by Eric Bloom

How design thinking can enhance IT productivity

Jan 04, 2017
IT LeadershipProject Management ToolsSoftware Development

The goal is to code only once by making the right upfront decisions on the design.

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Credit: Thinkstock

I had the pleasure of speaking with Deb Biggar, the founder and managing director of Boston Human Factors Inc. We discussed how “design thinking” can be used to enhance IT productivity. As background, design thinking is a widely used technique/concept to enhance existing processes, define or enhance new products, drive innovation of all types and more.

From an IT perspective, Biggar, an expert in user experience design, said that “design thinking opens people’s minds to outside-the-box thinking and reduces counterproductive project group dynamics, such as who takes the credit for a specific idea.” She went on to say that “from a software development perspective, the goal is to code only once by making the right upfront decisions on the design. Coding once reduces cost, speeds delivery time, enhances code quality and heightens programmer morale.”

She went on to describe the following eight-step design thinking process:

Step 1: Discovery. This step includes documenting and measuring what currently exists by observing how people are currently performing the task. This allows you to properly define the problem and empathize with those performing the activity.

Step 2: Reframing the Opportunity. This is the process of looking for patterns in what was previously observed, questioning current assumptions and gaining deeper insights into the information gathered during the discovery step.

Step 3: Incubate. This is the time when each member of the project team thinks deeply about the issue on their own to gather their thoughts and think creatively about the issue to be solved. This is best done when those involved in the project are performing low-stress rote tasks, or simply “sleeping on it” at home.

Step 4: Ideate. During ideation, the project team regroups and uses divergent thinking and brainstorming to define potential solutions.

Step 5: Evaluate and Refine. This is when the viability of each potential solution defined during the previous step is evaluated and prioritized. Also, other real-world considerations are discussed, including constraints, such as budget, time or compliance. This step also considers movements in technology, industry trends, and other important variables needed to make the decision(s) of what should be prototyped.

Step 6: Rapid Prototyping. As the name implies, one or more potential solutions is prototyped, tested and evaluated during this step. The idea is to think big and start small with the willingness to restart or fail fast if the concept and/or prototype proves to be unworkable. This step should also have heavy involvement of users as both designers and evaluators — after all, they know their current process, work environment and organizational culture best.

Step 7: Deliver Solution. No mystery here; this is when the defined and prototyped solutions are moved into production or piloted, depending on its ultimate scope, importance and size.

Step 8: Continue to Evaluate and Learn. This step should be ongoing. In the short term, this step will help flesh out issues and opportunities not previously seen. In the longer term, it will facilitate a culture of ongoing evaluation and continuous improvement.

While these steps may seem daunting and time-consuming, depending on the topic size, they can actually be performed in a one-to-two-week period.

Returning to our focus on its use as an IT productivity tool, there is great value to having the lead developer, lead tester and other key players involved in all eight steps of this process. In addition to the diverse skill set a wider group provides, it also helps get buy-in of the solution by all those on the project team, as well as reducing the chance that any key project area, such as programming, will be surprised by the final design recommendations.

Further driving IT productivity if your IT shop uses agile/scrum, having design thinking sprints just ahead of your software development sprints helps maximize the scrum team’s productivity because all the primary design decisions and processes have already been defined during the previous two weeks by the design thinking team.

You can learn more about Deb Biggar and her company, Boston Human Factors, at