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This is the second post in a two-part interview series about changing software development culture from one focused mainly on features and functions toward one that invests meaningful and appropriate resources on user experience and design. When teams and management are asked to change the way they have always done things, that is when things get really painful. SAP is well into this journey of change, and I talked to some of the people who helped the company get on this new path.

In the first interview, I spoke with Ulrike Weissenberger, VP of Global Design Enablement. In this second interview, I talk to Hanswerner Dreissigacker, VP of Global Design Frontrunner Apps, who was an early proponent and active champion of design thinking at SAP.

Hanswerner, how did you first get interested in design thinking?

Actually I was always curious about how to get better design into our products and more innovative thinking in product development. In 2005 Zia Yusuf started up the Design Services Team in corporate consulting to drive a more customer-focused innovation approach at SAP. I found the design thinking approach adopted there to be super attractive. I loved the idea of trying out new ways of working with product development teams, experimenting with new ideas and bringing the customer and user perspective into the development process.

What would be your first piece of advice to a team or organization that wants to get started with design thinking?

Put the team and people first. Many of the design thinking tools are not new. User-centered design and user research methods have been around for a long time. What is new is the team dimension. Bringing the whole team together to experience the creative process is the key.

My advice is to start with small projects to let people experience the dynamics within a small team. It’s the face-to-face, real-life experiences that deliver the “ah ha” moments. Of course there are a lot of online resources out there, but nothing replaces the hands-on experience in the team.

People like the idea of working in diverse teams, but in practice getting that going is not so easy. You are combining people with very mixed backgrounds. They often have different interpretations of the same term and literally speak different languages. You have to invest in making that work. There are exercises to facilitate that, but it is very important to do that at the beginning of a project. Don’t skip that!

One other important aspect is to build a team culture of sharing and building on one another’s ideas. You don’t want to have a competitive atmosphere, but a collaborative one. People should feel safe sharing early thoughts and raw ideas and give others the opportunity to spin them forward. That is not necessarily a standard behavior in a large corporation. As a manager you have to live that attitude.

How do you “live” that as a manager?

It’s basically what kind of behaviors you appreciate and motivate. It’s how you work with the team and how you facilitate conflicts as they arise. So wherever possible, I encourage a team conversation instead of 1-on-1 meetings. I don’t want people coming to me individually to pitch their ideas. This should happen in the team setting to get the feedback from the team.

Another thing that can stretch you as a manager is to trust the team and the design thinking approach. On the journey the team takes there is a lot of uncertainty during prototyping and iterative validations along the way. So as a manager in charge of delivery, it can be hard to step back and trust the team and their approach. It can be really hard at first. You have to make sure right from the beginning that you have the right people and invest in getting the team
rolling. But once that is done, you need to step back and let the machine run. It’s not just a culture change for the team, but also a change in management style.

So after that, what’s the next step?

Setting up design spaces or (project) team homes that encourage interaction and creativity is a really important element in turning the UX dial from low to high. When I started doing this at SAP, I got a small group together and we turned a couple of meeting rooms in far-flung buildings on campus into design thinking spaces. We worked with facilities management to remake them into creative project rooms that looked the part: mobile whiteboards, high tables and bar chairs, sofas and such. We then moved on to transform other suitable spaces in high traffic areas into design project rooms in central locations throughout the company. The spaces create an excitement around design thinking that makes people want to be a part of this new way of doing things.

There is an element of psychology as well as human physiology involved in the set-up of these environments. A lot of white space encourages people to contribute their ideas. It’s important that the space is not too dense with extraneous, decorative elements. Also, people are more likely to contribute if the furniture, like high tables and bar chairs, encourages movement. The sofa is more for the presentation setting. On the other hand the comfort of the homey and inviting atmosphere puts people at ease.

And of course once you have these rooms you need to regularly hold design sessions there (and invite your stakeholders). It does take some effort to make sure that people can book the rooms for the duration of their project and that the rooms are continuously utilized and stocked with supplies. But it really is worth the effort!

Let’s assume you have the design thinking knowledge and skills as well as the creative project spaces. What projects should people start with to ensure the best outcome?

Try starting out by teaming up with a project that is strategic but also knows it is in trouble and is eager for help.  You will find that they are much more open to a new approach. Set the stage with the team from the beginning to do things “right” and let the product team experience the impact that design thinking can make when end users are involved in the process and design has a leading role. By helping them turn their troubled project into a shining star, they will become your new allies in your mission.

You can also set up design thinking workshops for problems that are not directly product related and invite a diverse range of people to take part. For example, we’ve had design thinking sessions to improve the experience of getting lunch at the cafeteria, renew our internal HR processes and design our new office spaces.

What last words of advice would you like to give our readers?

Don’t underestimate how powerful the combination of designers and technical people working together with a common understanding can be.  Designers need to know a bit about CSS and HTML5 and developers need to sharpen their attention to detail and appreciation of design qualities. It’s a mix that actually goes back to the Bauhaus school from the 1920s. Every designer has to understand the material with which he or she is working. If the designer is a sculptor, then that is stone, wood, metal, and so forth. As a software designer, that material is code. By getting developers and designers to literally sit next to each other, they not only work optimally together and appreciate each other’s backgrounds, they also inspire each other. Mutual understanding and appreciation helps them to push each other forward. This can give you tremendous creativity, speed and in the end also quality of the design and implementation.

Hanswerner, thanks for the tips.

Thanks for the interview!

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