mawuena Tendar, for the US market.