Halloween is supposed to be fun, but on one particular day in early October, the prospect of jack-o-lanterns, spooky stories, and trick-or-treating did not hold sway over my 11-year-old daughter, Jane. Instead of planning trick o’ treat routes with friends or hanging up decorations, Jane grumped around the house, miffed that Halloween had the nerve to show up again this year.
Jane was suffering from a problem: She couldn’t figure out what she wanted to be for Halloween and had lost hope that she’d ever come up with something. She felt discouraged, downhearted, and stuck.
Lucky for Jane, her mom is a User Experience professional. Design Thinking to the rescue!
Halloween Means Decisions
It all started last weekend when Jane decided she wanted to be a Greek goddess for Halloween. She searched online for some inspiration for making or buying that costume, but she didn’t like any of the reasonably-priced options (and Mom put the kibosh on the expensive ones). We decided to come back to it with fresh eyes later.
By the time “later” rolled around a week later, I realized that time was running short to buy, make, and/or gather costume materials. I explained to Jane that we needed to make a shopping list for costume-making items so we could buy them next weekend. This was too much pressure, it seemed: Jane got grumpy and decided she didn’t want to be a Greek goddess after all, and then further grumped around because she didn’t know what to be.
She was focused on analyzing the problem and stuck in circular thinking: I don’t know what I want to be. I don’t have any good ideas. I’ll never think of anything. It was time for an intervention.
Enter Design Thinking
Design thinking is the perfect antidote to the dilemma Jane faced. Jane felt closed-minded; design thinking encourages open, divergent thinking. Jane overanalyzed; design thinking is biased toward action. Jane was stuck in her own head; design thinking puts ideas out in the world on paper where one can objectively assess them.
Most of all, design thinking promotes shared understanding. If I were to have any hope of helping her solve this problem, I needed to help her communicate her thoughts.
So, I grabbed a kitchen timer, a few pads of Post-Its, and a pile of markers. I set the timer for 10 minutes and instructed Jane to jot down as many ideas—good, bad, and terrible—as she could think of in that time, writing one idea on each post-it. She was to put each post-it on the wall, anywhere. There was to be no judging or analyzing; just writing and posting. And 10 minutes was all she had. GO!
Jane cocked her head at me quizzically, but when she saw me immediately start writing and posting, she quickly followed suit. She and I brainstormed together silently for 10 minutes. Or, not quite silently: as we brainstormed, I noticed her giggling to herself, cracking herself up with her hilariously amazing ideas. (This, from a kid who “couldn’t think of any ideas” just a few minutes prior.) When the timer went off, there were 86 ideas on the wall.
Design Thinking Lesson #1: When you’re stuck and struggling to think of ideas, a draconian time limit kicks creativity into high gear.
Next, I instructed Jane to cluster our ideas into groups of similar ideas. As we did so, we enjoyed reading each other’s ideas and laughing at the outrageous ones. A few themes emerged, including Imaginary creatures (dragon), occupations (cannibal), animals (worm), objects (chair), and people (Mom).
In the 10 more minutes it took us to cluster the ideas, she had decided this exercise was pretty fun. The grumpy scowl had been totally replaced by a cheerful grin.
Design Thinking Lesson #2: Visualizing ideas developed through divergent thinking creates a powerful, emotional reassurance that you really do have a ton of ideas and you really are a creative, smart person.
Next, I asked Jane to put a little flag on her top 5 ideas: the ones that really “spoke” to her. That took her less than 5 minutes. All that remained was to narrow it down to 1. “Okay,” I said. “We are now going to plot these 5 ideas on a chart.” Her eyes lit up.
“Really?” she asked excitedly. “Will it be a Cartesian graph, with coordinates?”
“Yes,” I forced my straight face to say.
“Oh!” she grinned. “I love graphs!” (This cannot be explained using design thinking, or any other kind of thinking.)
“Great!” I said, and we got to work.
“Visualizing ideas developed through divergent thinking creates a powerful, emotional reassurance that you really do have a ton of ideas and you really are a creative, smart person.”
I grabbed a piece of paper (a bit too small, as it turned out) and quickly drew x and y-axes. I labeled the x-axis with “Awesomeness” and the y-axis with “Easiness.” I asked Jane to place her top 5 ideas horizontally on the x-axis, putting them in rank-order according to the degree of awesomeness.
When that was done, I asked her to adjust each Post-Its vertical position according to how easy it would be to create that costume. After 5 more minutes, it was easy to choose the winner—the Post-It at the top-right, both awesome and easy to create.
The winning idea: Fox.
Design Thinking Lesson #3: After going wild with divergent thinking, it’s important to converge. It often takes a combination of thorough analysis and gut feel to converge quickly and confidently.
With another internet search to inspire fox costume ideas, we figured out how we can create a fox costume inexpensively. And with that, the shopping list is made and Halloween is saved.
To recap: Jane went from 0 to 86 ideas in ten minutes. The entire time frame from having 0 ideas to having a concrete costume plan and the shopping list was around 2 hours. And best of all, she was scowling when we started but grinning when we ended. Both Halloween and Design thinking, as it turns out, are fun!
Oh, and there’s one more thing you need to know.
Design Thinking Lesson #4: If you try design thinking at home, you risk getting Sharpie on your hallway wall. Don’t ask me how I know.
by Sara Conklin
Sara loves discovering and defining opportunities to create user and business impact, generating and socializing UX vision and strategy, and executing on the strategy. She also loves raising her kids and relating their escapades to her UX professional life. Sara can be found hiking, gardening, and horseback riding in southern New Hampshire.