Chris Hildrey is an inspirational young architect who uses design thinking to address real-world problems like homelessness. We met up with him during his stint as a designer in residence at the Design Museum, London.
Following an excellent presentation Chris gave, held at the Design Museum earlier this year, we invited him to run a design thinking workshop with our team which provided even more food for thought. I wanted to find out more from Chris Hildrey about how he might overcome some of the typical challenges we face as learning designers.
Parallels between architecture and the learning design
To start with, can you think of an example of when you were trapped by what you already knew and therefore found it difficult to apply design thinking? Is there any advice or techniques you would suggest when this happens?
Chris: This is actually more common than you might think. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that most complex problems require you to start with a feeling of being penned in by your own assumptions. How long that situation lasts is down to many factors but, first, it's important to accept that design thinking isn't always an easy process.
I see design thinking as being like climbing equipment: it might let you get places that you wouldn't have otherwise reached but it can still require significant effort to get there. That said, there are no hard and fast rules: sometimes you discover the most interesting alternative routes through sheer determination, other times they sneak up on you during a period of rest. So, if you find yourself stuck it's important not to be afraid to put an issue to the side if it frees you up to explore other aspects. Being too single-minded can also have the effect of grinding away at research for research's sake so you need to be continually honest with yourself about how relevant what you're doing really is. Give it a chance but be disciplined and avoid paralysis by analysis.
When developing ProxyAddress I spent a long time trying to find an industrial design solution to the problem. I'm an architect after all – I'm used to designing things – but it was when I was visiting the Royal Mail distribution center at Mount Pleasant that I realized that the issue wasn't one of industrial design, it was about data flows. It wasn't a physical project at all – it was about connecting processes: financial, postal, and public. At the time, this visit was something I did to get a break from desk work and try seeing the issue from a new angle – I'd been squeezing my brain for a solution for weeks and getting nowhere. In the end, the break provided the breakthrough. Keeping your mind on its toes through stimulus is important.
The team really likes the empathy part of Design thinking and have often used probing questions to get under the skin of the 'real' need with mixed success. How do you overcome barriers presented by others and how would you get them to apply Design thinking too?
Chris: If there are objections, it's important to drill down to find out if these are based on habits/expectations or real issues which are difficult to express. Getting people to untether themselves from the way they've always done things is difficult but it's not always a case of bringing the other person around to your way of thinking. Most difficult periods during the design process can be put down to a misalignment of understanding: this can either be the client not understanding what you're proposing, or you not understanding their needs. It might not be that the client is being stubborn, but rather that there's some assumed part of their established way of operating which they didn't think to inform you about.
When going through the process of reinventing the way someone approaches an issue, it's vital that the journey is made together. I'd say empathy is the most important aspect to the early stages of design, but it's easy to dismiss this as a mental or analytical challenge alone. Instead, it should be seen almost as a method-acting exercise. As much as possible, you need to experience what they experience, see what they see etc. If you can walk in their shoes but with fresh eyes and a toolkit of design thinking available to you, the results can be surprisingly fruitful.
Of course, not every project or client will grant the opportunity for this and it takes experience to identify which ones are worth the journey. It's best not to be dogmatic – empathy works both ways. If someone asks you for a pen to write something down urgently, they're facing a problem and need you to provide a solution – but trying to find insight through discussion might just delay the simple solution rather than bring about a better result. External circumstances, such as deadlines, funding, etc., can mean that sometimes it's best to just hand over the pen and wait for another opportunity to question the mechanics of the situation. The ultimate aim of any designed intervention should be to achieve the best outcome for all so it's important to differentiate between a client with inertia and one who isn't actually open to conversation.
Where do you get the courage to 'be brave'? What pushback did you get on the ProxyAddress project?
Chris: For me, it's less about the intent to be brave and more a desire to commit to an idea until I can find good reason not to. If I think I have a solution, asking people why it won't work is a great litmus test. If you're told change isn't possible because 'it's the way we've always done it', then that should be taken as a good sign to press on. But if real constraints emerge that you hadn't considered, it might be time to iterate the concept and work around it. That said, working with constraints often produces more elegant results than designing in a vacuum. These challenges can be used as a foundation on which to sharpen the idea.
With ProxyAddress, speaking to those going through homelessness cemented the importance of making the concept work. The urgency of people's situations meant that the threshold for what I'd consider a 'good reason' not to move forward was raised. In that particular case, I soon realized that the best way to change the mind of those who offered resistance was to shape the proposal into something which served their own purpose as much as the end users'. For example, providing the public sector with a way to meet new legislative duties at little cost while also eradicating costly maintenance of contact databases – these were secondary concerns until the need arose to convince those stakeholders to step out from a risk-adverse position. Once that became the selling point for them, the benefit of trying something new outweighed the risk.
As we often struggle to get access to the end users of our learning, do you have any suggestions or techniques to overcome resistance in getting their input? What would you do with limited access to the 'real insights' from those end users?
This is a tricky one which I see happen frequently. It's often the case that the client doesn't want the end user to give direct feedback because that might create a bias towards one small part of what they see as a larger picture. My advice would be to not be afraid of breaking out from traditional methods of working. Sitting in meetings and offices is great for focus but there's room for a bit of improvisation too. Depending on the client, there might be benefits to adopting a 'secret shopper' role and taking an afternoon to visit the front-end services in person, start informal conversations with customers, stress test the system a little. There's an investigative journalist quality to the research which can be incredibly insightful and enjoyable but requires a shift towards self-initiation.
For cases with less latitude to experiment in this way, there are other methods to help cater learning materials to specific users. Clearly, different people learn in different ways and the risk of lacking insight from end users is that a generic approach needs to be adopted. Though this ensures everyone can learn satisfactorily, it excludes anyone from learning really well. To tackle this, I'd suggest the learning experience could be shaped to filter implied preferences through the process itself. For example, presenting the same choices in both visual and written language and allowing the user to follow their preferred path can help steer people down very different experiences, shaped by their preferences. Of course, this does duplicate the work involved in preparing the module but – as I say – it's not always an easy process!
Architecture: applicable to all things
While Chris has a knack for the architecture of tangible things, he has discovered similarities between that and the intangible, something that the learning experience design might profit from if the architecture is adapted and adopted. Parallelism is a tool found in all aspects of life, in this case we see how the principles of architecture can be applied to the learning experience design. Be sure to leverage the powers of learning design to positively impact your business!