150 Heads Are Better than One: Charettes & Design-Led Thinking

by Jamie Myrold, Director of Experience Design, Adobe

A good designer can deliver a lot of insight into a business problem. A bunch of good designers can deliver more and deeper insights. And a bunch of good designers working with cross-functional teams that have expertise in different areas can solve a business problem in ways no one could predict.

At Adobe, we use collaborative teams to solve problems and foster creativity. The teams come together for a short period of time to work on a defined problem. These efforts are called charrettes.

A charrette is an activity that should be of interest to more than just the design team. A company may recognize the usefulness of design-led thinking, but then it has to figure out how to implement it. Charrettes are a proven way to use design as a business tool.

And for companies that don’t recognize the value of design-led thinking, a charrette may provide a way for the design department to demonstrate that

design-led thinking

The spreadsheet killer

Traditionally, businesses have taken an analytical approach to problem solving. A problem is identified, numbers are run, and a solution is determined. Everything is predictable.

Only, everything is not predictable. Customers use our products in ways we never expected while sometimes ignoring product features we thought they’d love. We’d never know these things if we just looked at a spreadsheet. All a spreadsheet can tell us is whether purchases are increasing or decreasing. That’s not enough information to create a product road map that makes sense to customers.

Considering a business problem from the customer perspective reveals opportunities and weaknesses that can surprise us. Some of the things we find will be little—make that button red—and others can be massive—overhaul that product line. Either way, projects don’t sit in the planning stage for months or go through repeated design iterations as feedback is incorporated in drips and drabs; the customers’ view is represented from the start, because designers are trained to always consider their audiences.

Design-led thinking breaks the paradigm of running businesses through spreadsheets and creates the paradigm of running businesses from the customers’ perspective.

Apply as needed

Charrettes can be used for different purposes—big or small, internal or customer-facing. Businesses that want to shed the limitations of traditional approaches can find plenty of problems that might be solved by a charrette.

We did one to gather a lot of innovative ideas quickly when we needed to put together a vision for a product’s future. In that case, we wanted to collect 100 ideas so we could analyze them for parallels and turn the results into a strategic presentation. This collaboration required our design team to look beyond our usual focus on the user experience and think more about business needs.

We even did one to develop our in-house design talent. We have designers who grind away on the same deep problems every day, and we wanted to give them the chance to exercise new muscles by thinking about a problem utterly outside the realm of their daily focus.

But while a charrette can be useful for lots of reasons, we don’t use them for every project. Charrettes are composed of cross-functional teams, so they involve a lot of people who would otherwise be at their desks performing their primary responsibilities. Charrettes also require other resources, like the space for teams to work, travel costs if participants are far-flung, and meals, of course, because people need to eat. In my experience, charrettes can include as many as 150 people, so the expenses aren’t trivial.

The process is the product

So how do you have a successful charrette? First, stop thinking in terms of success. A charrette will get people to collaborate in creative ways, but the results might not be measurable or tangible. And even if they are, a specific output can’t be guaranteed. If brilliance were dependable, it would be in bottles on store shelves and artists would never toss themselves off buildings.

Participants need to learn to separate the process from the outcome. Designers aren’t hired because they can produce two designs a week; they’re hired for their creative thinking. During a charrette, that creative thinking and the intellectual abilities of others on the teams are unleashed, and people who would normally be confined to their designated roles are freed to expand the value they provide to their organization. That’s a powerful event.

Prove design is business-critical

A charrette takes the essence and principles that designers learn and applies them to business cases. During the process, everyone can see the value that a designer brings to the table in a cross-functional team.

A ten-year veteran of Adobe, Jamie Myrold has directed design for almost every product and service experience Adobe has shipped. She has extensive experience taking old, out of date technologies, and revamping them to create intuitive, seamless and beautiful user experiences that millions of Adobe users love. She most recently redesigned the all new Adobe Document Cloud and Acrobat DC, enabling features that could previously only be done with pen to paper and employing them into a whole new digital user experience.

GROUP-U7636-U7638_1More resources on design-led thinking: