Key takeaways from “Leadership Through Design Innovation” course

I just completed the “Leadership Through Design Innovation” course @NorthwesternUniversity (MOOC) and wanted to share my experience and takeaways for other leaders who want to learn to sprint.

Having worked for the last decade in the IT industry, I have constantly been frustrated by ugly, poorly designed user interfaces on all types of software, no matter the device. But over the last 5 years, the sheer pressure from born-digital start-ups, the critical mass of mobile devices and expectations from consumers for simply the very best experiences have shifted conversations dramatically in IT. We now hear these phrases commonly used: Design Thinking, Lean Start-Up, Agile, Sprints, Minimum Viable Product (MVP), DevOps, etc. As a result, we are seeing significantly better user experiences being created.

For much of my career I have been responsible for marketing, online/ digital engagement and eCommerce across banking, utilities, retail, travel sectors (and I’ve been married to a Digital Creative Director for over 20 years!), so ‘Design Thinking’ and constant iteration is certainly not new to me. It always been about pairing left- and right-brained people, cross-functional people and users together to create the most amazing, beautiful experiences that drive usage and, ultimately, revenue.

My curiosity for applying Design Thinking and Agile goes beyond IT. How do we use these new concepts to re-imagine how we work, how we innovate across other functional areas of the business. With speed as the new business KPI, as an executive, I know I have a responsibility to challenge the status quo of how we operate and get work done, how we innovate to create better user experiences to drive engagement, usage and …ultimately revenue. So that is why I decided to do this course.

The course, whilst spread out over a number of weeks, is actually set up to be like a ‘Design Sprint.’

I learnt about this 5 step process:

1) Design Research

This about going into to the field. Observe. Listen. Learn. Treat your users as the Experts. Once you document all of your observations, then layer these with the emotional “why.” Turn them into Insights. The key here is to look for patterns, and then find the compelling, interesting narrative to frame your insights. I learnt that there are 7 common themes: Mode of behaviour; Strategies; Activities; Values; Life stages; Pain Points; Process steps. You can use these to deconstruct how to transition from an observation to a narrative about your insight. The final step in this process is to turn your Insights into “How Might We (HMW)” Statements – these are critical for launching into the Ideation brainstorming stage.

My assignment was to visit a grocery shopping centre. Here’s some of my Observations and HMWs:SOME OBSERVATIONS
I went to the store at 2:30 p.m. on a Saturday for 1 hour. I observed generally 4 groups of shoppers – Couples, Families, Men, Women

  1. Generally the Couples were either Young couples in their 20s , or Older couples post-60 years old.
  2. Generally the Families were with young children under the age of 10.
  3. Men typically carried a shopping basket, not a shopping trolley, and were solo.
  4. Women typically pushed a shopping trolley (rather than hold a basket), but were also solo, or with children.
  • Very few people used shopping lists
  • Why did more men carry shopping baskets than women ?
  • Why did nearly all of the shoppers not actually fill their trolleys’ but only buy several items?
  • Couples who would typically not have children or children living at home (eg. 20s or over 60s) went shopping together like it was a joint activity, going down every aisle.
  • Those that were shopping solo seemed to know exactly what they wanted and went directly to the aisles they needed to find it. They seemed to spend the least amount of time possible in the store.
  • Few people used re-usable shopping bags vs. plastic bags, despite the fact that they were not buying very many items.


  1. How Might We Design a Saturday afternoon shopping experience for people just buying items for that evening’s meals?
  2. How might we design a fun shopping experience for couples who want to make this part of their joint weekend activities?
  3. How might we design a fast, no-hassle shopping experience for men?
  4. How might we design an easier way to find and buy perfectly ripe fruit and vegetables?
  5. How might we design a mobile phone app that people could use to speed up their self checkout process?

 2) Rapid Visualisation of Ideas

This is all about about quantity and quality — possibilities not probabilities. It about visualising to make ideas tangible. And time is critical. It cannot last more than 30 minutes per session. The team (ideally 7, but no more than 10 people) should be cross-functional, diverse and non-hierarchical and include a user.

Rapid visualisation is the ultimate low-cost, low-fidelity prototype. Take the HMW statements and start sketching. Each sketch has only a word or two to describe the concept. And NO talking allowed! You just come up with at least 10 ideas for each HMW statement – all in 30 minutes! Then step back and look at the pictures. Look for the patterns and group the themes together. Then push further: Ask new questions like, “What if Google were solving this” or “If money was no object” or “If it had to fit in the size of your hand?” Identify the gaps and push forward where the energy is, with concepts that stand out as really exciting ways to solve user pain points.

This part of the assignment stretched me the most. First was learning to sketch. We first needed to create our own reference icons, that we would have in our library and be able to quickly re-draw. Pictures with NO words is critical.

I can’t believe how hard it was to come up with at least 10 ideas for each HMW. Funnily enough, my teenage daughter came into the study one day and I simple asked her to give me some ideas – and she just started to rattle them off!  I couldn’t believe how easy she found it. So clearly working in a world of constraints leaves an invisible mark.

3) Storyboard Your Concept

A storyboard is a visual depiction of a user’s step-to-step experience with a product, service or interface you are designing. Fuelled by the ideas from the HMW statements and the concepts that really excited the group, create a story for your user. Using only 10 pieces of paper, sketch 10 scenes in your story, one on each piece of paper. The pieces are interchangeable, if you need to re-order or swap out a scene to improve the story.

Here’s my storyboard:
Storyboard sketch

4) Prototype

Prototypes should never be built with the expectation that they are a rough draft of the final product. They instead must the built with the purpose to help you learn — and learn as quickly as possible. You need to set out to build a prototype by asking your team what you want to learn. Then create something rough that allows you to evaluate the idea and then iterate. Use Legos, paper cutouts, pipe cleaners, wood, glue, wire — anything readily available that you can assemble the idea you want to test. These are minimum viable prototypes (MVP).


The first job here is to develop a learning plan. Understand that your objective is to test whether your prototype is likely to solve a user’s pain points. A learning plan has 3 parts: Who (who are the people you will ask), What (what are you testing), Where (where will the test take place).

Typically you will only test a few prototypes on a very small number of users in the environment that they would use the product in real life. When you are in the user’s real-life environment, they are the expert and you are the student. You must not explain the benefits or features of your prototypes, nor how to use them. Simply observe and ask questions about the typical daily scenarios to understand whether this solves their pain points. Observe what works well, what doesn’t and take note of what surprises you. The next job is to iterate the prototype design based on what you’ve learnt. Repeat the Prototype and Test process.

My Takeaways
I certainly learnt the value of sketches to communicate ideas and to not worry about them being rough.

I also learnt that my creativity is held back when compared to my daughter! I pushed myself, but clearly I still put ideas through a feasibility filter – so having a cross-functional, diverse team is key.

Prototypes really only need to be indicative of the idea. They can be extremely crude, and yet still provide the feedback required to learn about what works and what doesn’t.

I also learnt that this design innovation process can really be used for just about anything where users are involved, from designing a new office space or a better way to schedule meetings to a grocery shop queue.

Finally, this isn’t just for innovation. It can be used as a new way of working – working in sprints.

So my challenge is now to change the way I work and the way my team works!


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  1. Dean Gibbs says:

    I really enjoyed the article with its outcomes based message. It also drives home the important theme of “Customer First”


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