user research

Design and Lateral Thinking

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Hello there!

Some time ago, while I was traveling by a crowded metro, I couldn’t help but notice a little boy asking his father question after question. You’re probably wondering why that particular scene caught my attention— a child asking his parent thousands of questions is after all, quite ordinary and usual. What fascinated me most, was this little boy’s interpretations of the world around him. When the metro window caught his eye, he shouted that it looked like a television. The other commuters laughed— they had missed the subtlety of his wild imagination. Isn’t a television all about moving images? And when a metro moves, it creates the very same illusion of moving images through its windows.

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At the time, I was a student, and a design enthusiast. Today, I’m still a student and a design enthusiast, but also a UX designer by profession. From then, until this very day, when trying to solve a complex problem, at work, or anywhere else, I’m often told to “think outside the box”. And every single time, I wonder what ‘thinking outside the box’ really means. Is it a strategy? Is it an approach? Or maybe it’s a school of thought. Also, what exactly is this box we designers need to get out of? I don’t not exactly a hundred percent sure.

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To me, ‘thinking outside the box’ means ‘lateral thinking’. Let me tell you a little more about this term.

 “Lateral thinking” is a term that was coined by Edward de Bono 50 years ago, in 1967. It’s the process of using information in a creative manner, rather than a repeatable one, in order to yield innovative results. This may sound quite difficult to do, but it can actually be learned. One can learn how to think laterally, practice the system, and use it where necessary. It’s a skill than can be acquired— just like a skill that can be acquired when it comes to mathematics. Lateral thinking opposes convention, as well as existing patterns and structures of thinking. It talks about possibilities, rather than assumptions about possible outcomes right at the beginning of the thinking process.

You know, I’ve noticed there’s a stark similarity between a designer and a detective. The efficiency of both, depends on the approach they take to solve a problem. If there’s already a predetermined set of dots, innovation is out of the question.

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And for this very reason, Dr. Edward de Bono invented “lateral thinking techniques” to help everyone who is struggling to break his or her thinking pattern, and want to avoid getting ‘locked’. These techniques are used all over the world to help with the development of ideas that are ‘out of the box’.

As a designer, I’ve found that it’s really important to questions. When you ask “why”, you’re left with a whole other chain of why’s. “What if?” results in an absolutely new set of possibilities, and “but” never, ever satisfies. These questions form the very core of lateral thinking, as they’re a great way of discovering new alternatives. However, one big question arises here: how do we arrive at a feasible solution, as asking why is neverending? To answer this very question, Edward de Bono talks about four different tools.

Breaking your current thinking pattern

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This could be quite a challenge, but this is the most basic principle of lateral thinking. I’ve realized that starting with an empty brain, and then gradually learning along the way really helps. We need to loosen up rigid thinking patterns, and provoke fresh ones.  In our recent blog ‘5 things every designer should probably stop doing’ we have highlighted this and explained it in-depth. 

Focusing on new possibilities in search of new ideas

I’ve noticed that our current thinking patterns are usually based out of experiences and are vertical, although it may seem natural. By breaking this current thinking pattern, it is possible to come up with a number of alternatives, instead of just one, thereby leading to the discovery of new possibilities. This was difficult to achieve but I kept reminding myself consciously and took risks— no matter what stage I was at. Taking a risk is scary to everyone. But, if we do everything by counting the outcomes, then we’re already limited. Only by freeing ourselves from all sorts of barriers of failure, will lead us to the unexplored path of thinking laterally.

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Maximization of the value that’s received from the idea generation

From my experience as a designer, I’ve learned that it’s extremely important to make the most of each and every alternative found, as you never know what could help you. Sometimes, this could also lead to mistakes, but I never let that really bother me. If you want to be an expert, then you’re already blocked by your standard ideas— that’s the way I see it. I also believe perfectionism is overrated in our society, as it doesn’t value individuality and instead, creates constant pressure to perform exceptionally. It’s needless to say that pressure’s one of the main causes of fear, and fear hinders creativity. And so, if we really yearn to be creative, one should have the freedom to make thousands of mistakes while trying to find the best possible solution to a problem.

Transforming wild ideas into real world solutions

I don’t believe in shying away from wild ideas. We only tend to give value to the lessons which we’re taught, and resort to finding inspirations from these very same lessons— we seldom look at everything around us. Just like the boy on the train who called the metro’s window a television, I too let me imagination run wild— after all, that’s where the best ideas lie.

Let me give you an example of how lateral thinking can better design. One of our clients from food manufacturing companies and their co-packers (the client), faced a lack of quality control, which resulted in a loss of revenue, as well as a number of missed orders. The client planned on addressing this problem by adding an additional stage of reporting capabilities to the systems that were already in place, for the real-time delivery and quality control, lab test reports, and more. So, here’s what we along with our partners Quadspire did:

We conducted an end-to-end study of the manufacturing process, the various phases it included, as well as the preferred outcome of the production line. After gathering all the necessary information, we inferred that a very specific set of preset requirements had to be met in each and every phase, right from mixing, sheeting, baking, etc., in order to acquire the desired output. In addition to this, we also studied the personas that were involved in the production process, for example, Process Technicians, Quality Testers, Packaging Operators, and more, and then went on to designing a human-centered product with minimal interaction, high scalability and capabilities; such as eventual integration to extract data from production line machinery, as well as stream real time videos and photographs from kiosks.

This patent-pending innovative solution conceptualized by our team in the US, and designed by us, was installed in kiosks around the productions lines, and this helped to remove paper trails and obtain real time data from each station/phase in the production line. The real-time dashboard— available on mobiles and desktops— provided markers and outlines that help track the quality control. Additionally, photos, video feeds, alerts, and notifications kept each and every user informed and engaged in this process anytime, and anywhere.

By using lateral thinking here, we not only resolved the quality control issues, but also managed to help cut down excess travel costs, quality control time, a loss of raw materials, packaging materials, and more.

Conclusion

Lateral thinking avoids all sorts of vertical or logical thinking that usually focus on an existing idea, instead of striving to find alternatives. It’s extremely easy to listen to what has been done till date, and follow the same pattern elsewhere. Lateral thinking however, enables one to think about what else can be done while solving a problem. It creates possibilities to explore the unexplored corners of our minds— you never know what’s hidden there. It’s also a great way to wake up the child within us who has the ability to perceive the metro window as a television screen.

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