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How Design Thinking Could Help Solve the Skills Gap

Using three design thinking tools—analogous thinking, looking to extremes, and keeping the human experience in mind—can help us find solutions.

This story is the final in a six part editorial series exploring the balance between student learning and job skills. We're asking leaders and thinkers in education and technology fields: Can America educate its way out of the skills gap? This series is brought to you by GOOD, with support from Apollo Group. Learn more about our efforts to bridge the skills gap at Coding for GOOD.

What if I were to tell you that you could learn more about how to solve the skills gap from a dating site than from a quantitative international study?


As a systems designer at IDEO, I'm always looking for innovative ways to go about understanding and framing problems. Notwithstanding the conflation of issues found in discussions about a skills gap, if we take it head on as a challenge, "design thinking" provides a fresh lens and three useful problem solving techniques.

The first technique is using analogous illustrations as a source for critical problem solving. Understanding the dynamics of similar challenges in an entirely different context can provide insights otherwise overlooked by experts. Who would think the solution to making emergency room procedures more effective would come from observing the best practices of a NASCAR pit crew? (It actually did).

Lessons can surely be learned from dating sites and their methods for creating natural matches in a very impersonal environment, from master chefs working with limited ingredients to create diverse dishes, from parents picking a baby sitter for the first or second time, or from voters picking a presidential candidate. While such examples may not provide contextual application to solving the skills gap, they can infuse inspiration and learning into areas overlooked by expert lens.

A second approach used by design thinkers that could help illuminate unconventional solutions to the skills gap is looking to extremes instead of the norm. Typical studies only look at really successful cases in isolation and draw best practice solutions from them. This is useful, but it doesn’t really clarify whether something worked because of a particular variable or despite it.

For example, when designing a product for people, design thinkers look to both the power-user and the anti-user. In designing cooking utensils, a set of designers watched how chefs used cooking equipment and where they struggled. Then they studied how children used the same utensils, since kids often lack the experience to create a "work-around" for the flaws in the original design. This surfaced both the strengths and weakness of the products, which ultimately benefited the redesign for the average person as well.

In the case of matching people with jobs, why not look at a series of cases of remarkable employer to employee matches, both unconventional and conventional? We could also find answers by examining a series of concrete cases of seemingly ideal—yet failed attempts—to close the skills gap.

The third technique takes into account the human experience. You can design the most flawless systems on paper, but without taking into consideration the dynamic and quirky dimension of people, you’ll never get it right. That’s why "human-centered design" is a cornerstone of design thinking. It's based on the premise that empathy for the user is critical—all systems that intersect with human beings have to cater to human dimensions and experiences. Otherwise they’ll fail.

What does that mean for the skills gap? No matter how perfectly you design an education system, no matter how perfect the on-boarding and development programs an employer institutes, if you don’t address the human elements on all sides—employee, employer, and educator—you're going to face frustration.

Employers and educators have to put themselves in the shoes of the would-be employee searching for a job. Doing empathy exercises can provide deep insight into unexpected and concealed needs. Employers and educators can do this by actually experiencing what a potential employee would experience, or they can take on an analogous experience.

For example, if an employer wants to remember what it's like to learn something and apply it for the first time, they could try taking up surfing, playing the guitar, or learning how to build a chair. This would help employers personally relate to the emotional ups-and-downs that would-be employees experience while learning something entirely new, while trying to intellectually retain the technical content. Similarly, educators and employees have to consider the needs of the employer, and both employees and employers have to consider the limitations of our educational institutions.

When designers want to know the experience of end users, what they do, think, act, and say—they want the human reaction in context—they'll engage in observations or empathy exercises to get as close to the experience as possible. By doing so, they can identify pivotal opportunity areas. Some designers call such critical junctures "moments that matter."

These moments are characterized by heightened experiences, often during the outset or closure of a new undertaking, and also in moments of transition. To create effective solutions for the skills gap, we have to identify key moments that matter in the process, like when students realize they need a job to pay for things they want, when an employer is crafting the job description, or when schools hold students’ greatest attention. Pivotal moments like these usually surface through observation of daily, weekly, and monthly activity.

While the skills gap issue may be contentious and complex, using these three general design thinking tools—analogous thinking, looking to extremes, and keeping the human experience in mind—can help us remember what really matters to all stakeholders. We can be honest about hurdles to overcome and what partnerships can be made along the way. If we use these methods, we might find that solutions are more accessible than we currently believe.

Talent and ingenuity image via Shutterstock


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