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Catch them young!

As with most things in life, everything starts with a question. “Why is it so difficult to impress upon our dev colleagues, the importance of design?” I tried to answer this question a couple of years ago without much success.

Everyone dreamt of doing everything on the ‘mobile’. Tech giants thought it was possible to deliver this dream and rake in the moolah. Everyone tried. Many succeeded. If you analyze all successful apps, you’ll realize that ‘good design’, and more particularly, ‘good user experience’ is a common characteristic.

We at SAP realized this a long time ago. We have initiated many steps towards making our applications simple, yet desirable. Have we succeeded? Perhaps not yet. One of the reasons, IMO, is that in a development heavy company, function has always taken precedence over form. We all agree that form is important, but when it comes to adding a feature vs improving the UI, feature has always won. Why does it have to be this way? I feel the reason for this is because we do not ‘appreciate design’.

I know many of you may not agree with that statement. But, here’s an example. Think about it, until the advent of the smart phone (particularly the iPhone), not many of us bought a phone just because it looked good. The iPhone changed that. The 1st generation iPhone was not the best in terms of hardware specification, not laden with features and definitely not a performance machine. Many would agree, that its performance as a ‘phone’ was only average. In spite of these shortcomings, it went on to sell millions. Why? Simple – It was beautiful.

Cut to the chase. Back to the question.

I believe the answer lies in introducing the concept of design appreciation, may be even as a formal subject, at a college level. Make it a mandatory subject for anyone who’s pursuing a career in technology. I discussed this thought with a couple of my team mates. We were excited at the prospect of having graduates who appreciate design. This led to more questions. How do we get ‘design appreciation’ included in the curriculum? Do we have data to back our assumption? Why would anyone listen to us? We decided to speak to Andy Dey and Sundar Madakshira to hear what they think of our idea. They were immediately interested in the thought. They said that we could move forward if we came up with a ‘plan’. So we did.

What if we are able to introduce design thinking, as a concept, to the kids of SAP employees? What if we organized a summer camp? Time, logistics, facilities, costs were all agreed upon and the Dcamp was born. We decided to run 3 DT training sessions. We created some buzz about the idea within the campus. The response from Labs colleagues was overwhelming. We received 300+ applications for a possible 60 slots.

I coached one of the sessions, where I noticed that among other things, children are constantly learning. They are very clever with their hands. Ask them the right questions and they are ready to explore and get the answers. We decided to introduce them to many DT techniques that they can use everyday. They quickly began to appreciate the value of initial research, the importance of understanding the problem, the difficulty in thinking from another person’s point of view and the joy of ideation, design and prototyping. I was pleasantly surprised at how they naturally thought about complex topics such as ‘feasibility’ during the ideation stage. It was amazing to see the children build on each others’ ideas. There was no sign of any tension or egos at play. No one’s idea was bad.

The best moment came when we began mock validation sessions, before the big presentation. We invited experts to evaluate the young designers’ prototypes. They raised some questions and the designers realized the shortcomings of their design and began tinkering with their prototype as soon as the experts left. It was a joy to see them getting excited to improve their prototypes. ‘Refinement’ was a natural progression.

After three intense days of DT theory, fun DT tasks and demo sessions, it was very rewarding to hear the kids say “Oh no, it’s over! We wanted it to last at least a whole week. We want to come back next year!!”

As designers and design thinkers, our objective was partly served. We introduced some techniques to these children. We set our idea into motion. It will now be interesting to see if the children are able to use some of their learnings at schools for their projects and inventions. And more importantly, if they begin to look upon design as an important part of our tech-heavy lives.

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