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It is widely known that design thinking methodology helps to create solutions that meet user needs. From the practical experience SAMSONOWA & Partners knows about the advantages of design thinking and claims that the approach is universal. In order to convince our readers, we want to share one extreme case: how design thinking helped us to create technological solutions for firefighters.

What is Design Thinking?

First, let’s recall what design thinking is. The main idea behind the methodology is to put the end user, his specific needs and “pain points” in the center. Due to the democratic approach the team is able to think outside the box, while digging deep into the problem. Close collaboration with the user allows developers to receive fast feedback and create a product that the client will definitely like.

The process of design thinking includes 5 stages:

(1) Empathy: Immersion in the life and needs of the target audience. The key task at this stage is to see the world through the eyes of the client and to get the idea of his context;
(2) Point of view. A clear user problem is formed from the insights of the previous stage. The task here is to formulate the client’s needs in the most detailed way;
(3) Ideation. At this stage, a variety of solutions to the problem should be suggested, the designers should focus more on quantity, not quality;
(4) Prototyping and (5) Testing often go together. At these stages, a simple prototype is created and presented to users to collect feedback and improve the solution.

One of the main principles of this method is iterations,that is  a continuous returning to previous stages. After going through those 5 steps again and again, the team manages to move from a broad concept to a more specific solution and get the most targeted, accurate understanding of a product.

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Design Thinking and Firefighters

Sebastian Denef, one of the experts at SAMSONOWA & Partners, participated in a project aimed at creating technological solutions for French firefighters. The goal of the project was to introduce computer technology into a context where smart devices still are not common, even in our computer age. The task was not easy, and Sebastian approached the problem in a non-standard way. Having assembled an interdisciplinary team of scientists and engineers, he decided to use a universal approach to create new products – design thinking.

At the first stage the team studied the routines and various tasks of firefighters. Scientists and engineers observed the work of future users at all stages: from fighting the fire itself to talking and resting during the breaks. Every detail was important: special devices, sequences of actions and distribution of roles in the team. After the observation stage, it was the turn of our experts to take on the role of a fireman. Literally. 

Scientists and engineers put on heavy equipment and went into the burning barn in order to experience what it feels like to be in the real flames. For the first time they experienced heat through a heavy protective suit, lack of oxygen and a complete lack of visibility – all what firefighters faced every day. After the exercise it became obvious that, crawling on their knees in a smoky space with protective gloves, firefighters were not able to use the usual computer interface.

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How could technologies help firefighters if familiar interfaces were not available? After a detailed study of firefighters’ everyday life, the team focused on identifying patterns that allowed firefighters to survive in extreme conditions. Key aspects in firefighters’ work were:

  1. The clear hierarchy that allows to know precisely the responsibilities and capabilities of each person, and also helps to build trust;
  2. The constant use of new information to keep a building plan in mind that helps to navigate better and remember routes;
  3. Independent work of small teams of 2-3 people that helps to make decisions faster and coordinate actions more efficiently.

Based on the results of a deep immersion in the life of a fire brigade, the experts made the following “point of view”:

“Firefighters need simple technological solutions that do not violate the existing structure, because in extreme working conditions it is necessary to support what works well and not to overload firefighters with unnecessary devices.”

At the next stage of brainstorming the designers teamed up with firefighters to develop a large number of ideas. Firefighters along with scientists and engineers offered their ideas on how technology could help them in extreme conditions without overriding existing processes. The result of the stage was a variety of ideas: from determining geolocation of a firefighter using a GPS module to using disposable sensors that firefighters leave behind, like those bread crumbs from a fairy tale, to help them return.

As a result for the next step the design team chose the idea of wooden wages with a changing LED: each one of the four colors signaled the room check status, for example, green meant “the room is checked” or red – “need to return”. Prototypes were created with improvised materials and firefighters were able to test their suggestions with simple painted bars for a couple of euros. Of course, further development of the approved prototype involved more significant costs. But at this stage the experts were able to evaluate the success of the idea quickly and cheaply and make necessary changes to the prototype.

What to Consider When Applying Design Thinking?

Design thinking allows you to immerse yourself into the problem even in an unfamiliar environment. The underlying principles of the method are so universal that even in such a complex and dangerous field as firefighting the designers were able to dive into the unfamiliar context and come up with the useful solution. Many opponents of design thinking note that this method relies mainly on creativity, and not on expertise. Because of that it is easy to get carried away with creating solutions that are far from reality. However, design thinking does not suggest neglecting real knowledge, but rather combine them with the team’s skills in building empathy, brainstorming and introducing fast feedback. Design thinking gathers specialists in interdisciplinary teams and gives them an opportunity to look at the problem from a different angle, go beyond their usual work routines and, at the same time, save resources on developing unnecessary products.