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Designing Inclusivity: How to Make Design Thinking a Process That Includes All

For half a century, the most forward-thinking companies have always had their eye on design. That’s because design thinking, a methodology for tackling major business problems through an iterative design process that reimagines end-to-end operations and improves customer experiences via processes like journey mapping, remains a beacon of creativity and inspiration for many companies. This innovative approach results in real value for both businesses and customers alike. Recently, however, design thinking is coming under fire as an exclusionary practice, highlighting one of the continued major obstacles in today’s technology and corporate landscape: diversity and inclusion.

How to Make Design Thinking a Process That Includes All

Successful design thinking is both empathetic and evolutionary, meaning that a winning strategy identifies the sentiments, motivations and pain points of customers while always adapting to their changing needs and desires. But the reason it’s catching flack as of late is due to critiques regarding these two crucial tenants—namely, that design thinking as a process in and of itself eschews an empathetic, open door for inclusion and stubbornly refuses to evolve. For a 50-year-old approach, it can be easy to fall back on tradition without realizing an outdated status quo is regrettably being upheld in the process. This becomes dangerous, especially for something like design thinking—once you start privileging certain designers or practices at the expense of those you’re attempting to serve, it can create barriers that limit participation and inclusion.

So, how do we go about bringing more diversity and inclusion into design thinking? Simple—we have to start designing with inclusivity in mind in order for design thinking to truly become a process that welcomes and serves all. Not so ironically enough, that starts with taking a hard look at what does and doesn’t work about design thinking in order to get it to a point where it starts evolving to keep up with our changing times. For design thinking to become better and more inclusive, the designers and companies practicing it must actively push for it to get better. Opening up something so tried and true to change can be daunting, but it’s the necessary first step for a more inclusive design thinking process that actually practices and embraces what it preaches rather than hypocritically ignoring it.

From there, it’s all about creating an environment that welcomes people from all walks of life, backgrounds and cultures to the design thinking table. If the core of design thinking is empathy and getting into the hearts and minds of the people being designed for, then having more diverse voices in the room is the best way to go about achieving this. Practicing design thinking in an echo chamber surrounded by people who share the same beliefs and perspectives as you greatly limits the creative potential of the process. With diversity comes a plethora of new experiences to draw from. These fresh perspectives inform new ways of thinking and sympathizing, resulting in both a more holistic and inclusive practice and the end result stemming from it.

How to Make Design Thinking a Process That Includes All

And then, of course, there’s always booze. Yep, that’s right—a study from Mississippi State University found that consuming a couple of drinks can actually fuel creative problem-solving rather than impede it. A happy hour or team outing can be a great tactic for bringing people together, creating a more relaxed environment and getting people to open up, share experiences and bond. So, an open bar policy for design thinking is one way to facilitate inclusion by incentivizing people to listen and share with each other, which generates more diverse experiences to draw from for creative, design thinking solutions.

At Sutherland Labs, our own experience design agency, we actively work to embody a better, more inclusive design thinking practice to create smarter solutions that grow businesses and enhance the human experience.

Our internal goal is to foster an environment where people feel comfortable chatting freely without the risk of embarrassment. Before beginning a collaborative session, we’ll always do an icebreaker activity like improv or word games to help break down social barriers that stifle creativity and sharing. When you implement a “no wrong answers” policy, you make people feel more seen and heard, creating a more inclusive environment in the process. What results is greater levels of creativity and a design thinking process with arms wide open for all. Now that’s something to raise a glass and drink to!

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