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Outwitly Inc. : How to use design thinking to better understand yourself, your work, and your brand.


How did Outwitly come about and what are you doing that other “human-centred” agencies aren’t doing yet?

Outwitly is a UX & Service Design consultancy, based in Ottawa, Canada. We use human-centered design and research methods to solve complex business problems and create end-to-end user and customer experiences that are delightful and consistent across all channels. Our remote team works with clients across North America to challenge the status quo, create innovative solutions, and ultimately improve people’s lives.

I started Outwitly Inc. in 2016 after moving back to Canada from living in the San Francisco Bay Area for four years. I wanted to bring the practices and principles I had learned from working there back to Canada, and I also wanted to be my own boss, and set the rules for who we worked with and the types of projects we took on.

What is a human-centred approach to design as you see it?

Human-centered design is at the core of everything we do. It is the process of putting the “people” who use or interact with a product or service first. That means that we do research with users, citizens, customers, and employees to understand their challenges, needs, and goals. With that data in hand, we are able to make informed decisions about how to improve their experiences.

It also means that, as we design something, we are keeping them in mind at all times. We go back to end users and get their feedback throughout the design phase, and we also involve them in the design process through activities like Co-Design Workshops.

The human-centered design process is about building empathy for the people in the system you are designing, and ensuring their needs and challenges are met.

Do you think the human-centred philosophy has reached its limit yet or can we dig a bit deeper?

This is a very deep question. I think that right now we are in a stage of “looking from the outside in”, where in human-centered design, we study users and their needs from the outside, and we try to be as objective as possible. But ultimately, we may move to a place of deeper understanding where we are all part of a greater whole––we are all interconnected.

For example, we use human-centred design (HCD) to improve workplace culture, where management realizes there is an issue and hires a firm (like us) to help. In order to help, we interview employees and stakeholders, conduct workshops, and even look at organizational design. However, when one part of that system is broken or unhappy, the entire organization can fall apart.

So I think there may be some methodologies and practices developed in the future that will transcend the “outside-in” approach to looking more deeply at the interwoven nature of the environment, healthcare, society, and more.

A lot of the research you do with your clients is about uncovering their stories? What is it about stories in this context that humanises design?

Storytelling plays a big part in our work, both in how we gather data from users (through interviews and observations) and how we get them to tell us their stories and experiences, but also in how we communicate those findings back to stakeholders and executives.

Fundamentally and through time, humans have learned to tell stories and listen to stories. All of our research and design deliverables are created in a way that tells a story so that readers on the other end can easily understand the meaning of what we are trying to convey. Sometimes that means including quotes in our research reports, including videos, or through customer journey maps.

For example, in the context of healthcare design, it is more powerful to hear the story of a wife who loses her husband because of a medication conflict that could have been easily avoided if healthcare systems and applications talked to each other, versus simply reporting that medication reconciliation is a challenge. By hearing actual stories about how people were impacted by certain design choices (good or bad), you are able to win the hearts and minds of decision makers and actually make change.

How can we apply this human-centred design approach to our own lives and the way we live them?

As designers and researchers, our job is often to see problems everywhere, because we love to make things better. So when we turn internally, and reflect on our own lives, we can use human-centered design methodologies to uncover challenges we might be facing and brainstorm ways to improve them.

For example, there is a tool called an Empathy Map, which we usually use to understand users, but it can also be used with your spouse or colleagues to try and step into their shoes and see things from their perspective – or for yourself, to even just write down all the things you love and hate about your current situation (almost as if you were interviewing yourself) –like journaling.  You can then try to find patterns and themes that can give you clues for areas of your life that should be improved. You can also use brainstorming techniques to generate ideas for challenges that you have.

Would you agree that being more human makes us more creative? How so (or not!)?

I’m not a philosopher, but if we look at being human as being more compassionate, having feelings (good and bad), having a conscious and subconscious mind, and so on––then being more human would mean leaning into these feelings and thoughts more in our work.

In my opinion, this would help everyone to be more creative because we are leaning into the parts of ourselves that are infinitely creative, and we are not so bound by rules and existing ways of doing things. Humans are by nature creative –look at the world around us, every single thing that we use every day has been dreamt up by someone. A keyboard, for example, was invented by someone at some point in time, and it is amazing! So of course, being more human in our work will also make us more creative.

How does the human-centered approach help us to solve problems more creatively?

HCD does this in a few ways:

  • It helps us to pull out/identify challenges and needs from real users.
  • Using those challenges and needs as a platform for creativity, we can begin to brainstorm possible solutions. In design thinking and HCD, we are taught that quantity of ideas over quality (in the beginning) is more important, so we generate many ideas and see what sticks––then build from there.
  • We approach our work from the beginner’s mind. Most times, when we start a project, we are not experts in the area itself (for example in law, healthcare, cybersecurity, and so on), but we are experts at the design process. This means we bring a naiveness to our work and solution finding that other subject matter experts might not have. We ask “stupid” questions to get at the core of the issue, and we come up with ideas outside of existing constructs.
  • We take a collaborative and multidisciplinary approach, where more minds are better than one, and we utilize the expertise and perspectives of others to refine our ideas.

Has modern culture conditioned us to forget about our own ‘human’ side? How can design help with this without trying to “save the world”?

Hmm… I think we are seeing a shift away from the expectation that everyone needs to be perfect. I think the pandemic has helped with this. Instead of seeing everyone in suits in conference rooms, we are seeing them in their homes with screaming children or barking dogs in the background, and we are all connected across the world going through this common challenge together. While a few years ago that wouldn’t have been true, now, I think society has become so much more aware of people’s individual needs and situations.

However, using human-centered design methods and working to build empathy for others around us will always be helpful. I don’t know if designers need to save the world, but we can certainly use our powers of deduction and creativity to solve some of the “wicked” or complex problems we are seeing today such as climate change and poverty. This is where design thinking should play a big role.

Are we being too cynical there? Does the world need saving?

I am an eternal optimist, so I believe that no matter the challenge there is always a solution. I also believe in humanity, and of course, creativity––so these bigger world issues that we have talked about can get better, especially if we collectively put our minds to it, start from a place of empathy, and use creative problem solving, collaboration, and a multi-disciplinary approach to come up with solutions.

What do you think marketers and business leaders can learn from design research?

So much. While in marketing there is a lot of research conducted with customers, the goal of the research is different. In design research or user research, we are looking to uncover a user’s unspoken needs, underlying motivations, and their behaviours with the sole purpose of making a better experience for them––whether that means we are identifying new innovative products, services, or features, or we are taking something that exists and finding ways to make that experience more seamless and delightful.

Marketing research may also focus more heavily on the “ideal”, whereas design research is grounded in “reality” with an eye on the future. We WANT to hear people’s problems (the more problems the better)––the more challenges there are, the more things there are to solve and improve. We want to understand the whole context of a person, not just who they are when they interact with that brand, but all of the things going on in their life that might be impacting their experience.

Similarly, business leaders may think of Marketing Research when they hear someone telling them to talk to their customers. Let me be clear, also: there is a place and use for market research, but it is not the “be all and end all” of research. If business leaders really want a product/service that stands out from their competitors, where people shout from the rooftops about their great experience and refer their friends, then they need to be going deeper––and they can do that with design research.

What’s next for the Outwitly team?

We’re growing! 2021 has been off to an amazing start with many new projects on-the-go and much more to come. If any of your readers are interested in joining our team or our extended team (through our independent contractor pool) then check out our careers page!



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