Asking the right questions

Get your thinking cap on: how Design Thinking helps communicators explore solutions for unmet needs

A few weeks ago, we gathered in Brussels for a short session on Design Thinking Innovation and how might we apply it to challenges that we as communicators face.

Don’t stop reading, even if you think you are not a designer: this is not a remote, irrelevant concept. Design Thinking is a mindset, a process and an approach to solve problems through innovation.

As a mindset, it embraces ambiguity and uncertainty, challenges assumptions, encourages collaboration across boundaries, and uses prototyping as a way to fail early and learn from it. It is optimistic - where everybody sees a problem, a design thinker sees a need, an opportunity for a novel solution.

As a process, it embodies the how of innovation. We all want to be innovative in whatever we do, improve or bring new services, offer new and better products, or produce efficiencies. The question is how?

This is where Design Thinking comes in, giving us a process that takes us from discovering needs, both current and latent (explore), to coming up with lots of ideas, by using techniques that trick the brain (imagine), to trying some of those ideas out before making them real (implement), and inspiring people to be part of the innovation (telling the story).

In this piece, I’d like to share my thoughts on the explore stage. As an approach, design thinking tends to start with the people, rather then the problem.

As most problems have got people in them, understanding people at a deeper level is the first step in the design thinking exploration. Very often we think we know our users, customers, employees, we have surveys, focus groups and questionnaires that give us insights.

These methods are useful but not enough. The only way to test the assumptions we hold about the way they use our products, the way they read our messages, is by getting out, observing, talking with people in order to create deep empathy, or immersing ourselves in their environment.

"The only way to test the assumptions we hold about the way they use our products, the way they read our messages, is by getting out, observing, talking with people in order to create deep empathy..."

For the communicator experts in Brussels the questions were about who our audiences are, what their profile is, what are the spaces we can reach out to them, do they live in Facebook or Instagram, do they watch videos on Youtube or Periscope, do they watch 3 minute videos or 6 second Vines?

More questions were explored about the stakeholders in the message, and the power relationships among them: are the communication departments a layer in the flow or part of the decision making process? Are communication directors included in the creation of the message or are they just called in after all is done and it needs to be turned into a press release?

With the information deluge that surrounds us, is this the death of the traditional press release as we know it?.... And then, it’s time to make sense of all the answers, the research, the data, and define the problem itself.

The groups realise that very often, what presents itself as a problem is actually a manifestation or effect of something deeper, that needs to be uncovered - and that takes time. It brings to mind one of Einstein’s sayings: if he had one hour to solve a problem on which his life depended, he would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution. We often do it the other way round, by jumping too early into the solutions space.

As one of the participants said at the end of the session, the main thing I will take away from this is the need to give it time and ask the right questions.

Unless you are a journalist and trained to ask questions, we are all trained to give answers. How many times you have found yourself in a meeting, wanting to ask a question and deciding not to, in case people wonder, how come you don’t know the answer?

As Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s DNA says, you need to be humble enough to acknowledge to yourself that you don’t have all the answers, and confident enough to admit that in front of everyone else. In design thinking we call that attitude of wisdom and it is not easy.

So, how good are you at asking questions? Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question, has designed a quiz, which he calls the Inquiry Quotient Quiz. I took it and was quite pleased with mine, 9/10, a natural-born questioner but not a master! You may take yours here.

On 25 February Julia hosts her workshop, Through the eyes of your customer - London Design Thinking Innovation at Somerset Hosue, London. Readers of Communication Director receive 20% off when they register for this event here.

To find out more about how Design Thinking can impact your work, visit Julia's Innovation Studio Gconsultancy Innovation and follow her weekly zine Inspire to Innovate.

In November 2015, Julia spoke about this subject at a Regional Debate held by the European Association of Communication Directors (EACD). To find out about future EACD events in your area, visit the Association's events calender here.

Image: Thinkstock

Julia Goga-Cooke

Dr. Julia Goga-Cooke is an academic, journalist, innovation architect and entrepreneur. She leads the Innovation Studio Gconsultancy Innovation, helping companies innovate and grow, and publishes the weekly zine Inspire to Innovate. After a career in academia and UN, Julia served at the BBC for 16 years in various on air and senior editorial and leadership positions. In 2008, she joined Wharton Fellows and spent a year at Central Saint Martins and London Business School, studying Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Her passion for learning took her to MIT to study Collaborative Innovation Networks. She teaches Design Thinking Innovation at Loughborough University and CSM, University of Arts, London.