Make it look pretty

When most people think of design their first thought is, “OK, now let’s make it look pretty.” It’s that last patina of beauty to get people attracted to, or to like the product or service for them to buy it. Wrong!

Design is so much more than the surface. It’s the way the thing works. It’s also the process that gets you to the incredibly unique solution that you need.

The first step: empathize with the user of the service or product, then accurately define the need or problem. After that, gather the data and the evidence and look for patterns. Then brainstorm and ideate like there’s no tomorrow. Next step, rapidly prototype a solution. Then expose it to the rigours of the real world. Lastly… rinse and repeat, until you find just the right solution.

Finding the pattern

In 2009, AirBnB (the online platform for anyone to rent rooms from almost anywhere in the world) were at a point of spectacular failure. Their revenues were stuck at just US $200 per week! And with four partners in the company, there was no way that income could sustain operations.

In 2009, AirBnB were at a point of spectacular failure. Their revenues were stuck at just US $200 per week!

They pored over the data, they examined the profiles of a particular set of properties in New York City. Then they found a pattern: all the profiles had terrible photographs! Sometimes, you have to stop, look and listen.

Every problem has a pattern. It leaves a trace that you will only find if you divert your thoughts from the everyday flow of business and focus on the scratchmarks left by the thorn in your business’s flesh.

Find ways to measure outputs beyond how many shoes were produced this month, or who your leading sales people are. There are more granular metrics you can use to measure the performance of your business. In that sea of data you will find the pattern. Go and get it! Then analyse until you see where the hole in the bucket really is.

With their analysis done, the AirBnB team came up with a very obvious solution — take better pictures. They jumped on a plane to New York, captured high resolution, well lit, professional shots that eclipsed the amateur images that populated the pages of those properties.

The impact was almost immediate. Just one week later, bookings doubled to US$400. They knew they were on to something.

While the AirBnB team struck gold early on, not all design thinking processes are as short. Sometimes it takes multiple layers of solutions to find that one needle, tucked away in a haystack of disappointing jibber-jabber.

Health service design

A few days ago I sat in a hospital waiting room, going over in my mind the multiple layers of negative experiences that finally resulted in service being delivered to a family member. Wait to see the nurse, wait to pay, wait to see the doctor. All of that added up to almost five hours.

I’m sure some people would say, you’re lucky! That was short! Of course, the naysayers and the members of the Glass-Is-Half-Empty Party will babble, “A Jamaica, is so the system set up”, or “We don’t have money to do what those first world countries can do.”

Well, why not redesign the system, taking into account the lack of capital for major hiring of personnel or building structure design?

This, of course, is not special to Jamaica. Japan, one of our neighbours in the United Nations general assembly, had a similar problem some time ago. In an effort to use design thinking to improve patient experiences in Japanese hospitals, an article was written to document the process. It appeared in the Journal of Business Strategy in 2009. These were the findings:

“The study finds that the lobby is a key factor in shaping overall patient experience. Waiting and navigation are negative patient experiences that are not adequately addressed. As frequency of hospital visits increase, patients move from anxiety to irritation to boredom. Severity of illness and patient activity level affect patient desire for engagement with surroundings while waiting. Kiosks displaying map and waiting time meet the urgent needs of anxious patients and support others. Modular design elements updated seasonally vary the physical environment of the hospital and provide context for periodic contacts by sales staff with client hospitals.”

Innovative thinking demands a certain rigour to be applied — changing one’s perspective and being open to new ideas. Defaulting to statements riddled with cultural or anecdotal excuses slows the process significantly to a crawl. This must be avoided… at all costs.

Our hospitals (mainly the public ones) are just one tiny area where twisting the kaleidoscope of solutions could lead to a myriad of new opportunities for so many of us on this rock we call Jamaica.

Main St, Small Town

How about traffic in our smaller towns? Pedestrians are actually the main cloggers of our streets. Displaced by cars, usually taxis, in front of businesses that line Main St, Small Town. We have essentially created taxi stands masquerading as sidewalks. These streets breathe only on the weekend.

This was a problem solved decades ago, actually right here in Jamaica, in Half-Way-Tree with the use of railings. No longer could pedestrians step off the street and into a cab, nor could taxis continue to use the sidewalk as a “stand”. Mandeville is a prime example of this vexing problem.

Until taxis can no longer “load” along the main thoroughfare, passengers will continue to do the easy thing and wait on the sidewalk to be picked up. Until the plazas are designed around the taxi stands and sidewalks are lined with railings in key areas, we will forever face this perennial problem.

But that’s just one solution that needs to be exposed to the test of debate, prototyping, and real-life testing. There is a wide plethora of human behaviours that can be modified, simply by applying the rigour of design thinking.

Every day, business owners, government ministers, mayors, parish councilors, principals and many more across the spectrum of our society, face ugly problems clothed in ugly situations. So we try to pretty it up with ideas that are committee-driven but exempt from the steely, teutonic process of: data spelunking, prototype developing, and real world testing — topped off with a generous helping of rinsing and repeating.

We must be crazy, because we keep doing the same things while expecting different outcomes.

Let’s stop trying to make it look pretty. Let’s make it work. The time to apply design thinking has come for some time now. It is revolutionising industries around the world. Why not us? Why not now?

Yorkali Walters is a graphic designer and photographer with more than 15 years in the design industry. He’s also a Vice President of the Jamaica Design Association (JDA). Contact the JDA at

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