By Khoa Pham, UX and Design Lead, K4Connect. Being a designer in any industry can be challenging. Years ago, it was not unheard of for design to be considered as the last step in developing a product. Design was supposed to “make it pretty”. And in many places today, it still does. When Tim Brown wrote an article entitled “Design Thinking” for the Harvard Business Review in 2008, all of a sudden, design was pushed to thefront liness of product development. All of a sudden, design was helping to define the problem at the beginning, instead of merely beautifying the solution at the end (which may or may not have been the correct solution, to begin with). The role of the modern designer has evolved and that evolution works to advance K4Connect’s mission, to serve the underserved.

Traditional product design involved product and project managers, a developer, a designer and perhaps a couple other roles depending on the product. It was a very closed, internal circle of thought. Design thinking challenged that methodology by bringing into that circle many other circles of knowledge. They dared to ask “Is this the right problem to begin with? Is this the only problem?” The role of the modern designer is to be the lens through which the light of many disciplines can be focused. The best way to describe it is with the story of stone soup, which was inspired by Jared Spools article “Shh! Don’t Tell Them There’s No Magic in Design Thinking.”

There are a few variations on the story but generally, it goes like this: A traveler had wandered into a poor village carrying nothing but an empty cooking pot. The village was very poor and the villagers were unwilling to share any of their food with the traveler. So, he sat down in the middle of the village, made a fire, and began throwing stones and water into his cooking pot. He let it simmer away while the villagers grew more and more curious. Eventually, one of the villagers approached the traveler and asked him what he was doing. “I’m making stone soup” he replied. “It tastes great but some more seasoning would make it taste better”. The villager was skeptical, but he decided that he could part with a little bit of seasoning to see if it would work. The traveler added the seasoning. “Much better! But it’s still missing a little something” said the traveler. Then another villager, intrigued by what was happening approached and said, “well I have some carrots, will that work?”. “Let’s try it!” said the traveler. He added the carrots to the soup and tasted it again. “I bet some onion would make it even better”, to which another villager replied, “I’ve got some onions!”. And so, it continued until the villagers had contributed spices, carrots, onions, potatoes, and meats and the soup became delicious and hearty. The traveler then ladled the soup out for the entire village to share.

If you hadn’t guessed it by now, the traveler is like a designer. We are taking small bits of knowledge and information from many different disciplines and sources to create something that everyone can share in and benefit from. This is how I view my position here at K4Connect. Not only am I seeking knowledge from managers and developers, but to frame the problem correctly, I need to seek out knowledge from seniors, their families, physicians, professors, other designers, trends and products in adjacent or orthogonal industries, community managers, and the list continues to grow. Why is it so important to go to such lengths? In my experience, the problem that immediately presents itself is usually just a symptom of the real underlying issue.

For example, when we hear feedback like “I can’t see the screen”, it’s a very easy reaction to simply increase the font size and brightness. But we need to be asking “Why can’t they see the screen? What is the actual problem?”. As it turns out, unsurprisingly that the answer was complicated. For some people, increasing the font size and brightness works. But for others, there were physical, health-related reasons that they could not see. Some had macular degeneration, others had glaucoma, some had suffered strokes, many were colorblind in varying ways, some could not physically move the tablet closer to their eyes, or move closer to the tablet. To try and solve these problems, we had to break out of our internal circles and seek the counsel of others. In this case, we worked with physicians and optometrists at local universities to help us sort through different kinds of vision problems and how we might design a better solution.

Very rarely is design all about making something pretty. Beauty is subjective. Solutions are not.