There’s hope yet for design thinking — if we do it right

Published on
April 16, 2024
design thinking journey mapping

There’s been a lot of flak about design thinking these days, no doubt fuelled by IDEO’s drastic downsizing in 2023. 

It’s reasonable to ask if employees can make any real difference after a few days of high-energy, sticky-note-wielding DT 101 workshops. 

But what if employees were mentored over time by highly skilled design-thinking practitioners to solve real problems together? 

In our 20 years of being in the digital transformation space, we’ve embedded our teams with several clients through an approach we call co-teaming, which ultimately aims to uplift our clients’ in-house capabilities.

The Care Corner experience

In 2020, we spent three months co-teaming with social workers from Care Corner Singapore, a social and healthcare non-profit.

We came together to tackle two challenges they faced.

How might they: 

  1. Give timely support to beneficiaries who are parents of young children and 
  2. Help social workers “do more with less” without losing personal touch or compromising quality?

Spreading out the learning

In a typical two-day workshop, attendees would learn about the Double Diamond innovation framework, but in a highly compressed manner. There is simply no time to conduct meaningful user research to elicit insights. They would see how other organisations used design thinking, but the learning would be abstract. 

In our co-teaming approach, we also moved through the Double Diamond, albeit in an expanded manner. Each design sprint took two weeks. The Care Corner team worked closely with us at every stage—from ascertaining the real problem to distilling insights from user research to prototyping and testing solutions before landing on an MVP.

It was gratifying that the social workers reached a confidence level that allowed them to take complete ownership of the project. 

When you have a real problem, you would have a real solution to propose to management. 

Through this extended coaching process, we arrived at the following: 

  • An in-depth parenting service journey lifecycle 
  • A validated MVP with a high-res prototype
  • A detailed implementation roadmap

Find out more in our article: Helping a non-profit embrace an agile mindset and do more with less.

It was gratifying that the social workers reached a confidence level that allowed them to take complete ownership of the project. 

They formed a digital learning innovation team to champion design thinking and ran with the roadmap to implement the MVP at scale. 

From a capability development standpoint, this is the starkest difference between sending someone to a workshop and being coached through co-teaming. 

A buddy for parents and social worker

In 2023, the Buddy App was launched as a learning platform for Care Corner’s beneficiaries. Through bite-sized lessons, parents learn how to help their children navigate major milestones, such as entering primary school.

The app also provides credible resources for social workers, giving them more time for complex cases. 

The app is a great help, but it might not have materialised if the design thinking process had not challenged the social workers to question their assumptions and biases.

Exploring the Buddy app

Challenging assumptions and biases

Laura Tan, manager at Care Corner, explained: “A number of us were concerned if parents would be open to using a digital tool for engagement. This was based on our assumptions that parents may not be so tech savvy ... also …  in social work, we value personal touch and engagement instead of using tech.”

Prototyping and user testing quickly proved them wrong. Thanks to exposure to social media and apps like Grab, for instance, the parents were more tech-savvy than they thought.

Learning to work fast and to iterate quickly

Initially sceptical, Laura and her colleagues now see the benefits of rapid prototyping and testing. 

“At the start, I was wondering ‘Why do we need to draw this out on pen and paper?’” shared Laura. “But … each level of prototyping and hearing from the different stakeholders and users … helped us to gain clarity about what worked and what didn’t work.” 

The team went from a lo-fi sketch to a high-resolution one that users could interact with —improving with each iteration.

“If we didn’t go through this process, we would have taken a more painful route, maybe put in a lot more resources for a high-res prototype only to find out that it didn’t work,” added Laura.

At the In the Making Early Childhood Development Conference 2023 organised by Care Corner, with a segment showcasing the Buddy app

Resist “solutioning” too early

The open-ended nature of design thinking can be unsettling for new users.

Very often the problem we think we have may not be the problem we should be solving. 

That is because, very often the problem we think we have may not be the problem we should be solving. 

“When PebbleRoad introduced the design thinking process, I couldn’t envision what the end would look like. That was new and mind-boggling,” shared Laura. “I had a lot of questions: ‘What will we come up with?’ ‘What will the end product be like?’ I was told to trust the process.”

Resisting the jump into “solutioning” forced the team to tune into other aspects, such as first understanding and validating needs (using empathy maps, for instance), without assuming that social workers “knew it all”.  

Beyond innovation theatre

For an organisation to go beyond “innovation theatre”, there must be clear management buy-in, especially the commitment of resources. Laura shared that her supervisor helped her to carve out time for the intensive design sprints.

Real innovation is hard work. 

Our sprint was in 2020, but Care Corner only launched the Buddy App in 2023. 

There were two key reasons. The first was that the team members had to dive back to work that had been set aside while they prioritised the sprint. Reality bites. 

Second, they needed time to assemble resources. During the one-year break, the team kept the design thinking fire alive by using the tools at work. 

“Care Corner didn’t just get an app — it now has a group of design thinking-minded social workers who think of ways to improve and innovate their work, every day.”

Now that they’ve launched the app, they are still finding ways to improve further and market the Buddy App — a testament to the product mindset we love. 

“As a transformation coach, what I find most meaningful was how the team evolved their own capacities and thinking, and then proceeded to run their own sessions with other colleagues,” observed our product owner Jerald Lam, who was part of the PebbleRoad team. 

The Care Corner team used design thinking principles picked up during their time co-teaming with PebbleRoad to run their own sessions with other colleagues

“Care Corner didn’t just get an app — it now has a group of design thinking-minded social workers who think of ways to improve and innovate their work, every day.”

Seeing the impact of our work makes us confident that design thinking — if done right — is not dead.

Maish Nichani, co-founder, PebbleRoad
Maish Nichani

I enjoy helping organisations achieve their potential in an ever-changing and complex world. I lead product and transformation conversations.

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