Design Thinking specialist: empathy is one of the most important skills you can have

Doreen Lorenzo, from University of Texas, also explains why the hell it is still so hard to embrace change

“Begin Again” is one of those movies that surprisingly hide one or two nifty scenes. In this Knightley/Ruffalo context that happens when she (Keira) is singing at some small pub stage and he (Mark) imagines instruments to fill up the music and, well, the big picture.

Assistant Dean of the School of Design and Creative Technologies at University of Texas (UT), Doreen Lorenzo evokes this exact same effect. When she starts to talk, your imagination promptly remodels the whole place into a whopping and refined conference room adorned with that TED red logo — no matter where you are.

Good for her, because the theme she has chosen to pursue demands a great sales pitch. In March 2016 Lorenzo was appointed Director of the Center for Integrated Design at UT and started this project with the idea that every undergraduate on campus should learn Design Thinking. “If they learned and practiced it in school, it would not be something foreign to them in the workplace. It would just be how things are done”, she told me a few weeks ago.

She has a point but, again, this is not an easy concept to push into people’s head, and she knows it: “Pushing it as a value driver in business took a long time”. But why? What is Design Thinking after all and how does it affect all types of businesses, not only those Steve-Jobs-related? Instead of coming up with a fine mix of well curated words, I’ll limit myself to transcripting two of the best definitions out there.

  1. “It is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding”, observes the Danish NGO Interact Design Foundation.
  2. “It aims to create experiences that simplify and enrich people’s lives. It starts with human needs and expectations by radically taking the user’s perspective and thus revealing new, innovative ideas”, explains Doreen Lorenzo herself.

Recently, she and I had a little chat about Design Thinking, business challenges and, of course, media companies hindrances throughout the digital revolution.

Can Design Thinking actually be taught?
Design Thinking is not tangible and the methodology seems unique to how businesses operate. Until recently, Design Thinking was not part of any business curriculum. Many businesses questioned its validity because they hadn’t utilized it. Design Thinking also uses soft skills, such as empathy, which are not emphasized in business settings. They were not deemed important. However, studies today are showing that empathy is one of the most important skills you can have as a leader.

Speaking of leaders, which style of professional is a real blockhead when it comes to changing?
Change is hard, and pushing design as a value driver in business took a long time. There were no studies on ROI (return on investment) or impact. The only data was qualitative, not quantitative. Accepting something that, at first, makes you uncomfortable, will cause more people to turn away instead of trying something different. I don’t think it is people’s profession that rejects change. It is more systemic to human nature. In 2014 the Design Management Institute released the first study that said design-led organizations on the S&P 500 performed 215% better than those that were not design-led. The quantitative proof was finally there.

Is there any example you often resort to in order to illustrate the benefits?
Design Thinking is experiential learning. There is no other way to understand the impact. You need to experience it multiple times and in multiple situations to understand the value of human-centered design.

Could this be one of the (many) problems affecting news media companies?
In many respects news media now reaches more people than ever before, however, the way it reaches people has dramatically shifted. People no longer wait for their morning newspaper or watch the 6 o’clock evening news. Information is present 24 hours a day. People get very specific about what they read. The choices are abundant. Since the 2016 US election the call for excellent journalism has risen. Media outlets like the NY Times and Washington Post have more subscribers than they have had in the last 10 years. People are just consuming the information differently than they have done in the past.

Would you recommend training an entire newsroom on Design Thinking?
I’d ask the question: what problem are you trying to solve by training the journalist? You can train people in the methodology but it takes more than that to get everyone actually using it.

When media executives think about “design”, they can only link the word to something like “how cool will that look on a mobile phone?” — and these are the smart ones. How would you convince them that there’s (much) more than that?
I always tell people to start with a small project and highlight its success. People rally around successful outcomes. Produce one, and then you can talk about how great something is.

How do you see media companies in the next years? And what do they need to do right now to actually be "seen in the next years"?
Media companies are growing and adapting to people’s habits. They have to produce more video content and more content related to people’s interest. AI should begin to play a role in pushing specific content out to people. What isn’t going to happen is going back to the way things were. Those days are behind us. The music industry fought the change and was almost destroyed. The movie business embraced it and has done much better. News media companies that embrace the change will thrive.

Two decades of hardcore journalism in a past life; now Digital Media PhD candidate @ University of Porto, coffee taster and vinyl aficionado

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