Category Archives: design thinking

Mopping Stinks, and How They Fixed It

If you love to mop, stop reading.  This post will make you mad.

If you hate mopping, channel that rage into what you’re about to read, and enjoy a journey through the design thinking process.

In his 2012 book “Imagine”, Jonah Lehrer opens the book with a story about mopping.  For me, mopping is an occasional hassle and a detested chore.  And I couldn’t really tell you why.  It just stinks.

A lot of people felt the same way, and Procter & Gamble knew it.  P&G makes millions of dollars per year on the floor cleaning industry.  So, they put their world-leading chemistry department on the job.  Come up with a better floor cleaner.

After months of trying, and failing, the company with more Ph.D.’s than Harvard, MIT, and UC-Berkley (combined!) reached its last dead end.  P&G shifted focus and gave the problem to an outside consulting company for a fresh perspective.

David Kelley, founder of the company IDEO and Stanford University’s, once spoke of the design thinking process as “a series of buckets” from which to draw useful strategies to addressing problems.  Three of those strategies (“ask an expert”, “observe users”, and “build a prototype”) led to a breakthrough in the mopping industry.

The consultants spent tedious hours watching people mop.  Let that sink in for a minute.  Watching… people… mop.  The trick is to watch people mop and pretend you’ve never seen anyone mop before.  By watching people mop and talking to them about their experiences, they learned two important things: 1) Most people spent more time cleaning their mop than cleaning their floor with the mop, and 2) People used easier ways to clean up smaller messes.

These two observations led to an idea, and that idea led to a prototype: a disposable paper-towel-like head on a plastic handle.  People didn’t get it, until they tried it.  When people were told about the plan to put a disposable head on a mop handle, focus groups were unimpressed.  So, rather than try to explain it better, they built one and let people try it themselves.  Then the focus group participants wanted to take it home with them!  The Swiffer was born, and it generated over half a billion dollars in sales within its first year on the market.¹

What is your mop?  At school, at work, at home… what is that task or that chore that takes up our time, and that we have just come to accept as “part of life” with no way to improve it?  Maybe you have the beginning of the next Swiffer!

¹ – Information about the development of The Swiffer comes from Jonah Lehrer’s 2012 book “Imagine”.  The book was recalled by the publisher over admissions by the author that he fabricated quotes and other material in a section of the book about Bob Dylan.  I scored a copy from the Canadian imprint online.  The book sold about 200,000 copies before it was pulled from shelves.  It is generally readily available used on Amazon.

Three Tips to Get You Started in Design Thinking

School districts can sometimes feel like giant ocean liners.  They hold a lot of people, but they can take a long time to change direction.  When there are problems that need to be addressed, the process of “Design Thinking” is gaining a lot of popularity as a framework for coming up with innovative solutions.  The process is not necessarily difficult, but the work can be slow-going sometimes.  This can lead individuals, or entire teams, to believe that the process has failed – especially in a field where we want to see significant results quickly from our actions.

You can start small, or start big.  If you’re thinking about exploring “Design Thinking” as a model for approaching your next problem-solving venture, keep these three tips in mind to get the most from the experience.

Empathy.Empathy.  The best results from Design Thinking come when we spend plenty of time on activities that emphasize empathy.  Who is affected by the problem we’re trying to fix?  This step often involves lots of interviews with such people (often termed “users”, as in “users” of the system or product being redesigned), and observing them while using the current system/product.  If your proposed solutions don’t actually help anyone, why were you working on the problem in the first place?  When the Design Thinking process is working well, empathy has been allowed to shape and define our understanding of the problem.

Prepare to fail, and learn from it.  Failure is becoming something of a popular buzzword in education these days.  Reducing the stigma attached to failures is a noble cause.  When we punish failure, we rarely do so in a way that encourages students to try again.  We generally get the opposite result – students learn to stop trying.  We can’t make failure not stink.  If failure feels good, why succeed?  What we can do is cultivate an attitude of learning from failure, and not letting the prospect of failure prevent us from making the attempt.  Prototyping and the iterative process gives us a chance to try, and if that doesn’t work, to go back and try again with new understanding. [View this Stanford slide deck on “Prototypes”]

Green octagon Go sign.Bias toward action.  I have a strong memory of coming out of one especially long meeting at a previous workplace.  The meeting wasn’t necessarily a productive one.  We left with no proposed solutions.  A co-worker of mine put it best when he said, “Well, we didn’t come up with a solution, but we sure admired the problem!”  Too often, we spend a lot of time admiring problems, and not taking steps to resolve it (perhaps owing to the fear of failure mentioned above).  Bias toward action doesn’t mean that we enact solutions without sufficient preparation or thought.  It means that even our closed-lab discussions are concerned primarily with, “What can we do as a result of this?”  A solution that never results in a change in practice is no solution.

Truly enacting a “Design Thinking” framework requires a shift in thinking away from supporting existing systems to supporting eventual solutions.  The results can be spectacular!

Want to know more about applying principles of Design Thinking in schools?  Check out!