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.