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6 Ways to Practice Design Thinking in Service of a Mind-Blowing Meal

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Sep 13 2019

At least once a week I get a text, email, or phone call asking, “Do you remember that sauce you made? Can you send me the recipe?” My answer, to the person's initial despair, is always no.

What I can do, however, is teach you how to design your own way to greatness—greatness that, at the end of the night, will have grown adults licking the bowl clean.

I spend my days at IDEO U immersing myself in design thinking. I also spend them eating, cooking, and thinking about good food. What I’ve learned is that design thinking is not something you keep in a tidy, 60-minute-meeting-shaped box. Design thinking is actually a set of tools you can use constantly, and the more you practice it in the unique moments of your life—like whipping something up in the kitchen—the easier it will become to apply it to the hairiest problems at work.

So let’s get cracking. Here are six ways to hone your design thinking skills in service of a mind-blowing dinner.

1. Celebrate constraints

Constraints are a designer’s best friend. They keep you on track and help you make decisions. Without them, everything is a possibility, and you may find yourself paralyzed by how to proceed. Constraints also have the ability to engender brilliant solutions, because they force you to think outside the box. In brainstorms, we purposefully provoke creative thinking by asking questions like, What if we had zero dollars to pull this off? Or what if the laws of physics didn’t apply?

Step one in planning your menu: Figure out your constraints. What’s in your fridge? What cuisine or region are you cooking from? What’s in season? How much time do you have?

If you're stuck with sour cream and some herbs after a fridge clean-out, basil crema with cotija and paprika isn't a bad choice.

2. Keep your audience front and center

Who are we designing for? This is the question we, as designers, must ground ourselves in always. What do they need, what do they love, and what brings out the best in them?

On dinner party duty, I consider my audience to be both the eaters and the ingredients. Is your hot date going to be attending? Ditch the garlic for sauteed shallots so you don’t scare them away. Is it the middle of a beautiful tomato season? Let your fruit shine with a smidge of good olive oil and flaky salt. Are you looking to transform that boring chicken breast you just found in the freezer? You’re going to need something punchy, vibrant, and bold to jazz that puppy up.

When in doubt, bring it back to your audience. What will best serve those that you’re designing for? That’s your north star. Come back to it often.

3. Design for delight

Consider the last product, service, experience, restaurant, or healthcare appointment you couldn’t stop raving about—the one you likely described in too much detail to your best friend, your boss, and your bodega guy. What is the feeling you have when you think about it?

Most likely, it’s delight. Delight is that particular combination of feeling cared for and feeling surprised. Like someone knew you so well that they were able to create something you didn’t even know you needed. We design for delight because it helps us build more meaningful, more emotional relationships with our users, all based on joy. It’s not just, "What are the needs of your user?" It's, "How might you fulfill those needs in a way that truly delights them?"

Sauce is delightful. It feels fancy. It feels extra. It makes your people feel like you went above and beyond for them, because you care. In terms of investing your time, energy, and dirty dish count, sauce delivers exponentially.

4. Test, test, test—and by that, I mean taste, taste, taste

Recipes exist for a reason—they’re great tools for learning. But you can’t follow a recipe blindly, praying for a miracle. After all, who developed that recipe anyway? You don’t know their lives. Maybe they’re one of those people who hates cilantro.

When you’re cooking, put what you’re tasting before what the recipe calls for. Taste your way toward what you like, continuously asking, "What’s missing? What does this need? What’s working here?"

In the design world, one common pitfall of trying to bring new ideas into the world is an over-reliance on recipes. People analyze every detail and possible consequence first, to mitigate risk.

From there, I’ve seen one of two things happen: Either you never get started because you get mired in the complexity of the plan, or you create a rigorous and unyielding plan that is based on a core set of assumptions about the future that hasn’t actually been tested yet. That's when the plan fails spectacularly.

At IDEO U, we’ve learned to de-risk the future not by planning meticulously, but by testing as early as we can, then continuing to prototype throughout the process.

Whether you're testing or tasting, there will be forks in the road. In this case, the fork is this question: salty or sour?

5. Know your levers

Samin Nosrat of Netflix series and cookbook fame taught me the power of the four key levers of cooking: salt, fat, acid, and heat. Playing with these not only helps me course-correct when things go south, but also elevates a dish to master level.

When we design, we can’t just look myopically at the product, service, or experience we are creating. In order to make it sustainable, we have to zoom out and understand the system that it sits in, then pinpoint the levers we can use to create change. What are the critical variables we do (or do not) have control over? Price? Timeframe? Quantity? And how might we ask different, creative questions to uncover other levers?

6. Be okay with failure

It can be easy to get stuck iterating on something that’s not working. Maybe it just needs a bit more salt—or more sweetness? Or more crunch? It’s hard to admit, but at some point, you have to stop tweaking. Sometimes the best thing is to start over. And that’s okay. Throw it out and move on with your life.

If we learn to accept failure, we can take a big step back, get some perspective, and tackle the problem from a new angle. Maybe our grounding assumption—about the user needs, the context, the delivery mechanism—was totally wrong. If we can accept and even rejoice in that knowledge, our next prototypes are going to be miles better.

As an instructional designer, I love building tools. A good tool is based on the belief that you, the person wielding the tool, not I, the creator of the tool, have the magic.

It’s also the reason I don’t give people recipes. I want to help them have the confidence to improvise, to take risks, and to delight in both the successes and failures along the way.

So I built a tool for making sauce—a map to help you navigate those critical decision points along the way to your dream dining extravaganza. No stove, fancy utensils, or measuring cups necessary. Just some design thinking and your very own taste buds. Download it here.

  • Olivia Vagelos

    Senior Community Specialist, IDEO San Francisco
    Olivia is a community and instructional designer at IDEO U. She spends her days focused on bringing IDEO's ways of problem solving, human-centered design, and creative leadership to life.
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