This interview is part of our ongoing ‘5 Questions’ series where we ask thought leaders, who we have had the pleasure of partnering with, about their work.
Susan is an expert in human-centered design and design research. A professional bio is at the end of this page, BUT….Susan would love to travel to Buenos Aires or Uruguay. Her first car was a Honda Civic with 50K miles on it. In the summer, Susan has a garden that yields cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant, and other lovely things. Last year, when the weather was nicer, a pandemic indulgence was visiting a local paleta store that had recently opened up – you can go in with a cooler and buy a dozen of them.
I asked her five questions related to the brilliant work that she does – the following is a summary of our conversation…
1. You have done a lot of work in Design Research. What distinguishes this type of research from others?
Design researchers take a holistic approach to research, and we start by posing the right, fundamental question that captures the problem we are trying to solve. When I am on a team, we try to get smart about the problem, and this often begins with secondary research: online resources, periodicals, books, etc. After taking this in – after getting smarter about the problem – we then move on to primary research, which often revolves around interviewing people.
What distinguishes design research from traditional market research is that it is a team based and a cross-disciplinary approach. A group of people with a diverse skillset collaborate in conducting design research. It is also distinguished by being rooted in empathy – it is a privilege to be let into the lives of the people that we are trying to help. The end goal isn’t just to learn, but to build more inspiring solutions that are rooted in an understanding of the people we are designing for.
2. You have a lot of experience both in human-centered design and in graphic design. What is one thing that a graphic designer can gain from human-centered design methods, and vice versa?
I teach both industrial design students and graphic design students. In both cases, it is all about problem solving – it doesn’t matter what the end product might be. I am pretty agnostic about ‘who is who’; everyone has their own specialty – a graphic designer may have expert knowledge in type while someone trained in design thinking should have empathy and interviewing skills.
I started out as a graphic designer, and the process was very linear at that time. But things have become a lot more collaborative. Designers of all types are problem solvers.
3. In working with cross-functional corporate innovation teams, are there parts of the design process that teams sometimes don’t immediately value or want to skip? How do you overcome this?
In my experience – it is usually the front part of the process that people want to rush or skip. Simply put, they don’t spend the time they should on clarifying the problem they are tasked with solving. They just start doing things.
Many challenges can be avoided by taking the time to ask the right questions up front. Work with stakeholders to ensure that you are working on the right things. If you have to manage a client, understand what is stopping them and why. There are lots of tricks and processes for this, but you must clarify what the core issues are and what questions need to be answered.
4. What is the top piece of advice that you would give a newly formed innovation team to help them succeed?
Every day I see misalignment, and so often there is tension between team leaders and colleagues – it’s the nature of the process. First off, make sure that you have the right team. A lot of that is hiring, but you must build a strong team from the beginning. Roles have to be clearly assigned. There must be frequent check-ins. People should feel free to ask questions, show vulnerability, and have fun.
I have been on too many dysfunctional teams. I want to teach a class about teams – the methods that can be used to achieve results and help teams ‘win’. I would like to explore how people can move from dysfunctional teams to functional teams.
From what I have seen with dysfunctional teams, so much of it stems from communication (and lack of it). Trying to free people up to be able to talk about things early on in the process is essential. I see these dynamics in both professional and faculty teams – if we can expose students to these things early on, they will be better equipped to deal with conflict, clients throwing curveballs, etc. They will understand that there are problems that are within and problems that are outside their control. Better teams mean better results, and we can equip individuals with tools and skills to enable these things.
5. Why design and why now?
Design is an optimistic profession. Now, more than ever, the world is filled with ambiguity. More confusion and anxiety is present than there has been in the past. Design can be a tool to deal with that complexity. I look at the world like a design challenge – we try to break down the complexity, break a piece off of it, and solve it.
Susan Stirling is on the faculty of the University of Illinois at Chicago where she teaches human-centered design and design research methods. As part of the UIC Innovation Center she leads a team that uses human-centered design methods to address challenges in healthcare. Susan also co-teaches a graduate level course at the Illinois Institute of Technology that focuses on facilitation methods. To learn more about Susan’s work and to reach out to her, check out her LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/susanstirling/
Matt Kelly is a Partner and Business Designer with Do Tank, a consultancy that helps teams design strategies, value propositions, and compelling stories. You can learn more at https://www.dotankdo.com/