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How Design Thinking Can Help You Serve Your Readers Better

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How Design Thinking Can Help You Serve Your Readers Better

by Brenda Burchard

As the first recipient of the Jan Nathan Scholarship, I had the incredible experience of attending the 2009 Stanford Professional Publishing Course, where I spent an entire week learning from some of the best people in the publishing business and from my smart, interesting fellow students. We came from around the world, having published both books and magazines on a spectrum of topics, and shared our insights and challenges. Although we worked hard all day (and half the night), we were sorry to see our time together end.

This year, in what turned out to be its last session, the course focused on the intersection of social media and publishing. We explored many aspects of social media, from introducing ourselves on the course’s Ning page, to the ins and outs of FaceBook and Twitter, to setting up our own group on Ning. We learned how to integrate interactive elements like videos into our Web sites and how to work with bloggers to gain exposure for our authors and books. We heard about the future of the Kindle and of print on demand. And since ink on paper has certainly not become passé, we also talked about choosing books, book covers, the importance of type, and the financial realities of running a publishing company. I will cover some of these topics in a later article.

What’s a Wallet for?

Because I think the information will be useful to other IBPA members, I’m going to focus here on a process I learned at Stanford called design thinking. Its purpose is to allow you to develop something that meets the needs of your customers instead of designing something you think they should want. The process relies on getting out and talking with people who are going to be using your products, and quickly developing prototypes about which they can provide feedback.

Design thinking also involves creating teams of people across disciplines so you have a better chance of coming up with truly new ideas. It’s best if you can have your interdisciplinary team all in one place so you can brainstorm together, but the most important aspect is to bring together a group of people who can approach the problem from a variety of perspectives. I know this sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. Here’s how they taught it to us at Stanford.

Our first assignment was to design a better wallet. We were given about five minutes to individually come up with a wallet that was going to save the imaginary company for which we worked. Guess what? We barely knew where to start, and it was hard to come up with anything better than the wallets we already had. After all, for the most part, currently available wallets pretty much do what we expect them to do.

Our second assignment was to individually design a better way of carrying cash, credit cards, and identification. This opened our eyes a bit because we were no longer locked into the concept of wallet. Instead, we were thinking about functions and benefits. But we were still designing something around a preconceived concept, and we had absolutely no idea whether what we came up with would be valuable to our potential customers.

Then it was time to be creative. Our next task involved working with a partner and getting to know our partner through the contents of his or her wallet. We each had five minutes for an initial interview, a minute to reflect on what we learned, three minutes to ask additional questions and get stories, and another minute to record our insights about what this person really needed. This is the point where you would be out interviewing your readers, booksellers, or whomever you had targeted.

Following these interviews, each person made an inventory of the partner’s needs. What is the partner trying to do? What gives this person a sense of fulfillment and meaning? From that inventory, each person developed a problem statement for the partner using a fill-in-the-blanks form: [Name] needs a way to [need] in a way that makes them feel [insight/meaning].

Using this problem statement, each of us had five minutes to sketch three to seven radical ways to meet the needs of our partners. Then we got three minutes to share our solutions and capture feedback.

The feedback part was hard for some of us, and it may be hard for you. You have to just listen and not try to defend your idea.

After we got feedback, each of us reflected on what new things we had learned about our partner and the partner’s needs. We redefined our problem statement, using the same form. Then we generated a new solution. First each of us sketched our big idea—in three minutes. Then, in eight minutes, we each built a prototype to share with our partner. This prototype was made from readily available items, since it doesn’t make sense to invest a lot of resources in an item until you know it’s going to be useful. We were provided with bins of paper, stickers, markers, aluminum foil, pipe cleaners, staplers, tape, paper clips, and other craft supplies.

The prototypes were something our partners could actually hold to get a good understanding of what our concepts would look like and feel like. If you’re using the design thinking process for something like designing a Web page, you can provide a sketch, but whenever possible, something partners can see in 3D and manipulate is best.

This was where we ended our exercise, but in real life, of course, you’d continue developing your idea based on additional feedback from your target audience.

Focusing on Filling Needs

So what did people create for their partners? Remember we started by trying to build a better wallet. But no one really needed a better wallet. Instead, one person needed a way to get her expense sheets done in a timely manner. So her partner designed a system that kept all her receipts together and rewarded her for getting the report done. Another person needed a way to feel close to his family while he was traveling.

The needs were as varied as the participants, but since publishers are not in the business of designing unique products for our readers, we needed to think about how we could apply design thinking in a publishing company.

The key is to talk one-on-one with customers in your target market and to learn about their lives and how books fit in; ideally, you have face-to-face conversations so you can ask questions as your curiosity leads you to them. You’re not trying to get more demographic information or to have customers tell you what they want. Instead, your aims are to talk about their hopes and dreams, their frustrations, and how they spend their time; and to listen for ways that you can help them meet a need. Can you save them time or make their lives easier by solving some problem for them? Can you do something to inform or entertain in a way that has meaning for them?

After these empathetic conversations, you can write up your insights to share with your interdisciplinary team before you sit down to a brainstorming session. Its purpose should be to generate as many ideas as possible, and these ideas should be as radical as possible. No judging allowed during the session. (Chocolate is recommended to help with this process!) When we were working on our social media projects, we met in groups of three or four people. All of us were book publishers, but we published in very different areas and countries. Each group was challenged to come up with 100 ideas to address the problem definition each member of the group had brought for brainstorming. (That’s 300 to 400 ideas per group!)

When the brainstorming session is over, sort through the ideas that emerged, combine them, and select one to sketch out for initial feedback. Then it’s on to the prototyping stage. The feedback can come both from your team and from the market you plan to serve. You’ll be able to develop meaningful ways to serve your readers that will earn their loyalty and help your bottom line.

Brenda Burchard is executive director of Safer Society Foundation. Its publishing arm, Safer Society Press, publishes resources for prevention and treatment of sexual abuse. She can be reached at Brenda@safersociety.org or 802/247-3132.



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