An Introduction to Design Thinking
I recently joined CEE as a community energy program manager, primarily working on Xcel Energy’s Partners in Energy service that CEE helps implement. With my MBA in Design Strategy from California College of the Arts’ program, prior to CEE I worked in creative strategy at Target, in user experience design for a Bay Area startup, and in architectural marketing. Throughout my career, “empathy-focused” service delivery enhanced by design thinking has been a common denominator.
Design thinking is a problem-solving approach to improve a given process through empathy, with a focus on understanding and sharing feelings. Beyond its unique steps and tools, what really sets design thinking apart is its sharp focus on “users” — meaning any people who engage with or are served by the outcome, often the customer in business relationships.
As experts in any field, we often place an unreasonably high value on our own expectations and perception of a problem, whether we’ve experienced the problem directly ourselves or (more often) simply observed it from a distance. By setting our expectations aside to focus on actual users’ understanding and perceptions, we are better able to design solutions to real problems as experienced by real people.
Jeanne Liedka outlines a design thinking approach that can be applied to a variety of problems in her book Designing for Growth. She asks four questions: What is? What if? What wows? What works?
Design Thinking Methodology based on Designing for Growth
Using design thinking to tackle a problem starts with exploring the existing landscape and diving deeply into the current system, making sure to look at the right problem and understand the user.
Taking all that into account, it’s time to look at iterations — are there processes in other industries that could be leveraged to solve the problem? Is there a new behavior or way to reframe the problem that could lead to an interesting and effective solution? What assumptions need to be re-examined?
After identifying a few potential solutions, it’s time to go back to the user and test the options. Does this or that solution delight them? Does it actually solve their problem in an easy way? Is it exciting and if not, what would make it exciting? How might the solution evolve over time? Finally, how can the solution be brought to scale and to market? Each stage might require moving backward to move forward.
The approach is not appropriate for all problems — but when leveraged for the right problems, design thinking can deliver impactful services and products.
The energy industry is changing rapidly and the time is ripe for design-thinking solutions. Consumers are using less energy and expecting more from their utilities, and utilities are experiencing declining load growth and dealing with aging infrastructure. At the same time, there is an abundance of new energy efficiency technologies and an increase in public demand for policies and regulation that address climate change. To continue to make clean energy progress and meet evolving consumer needs, we must figure out a new approach to address these changes — design thinking can help.
Design thinking is an ideal methodology to help wrangle with questions like:
- How can we best leverage communities to create new social norms around energy use?
- Where does an energy utility fit in the consumers’ lives, and how do we create the most positive relationship between utility and consumer?
- What consumer-facing technologies for integrated energy efficiency do we need?
There is evidence of design thinking popping up more and more often in our mainstream energy marketplace. The approach is already being adopted by energy startups like Vandebron and Nest. And OpenIDEO, a global community working together to design solutions for the world’s biggest challenges, hosted an online “huddle” focusing on Design Thinking and Renewable Energy in 2014.
As design thinking is adopted into the energy sector, what questions might this methodology help to approach?
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