Design Thinking: A Praxis For Creating User-Centered Experiences

Design thinking should become part of the toolkit of all Jewish organizations, especially in a climate of profound change, but it is particularly important for Jewish professionals charged with engagement work to master this skill. It will serve as a kind of course-corrector, keeping professionals accountable to and in touch with the needs of those they seek to serve.

by Rachel Cort

This series started with the observation that unengaged Millennials are profoundly different from the professionals who seek to engage them. Last week, I suggested that the concept of disruptive innovation can be used as a framework for understanding why those who are already invested in Jewish life often struggle to engage the unengaged. Today, I will discuss the technique of design thinking as a way to create disruptive or discontinuous innovations that are built around Millennial definitions of value and better able to serve the Millennial “market.”

Design thinking was first developed by the Silicon Valley design firm IDEO as a way to design better physical objects, but it has come to hold important applications for designing experiences as well. It is already part of the lingua franca of many Jewish incubators, accelerators and innovation hubs. For example, UpStart Bay Area has used design thinking, with great success, as a way to create and support more user-centered Jewish entrepreneurial ventures. Design thinking should become part of the toolkit of all Jewish organizations, especially in a climate of profound change, but it is particularly important for Jewish professionals charged with engagement work to master this skill. It will serve as a kind of course-corrector, keeping professionals accountable to and in touch with the needs of those they seek to serve.

Design thinking requires its practitioners to delve deeply into the experiences and needs of potential users and resists the creation of surface solutions for complex problems. Most of us probably aspire to these things anyways, but design thinking has a way of compelling its practitioners to dive deeper and be more intentional about the choices they make. One of the great strengths of traditional Judaism is its history of actualizing values through concrete practices and rituals; similarly, design thinking can be seen as a ritualized praxis for creating user-centered experiences. It is not enough for professionals to design Jewish experiences based on what they themselves need or would like to experience, or even what they assume Millennials would like to experience. Such assumptions are traps, and will prevent professionals from fully understanding the point of view of their intended audience.

The first step in design thinking is to create a real empathy with the people one is trying to serve, in order to grasp their needs – including needs they might not be very good at expressing. Empathy is the most important element of good design, but it’s also quite challenging to develop. In my experience, unengaged Millennials are accustomed to getting their spiritual and communal needs met through means other than Jewish life, and they are unlikely to stick around long enough to become articulate critics of a Jewish community that has failed them. Developing empathy can sometimes resemble detective work. It requires us to not only hear what Millennials say they want, but also to understand their formative experiences, plumb the subtext behind their words and make connections between their words and their actions. It is critical to approach unengaged Millennials with a beginner’s mindset, leaving behind our own assumptions about what is valuable about Jewish life to truly see it through their eyes. Through a combination of ethnographic interviews and observations, Jewish professionals adept in design thinking will be able to recognize insights into Millennial behavior and give voice to latent needs that Millennials themselves may not yet be able to articulate.

Once needs have been identified, the next step in the design thinking process is to ideate – or more colloquially, brainstorm – a number of possible solutions to the needs at hand. Design thinking treats brainstorming as a structured process with rules, that actually takes practice to do effectively. A properly run brainstorming session (a surprisingly rare experience) is a truly collaborative and generative experience* that can open up a broad spectrum of ideas, some of which are more conventional solutions and some of which are wildly out-of-the-box. Once the strongest and most promising ideas have been identified (usually by group consensus or through a voting process), the next step is to build quick and basic prototypes of those ideas, being careful not to over-invest in or become emotionally attached to any one prototype. The final phase of the design thinking process is testing the various prototypes in the context of the user’s life. How does the user respond to the prototype? How do they interact with it? What questions do they have about it? How does it make them feel? Testing a prototype offers a chance to refine it, and also creates additional chances to build empathy with users through observation. Design is an iterative process that requires us to learn from every prototype in order to improve the next one. It also requires agility, something for which Jewish institutions have not traditionally been known.

Design thinking is particularly suited to Jewish life precisely because of the importance of constraints to the process. As Tim Brown of IDEO writes in his book Change By Design, “The willing and even enthusiastic acceptance of competing constraints is the foundation of design thinking. The first stage of the design process is often about discovering which constraints are important and establishing a framework for evaluating them.” Jews have long faced constraints, with regard to both internal religious laws and external pressures. We have always found inventive ways to bridge the gap between needs and constraints; it’s one of the great strengths of our tradition. I would even argue that Jewish life has thrived for millennia because constraints are actually a source of creativity (think about an eruv, or the practice of “selling” communal chametz on Passover). Being design thinkers in the Jewish world today doesn’t mean doing whatever we want, but rather evaluating which constraints are now operative for young Jewish adults, with the understanding that they will look different from the constraints of the past. Our task now is to use the raw material of Jewish tradition to create experiences that respond to Millennial needs and definitions of value.

* I will write more about the challenge and importance of collaboration in my next article.

Rachel Cort is the Director of Community Building Programs at jU Chicago and a Fellow at the Institute for the Next Jewish Future.

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  1. Jordan Goodman says

    Shalom Rachel and All,

    Lots of technical jargon here that is for this pony-tailed graying aging boomer tough through which to sift. I don’t even know what’s meant by Jewish programming, i.e., what makes it specifically Jewish?

    There’s no mystery what the folks, not just Jews and not just Millenials, want across all demographics : connection and meaning. Finding these most human of needs within the context of Jewish teaching and delivering them in a relevant, practical, application oriented way is the task at hand. The rest is commentary.
    So…who wants to study? And the, more importantly who wants to implement?


  2. says

    Rachel — I agree we have a lot to learn from design thinking. There’s a great video about IDEO’s process that Aliza Kline introduced me to that’s worth watching to bring the design thinking process to life.

    The two things I appreciate most are 1) diverse teams (not all insider baseball as you mentioned in your first piece, and many disciplines) and 2) EMPATHY which you mention but I think warrants emphasis. Empathy in this context isn’t just being a nice guy. It’s putting the “customer” first, asking questions, hearing their stories, designing FOR THEM, not designing to get them to do your thing. There’s a profound difference there.

    In our Connected Congregations initiative with UJA Federation of New York we took synagogue teams through a full day Design Thinking workshop. Practicing the principles and process was illuminating (we redesigned the tzedakah box – which turned into giving circles, apps, new banking features, etc.) and now we’re working on applying the process to congregational development.

    Can’t wait for your next piece.

  3. Joel Schindler says

    Another interesting post, but with all due respect, there is nothing new here but the name. What Tim Brown calls “Change by Design” has for years been a staple of market research efforts built around Ideation. The process has been around for a long time but like many things, if you call it something new it has more panache. In my opinion, the issue as it relates to Jewish communal organizations isn’t that we don’t know what to do, we just don’t know how to do it. Boards have workshops and retreats which ultimately result in too much discussion among the insiders and no inclusion of “others” – be they Millenials or any other demographic. A “Change by Design” process among a group of Board members who have served on the Board for years will not bring any change to an organization whether it’s called a new name or not. The point of “Change by Design” is to change the mold so not just the insiders are part of the process. Plus there’s an execution phase where organizations can’t be afraid to experiment with pilots and models to see what works. In the philanthropic world, unlike the corporate world, we fear insider big donors walking away and therefore sadly continue to do the same-old-same-old because of it. I’ve called this the “Tyranny of Philanthropy” for years – doing what the big donors “force” the organization to do for fear of losing their gift. We need to fear the future of our organizations more than we can fear the past gifts of our contributors or there will be no future for our organizations. We need to be willing to tell donors their pet projects no long serve the best interests of the organization’s future and we’d like to include them in exploring how to “re-vision” the organization and bring new people into the process. Then the ideation process will actually identify unmet needs that require attention rather than just refining the status-quo. Then we need to test them. There’s been lots of discussion about the issue of Jewishness being a “product” with plenty of pros and cons. In reality, “Change by Design” is very product oriented – create a new product and test the market to see if they like it. Until we change the old mold, stop talking to just the same people and test new efforts in a real world setting, we’ll keep treading water until we drown.

  4. Aliza Kline says

    I am delighted to see the vocabulary of Design Thinking making it’s way into E-Jewish and especially in the context of gaining deeper understanding of and empathy for millennials. It is all too common for the Jewish community to rely on assumptions. Even the assumption that “everyone is looking for meaning,” (which I too am 100% guilty of making) assumes that the people we are serving don’t have meaning in their lives, or that they need to have the same kind of meaning that “we do.” Getting to true empathy requires serious humility and deep curiosity. It’s a practice. It’s hard, but it’s seriously worth it.

  5. Maya says

    I echo Aliza’s delight in seeing Design Thinking get more attention. The mindsets and tools in this methodology are critical in the process of creating resonant, meaningful experiences for the constituencies we wish to serve. Not to mention that the process often leads to more financially stable and fiscally healthy institutions. UpStart Bay Area has been partnering with the Jewish Education Project to bring these tools to Jewish Day Schools in New York, through a generous grant from UJA NY. Explore our open Facebook page to get a glimpse of how this process is inspiring creativity and innovation in NY Jewish Day Schools:

  6. Jordan Goodman says

    Shalom Aliza and All,

    Re assumptions: the can be no decision making of any sort without them. Call them assumptions, or generalizations, or judgements, we all must make them in order to survive and maybe even thrive. Results alone will determine their value.

    Re my assumption about the folks wanting/needing connection and meaning: I’ll stand by it. That some folks may already have meaning in their lives is not the point. Nor is it to foist a unanimity of meaning upon the folks. This is about answering the big questions that life itself engenders one of which is about ultimate meaning. And Jewish teaching has much to say about this as well as about the human need for connection.

    The context of Jewish teaching (not synonymous with political liberalism with the Jewish holidays thrown in) and what it has to say about these things as well
    as what it has to say about life and how we live it and how we experience it in the 21rst century in North America the key issue here.

    Relevant, meaningful, application oriented Jewish teaching needs to be the overarching perspective for any vision casting going forward. Without it, why bother? After all we’re not Unitarians of Jewish descent? Or are we?


  7. says

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    The site is educational as well as practical. A private ‘Shiva Registry’ page can be created by a mourner, friend, synagogue or Jewish organization to share detailed information, coordinate shiva food for each day and encourage memorial donations. Those wishing to express their condolences know how best to do so- the bereaved are spared from the many unnecessary phone calls typically received.