Exploring Design Thinking With Leslie Forman

Quick Reference Transcript

August 28, 2014
Leslie Forman
Danielle Carruthers, theSedge.org

Danielle: Thanks Leslie for joining me today for an interview I’m really excited to chat with you about many different topics because I know you have multi varied passions and can’t wait to hear your perspective on everything from social enterprise and social entrepreneurship to human centered design and lean methodology and finding your ideal customer’s and everything in between so just to kick things off I’d love to hear more about your background. So I know that you worked in startups you taught social entrepreneurship in Latin America is where we met down in Chile which was great meeting and you also helps others learn how to live and work abroad in terms of giving your advice and experience because you’ve lived and worked in so many different places. So can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background and your experience?

Leslie: Yeah thanks Danielle I’m really happy to be here. So my story has been kind of all over the map. I am originally from San Francisco and when I was in college at the University of California at Berkeley I studied abroad in Chile for a year. During that year in Chile I did an internship with the organization called Accion Emprendedora which is a non-profit that supports entrepreneurs in their early-stage ventures so we worked with ladies that made chocolate and toys and people who have small shops and all kinds of different entrepreneurs and I was really inspired by the ways that entrepreneurship and business could be used to make a difference in people’s lives and I decided to continue with this topic when I went back to college the next semester at Berkeley I took a class of social entrepreneurship there and it was a semester long course. We talked about a lot of social enterprises and a lot of different ways to look at making changes through business. After I graduated from college I decided to move to China, which is kind of random choice of someone who had been a Latin American studies major but in China I first taught English and the internship at the American Chamber of Commerce in the area of corporate social responsibility and this was interesting because I know a lot of the really large companies, people from companies like Nike and Disney, Citibank and talk to them about what they were thinking about social corporate social responsibility, social enterprise and the possibilities to do good through business, which was interesting because at the same time that Mattel came under fire for having toxic materials in their toys and it was really interesting to be talking about all the good that could be done for business in China and things that were kind of less than ideal business practices so was interesting to kind of see those contrasts and then after that I came back to San Francisco…   and I got a job at a software company that made software for nonprofits. It was a startup and I was on the customer service team is a pretty small company and there I learned that it is really difficult to sell things to nonprofits I don’t think that’s really a surprise anyone listening to this but it was really hard and shortly after I started working for the company I got into in financial trouble and eventually I got laid off and the day after I got laid off the financial crisis hit and Lehman Brothers fell and there was not a really good economic moment for this city or country. I decided to go back to China. I had gotten really involved in the micro finance nonprofit focused on China. Here in San Francisco I became a full time volunteer and then when I went to China I was working for them doing marketing and I really enjoyed doing that it seemed like the great, like the way to bring together my experience in finance corporate social responsibility, China, online marketing etc.

Danielle: Yes it came together very nicely considering how diverse those experiences were.

Leslie: Yeah, however like two months after moving to Beijing my job disappeared and this sort of supposed dream job became nothing and I was in Beijing …

Danielle: Oh I spoke too soon.

Leslie: Well yeah, it was kind of one of these moments where I was like what am I going to do, I’m here in Beijing , I do have a visa, I do have a place to live, I ended up finding other opportunities and jobs in Beijing and stayed there for the next two years and a half years. I spent four years total in China and while I was in China I was contacted by somebody who I had met when I was in Chile in 2005. I had met this woman randomly on the sidewalk and we had become friends, and I had done some translations stuff for her. She emailed me this five and a half later and invited me to be part of her startup team applying to the program called Startup Chile which is a program backed by the government of Chile that invites entrepreneurs from all over the world to bootstrap their businesses in Chile, Kenya.

Danielle: yes that’s how we met.

Leslie: We both participated in this program. So I was in round one of the program.

Danielle: You were a couple years before I arrived and you were still there.

Leslie: Yeah, yeah, So I got there in 2011 was in this program and it was awesome and I got really involved in doing public speaking , while I was part of Startup Chile I traveled all over Chile at top universities and I speak fluent Spanish and I really, really like doing these talks. So I was trying to figure out how to continue to do the talks after we finished the program and were no longer receiving any money from the government and I was approached by a friend in Chile who had a friend who worked in a University who was looking for someone to teach a topic on special topics in entrepreneurship in English so I had taken this class about social entrepreneurship many years before at Berkeley and I decided to pitch them a class in social entrepreneurship. So I came in with a list of topics that we could talk about the class about social entrepreneurship, I was hired and in in 2012 I started to teach this class. I have half students from Chile, half students from Europe and together we talked all about many facts of social entrepreneurship and all these different kinds of organizations all these different ways to approach the broad intersection between business and changing the world. Now I kind of came up with my own definition social enterprise. And I think it’s different than many books on the topic but I basically see as two circles. One circle of the world of business, this is like companies, entrepreneurs, startups ways of managing and measuring and organizing, so that’s one circle. Then you imagine another circle like changing the world anything related to health, education, opportunities, sustainability, peace, etc. so for me social enterprise is anything intersected in those two circles. So that could be something involving a nonprofit, could be something involving a large company, it could be something involving a startup, it could be something involving the hospital. I think it’s a really broad area and I wanted to give my students a general understanding or beginning understanding of how their work could fit into that intersection.

Danielle: I love that picture and that visual; I can see you on video but for our listeners that visual of the Venn diagram and the overlapping because like you that it is quite broad, but that really does encompass the spirit of social enterprise and what it really means. It needs to have those two parts in order to make sense and to be successful.

Leslie: Yeah, yeah.

Danielle: Great so you taught at the University and when I met you, you were still teaching social entrepreneurship classes as well and how was that experience for you?

Leslie: I really enjoyed it, I taught the social entrepreneurship class twice to two different groups at the same University and I also taught another class about entrepreneurship and leadership which is a core course at the University in Spanish. I also taught e-commerce at a different university to different group of students but I really enjoyed teaching, I really enjoyed working with all these different groups of students and eventually I decided that I felt I wasn’t really learning more, I felt like I’ve gotten kind to the point of learning everything I could about design mostly from reading books and from basically like paraphrasing the books for my students in Spanish that I decided to come back to San Francisco. So right now I’m here in San Francisco and I’m enrolled in a class about user experience design that starts next week.

Danielle: and so this is the first chapter to or the first step may be in new chapter that’s more focused on the idea of design and human centered design and how this all connects back to your experience and background and teaching in social entrepreneurship. So where is that connection for you between design and social enterprise and social entrepreneurship? Do you see it very intertwined or where is the connection or the path for you on this being the next step in your journey?

Leslie: Well I think it’s all really related, and I think the world of design has a lot to offer the word of entrepreneurship and vice versa. I think that the tools of design about like figuring out problems and figuring out solutions and workflows and feedback and things like that is really, really important in the world of trying to change the world and I think that’s is really good tool kit for people trying to create social change.

Danielle: So related to that I guess one question that I found really interesting over the past front of year as I’ve been observing more information specifically about lean methodology and human centered design I’ve seen a few comparisons of the two and how I would say they’ve really come from quite different backgrounds and perspectives of people that have developed these methodologies and have put them into practice, but they have a lot of interesting overlap as well and so I’d love to hear your thoughts on that, specifically kind of the idea of lean methodology I would say has mostly grown from a very tech centric or start up centric background that human centered design and other design methodologies have really grown from more the impact space, but so I’m curious to hear what would you think about how they fit together?

Leslie: So I think that first of all human centered design, the main source for all the sort of methodology on this sort of human centered design Is IDEO and IDEO is pretty much the pioneering design consultancy did a lot of work for big corporate clients like the hospital about how to make solutions that work better for humans. And they have this really useful book called the HCD toolkit; you can get it free on the internet. And they basically have created this whole like method that you can use with your own stakeholders to figure out what they need and why you have to design it. It basically has a Venn diagram of three different factors one is desirability, one is feasibility, and one is viability and you start desirability then go into what’s feasible and viable and the process is kind of like hear, create, deliver. So listen to people and figure out what they are seeing in the world and what they want created and then deliver it and so going back to it there is a hear, create, deliver,

Danielle: So it’s an iterative process which might be the biggest overlap with lean.

Leslie: Exactly and then like similar to this hear, create, deliver in lean methodology they say build, measure, learn, which is similar, it’s quite similar and I think there’s quite a bit of overlap from in terms of how these can be used. The source of the idea is just a little bit different. Lean methodology comes from companies like Toyota that in their car factories and in their business practice in general they always can figure out how to continually make things better, continuous improvement and getting as much information as possible from being on the ground with their customers. They sent managers from in Japan to here in the states to see how people use their minivans and they found out the kids run the minivans so it’s most important to put everything good for the kids as opposed to their parents or grandparents which are happy if their kids are happy… Anything that you might not know from an office Tokyo in Tokyo, but if you’re sitting in the back seat with the kids in a Toyota minivan you get a really clear sense of how it’s being used

Danielle: Right and that can help you make really great decisions for the people using your product later.

Leslie: Exactly, exactly so it’s pretty interesting stuff. I have some really interesting stories that are directly from social entrepreneurs using these methods

Danielle: Ooh fantastic, I would love to hear them.

Leslie: Yeah so one of my favorites is from some young social entrepreneurs that were the recent graduates for my university from Berkeley and their company is called back to the Roots and basically when they were in their final year in university they learned how to grow mushrooms in used coffee grounds. So they found out they can do this and then started partnering with local coffee shops to get their used coffee grounds and grow mushrooms in them and they started this in their dorm and then they decided to not get jobs at banks and Instead because mushroom farmers which was kind of cool they started off of with selling their mushrooms at farmers markets in California which is fun but at farmers markets in California there’s a lot of competition like from a buyers prospective, you could buy mushrooms or you could buy bread or you could buy a million other things.

Danielle: With what you know five different, I was at the farmers market last night.

Leslie: oh 20 different vendors?

Danielle: yes, this is a small farmers market and there was three different vendors selling pirogues and that was you know one of them you food ideas and I thought that it’s interesting this is a pirogue market apparently so yeah there’s lots of competition

Leslie: So they were selling mushrooms in the market, but they weren’t selling nearly enough to make it viable business and they got into the set of lean ideas and they want to do an experiment. They did a couple different experiments but one was well you know what are really cool about our mushrooms? The process that’s used to make and everybody is really fascinated when you tell them about the coffee grounds so if we put the whole process on the table and the table in farmers market and then what if we use a stopwatch to figure out how much time people spend at their table and what kind of people will come. So they did it like an A and B test. A table with just mushroom and table with buckets of coffee and mushrooms. So the table with buckets of coffee and mushrooms got a lot more attention, more people came, stayed longer and they were mostly kids and parents so they had interesting feedback from their audience at the farmers market that kids and parents like seeing the process and they ended up pivoting their business model instead of selling mushrooms they started selling grow your own food kits.

Danielle: Great, so essentially the product is quite the same as but it’s how they position it and communicate to the groups that are interested.

Leslie: Exactly, so they put it on kick starter and they had a grow your own mushroom kit and now they have one that involves the fish tank or other things became more about participation and less about selling food.

Danielle: and the learning experiences the hands-on experience of actually grabbing something.

Leslie: Exactly and an example I use with my students in Chile when they’re talking about this build, measure, learn process because what they did was they built an experiment and they measured their result, and then they learned something and they built something new.

Danielle: So they continued down that cycle if we talk to them in more detail I’m sure they’ve had smaller innovations from there in their business model based on continuing that cycle. Exactly, exactly fantastic I love that example.

Leslie: so my other favorite example is related to how social entrepreneurs can use both lean methodology and humanist design methodology comes from a video that Jocelyn Wyatt from IDEO.com gave at the lean startup conference last year or media and this all about toilets and they did a really cool experiment about in Islam somewhere in Africa. But basically they were trying to figure out what sort of different hypotheses like what branding a sense like the one it was very like blue-and-white very clean one that was like by like a Ghanaian sign-painter. So do they prefer the more European looking branding or do they prefer a more Ghanaiann looking branding and doing like a test and seeing what people prefer and they bought a bunch of different toilets from different manufacturers around the world and they weren’t necessarily producing them but they were thinking of the whole workflow and with something like this you’ve got to make sure that people actually use it and the social in social impact that you’re going for, in terms of sanitation, doesn’t make any sense unless people are actually using it, but the video is really good I can send you the link for that. Related to similar examples about design and toilet I have some friends that are in Startup Chile and their company is Sanivation and they’re currently in Kenya and they just sent out a newsletter about all of customer feedback they had gotten about their toilets. Their business model has evolved over time at first they were making toilets, but turned it more into the service solution were basically they have service where they basically have a system that divides the urine and feces and they have a guy who goes and picks up all the buckets and then they put all the feces in a solar chamber which basically heats up to a certain temperature to kill bacteria of and basically they were in Startup Chile while they were there they spent a lot of time evolving the business model and they were totally applying all of this sorted design methodology entrepreneurship ideas to something to impact the world and they’re working with much larger NGO in a slum in Kenya to make this work and they’re all about iteration experimentation and working directly with the people

Danielle: That’s great as that reminds me I say this quote quite often and in the boost scores that everything that you know no business plan survives first contact with the customer. So when Steve said that so when you mentioned they started out making toilets and obviously their model shifted significantly into the service model where there still achieving the same goals of so that haven’t lost sight in their vision but they’re okay with accomplishing their vision in a slightly different way that makes more sense.

Leslie: exactly and I think a system where you can charge your customers by the month as opposed to making one sale it works differently in terms of how business works.

Danielle: exactly And depends on a lot of other things in terms of you know your capacity of your resources what you’re really good at, which model might make the most sense for yourself or your organization because the best solution could be different solution depending who’s implementing it. Fabulous those are some great examples so will post the links and people can check those out. So related to what we’ve talked about so far do you have any specific recommendations that come to mind for those who are maybe just getting into social enterprise or who are thinking like a social entrepreneur and want to apply some of these concepts. Are there some key notes that we can give them to you kick start that process?

Leslie: Yeah I think that reading that basic guides on these topics is really helpful if IDEO human centered design toolkit book is free on the Internet if read it and you could even use that to structure conversations with your stakeholders. The whole idea stakeholders can become a complex in social enterprise but I think is the most important part of stakeholders are people that are actually using what it is you’re creating and so getting a sense of what their current situation is and how they think about it and what they are doing now to solve whatever the main challenge is and just kind of getting out there and seeing what the people are actually doing.

Danielle: right and so there’s some interesting ways to go about doing that because I’ve heard other examples where asking if the person who will be using your product or service will give you a very different answer than maybe watching them or observing how they currently solve that same challenge so I think we have run into these situations where it’s what people say, how they think they use the product or service or how they think the problem affects them, but then on the other hand what their actions say about how they will respond to your product or service as well.

Leslie: And that’s tricky, super tricky because of what people say and people do any errors are often not existent and any to kind of be there to observe exactly is going on whether you are watching somebody pay their bills, or rather than asking them how they pay their bills or if you are you coming about toilets in Kenya you should go and see all the different examples and observe their people.

Danielle: and that comes back to that minivan example as well right?

Leslie: Exactly, exactly and it’s all about the seeing the problem solution in action. One of my favorite books on this topic it’s by Lauren Cline I have a link to this as well. It is called lean user experience it’s all about how to create products, the was the biggest thing I used a lot is a series of stick figures basically we have like a stick-figure person this is the market then we have like a gap so we have a hole in the ground and that’s the problem then we have a bridge over the gap and person on it and that’s the solution. In many classes I lead in Chile we use to set that example to say like the market, the problem and solution for a now are hypotheses. Your job is to get real-world evidence to see if this is really the market, see if this is really the problem, and sees if this is really the solution and figure out how they can all fit together.

Danielle: Love it, the idea our business plan even being a huge hypothesis in itself until we actually start taking action and you know confirm or deny these smaller assumptions that are within our business plan that hold it together so that the great visual to picture that.

Leslie: Yeah, but it can be complex because when I worked for this nonprofit company it was really challenging because the product was designed to give better information feedback donors. So the main stakeholder for him this whole time is for the donor. But the person that was buying the product and using the product the staff of the nonprofit, the staff at the nonprofit might have different needs in a different way of approaching the topic of donation, communication, things like than the donor and so it was challenging because I think the product that we were exactly the same time was designed for the donor not for nonprofit staff.

Danielle: Who were met her decision to purchase it even.

Leslie: Exactly right, exactly and I’ve heard in the years since then company that actually pivoted and focused on more of what the nonprofit staff needs and a focus for the more hands-on things like data integration and donor databases are big headaches for people working nonprofit friends if you’re going to be a tech solution that is pretty hands on for that essentially would be more aligned with the direct needs of the people working for a nonprofit than other things that might focus on say they customize reports that donors need.

Danielle: That’s really interesting that you bring that up because I believe that as social entrepreneurs tackle these innovative business models with their projects in social enterprise. More often than not we’ll see this dual or triple stakeholder scenario like you mentioned where essentially the beneficiary or the product or service in which the customers of the person paying for It in some way with time or money are often two completely different groups. There are successful social enterprises, so man great examples so I’m sure it is possible to serve this multiple groups at once, how widespread do you think it’s better to Just Focus on One or Is that even possible in Social Enterprise given that where connecting a lot Of Really Diverse Thoughts within One Initiative?

Leslie: Well I think that it’s important to know stakeholders. And a lot of the time in User Experience Design the first step is Stakeholder interviews and talking to all the people that have a stake in whatever is made. So I think they’re all important Levers. I think whoever is paying is potentially one of the most important stakeholders because that person has more authority over whether this could happen or not. In any sort of organization I think that whoever is using it day-To-Day is a really important stakeholder position. Sometime the same people sometimes not. What’s really interesting is outside of the temple of Social enterprise world that I think makes less sense here Is a company like number Hoover like Hoover yet this is designed with two stakeholders in mind Drivers and Passengers, however there’s a lot of other stakeholders involved especially like all the government, all of the taxi unions in the World. They hired David Pluff, who was like head of the Obama team to Work with Hoover on Government Affairs and I think part of the goal Is like to get all of the drivers split lobby the government in some way and the house example that kind of started with and is a myopic view of stakeholders as like the people that are going to be using both sides of our app, but then consciously or unconsciously there’s a lot of stakeholders involved and needed to invest more time and more energy.

Danielle: so maybe the lesson that we can get from that example is that it’s okay to not fight off too much at once so when you’re first starting out you can recognize that you do have a broader group of stakeholders but to try and stay focused in the early stages to really prove out your idea in your model may be best to really focus in on your maximum two of the most important stakeholder groups and making sure that you serve them really well and then once you kind of have your feet on the ground you can start to look up and look at these other person-bring them into the conversation.

Leslie: yeah I think that makes a lot of sense because I think that like any organization yes there probably are laws that are related to whatever you’re doing, but focusing on those laws may not be the best way to get started.

Danielle: right exactly so do have you favorite way to really get to know your customers? You’ve been involved in so many different projects initiatives startups. Have you found something that you’re really like to use in terms of actually getting on the ground and going into to the world and observing or being with your customers or your stakeholders?

Leslie: I think direct observation and experimentation is definitely my favorite I mean to figure out any situation, your favorite draft and observing what’s going on right now and then coming up with some sort of experiment where you can try to change something and see how it works and it could be something as simple as what you’re talking about the mushroom guys and how they change the display or if you are trying to figure out something involving say getting kids to be more active you might start off by going to a playground, and observing all the kids and saying okay what made them active what made them not active and observing them playground might get you more information than asking their parents. Figure out a solution try it; get data about whatever you’re thinking about doing and then building it from there.

Danielle: yes so not building out too much before you really tried it out in real life right. that just made me think of another way that you can put this observation technique into practice where maybe you’re working on something that’s not quite as tangible as you know having kids increase their play or their health and activity. if it’s something more informational or more theoretical there’s so many great groups and communities online these days whether it’s Google plus or Facebook or LinkedIn and you can country join these groups and it’s just as effective reading through the comments in the questions in the discussions and I think that’s a really useful way to get some insight as well.

Leslie: yeah and you can create a small free offer that I put together a guide to international careers basically repurposing old blog posts and calling it a guide. I had a lot of subscribers, a lot of feedback from that people are interested that are living and working in these countries and I have a lot more to go off of in terms of creating research on this topic. And I feel like you could do something like that in terms of packaging information as something valuable related to your topic and getting people to login with their emails and directly asking them in the email what else would you like to know about this? I feel like this is a really useful tool and can get a lot of information quite quickly that way.

Danielle: and people generally just love to share their opinions regularly out your senses and then the first step is to ask and you probably will get some kind of great feedback and information back just from that simple act of asking.

Leslie: and it’s tricky to figure out what feedback matters and what doesn’t matter.

Danielle: that’s a whole another conversation probably. Great so than if you want to ask you was an interesting tidbit that came up between one of our previous conversations about altruism and lack of focus. So you are mentioning something about social entrepreneurs having a whole lot of altruism and desire to give back and change the world but have you seen in your experience the lack of focus piece can present some challenges? I think it’s tricky I think in some ways are talking about social entrepreneurship it’s like change the whole world or like create the movement of social change or things that are things that are very, very big. I think that thinking big does make sense and in some way we all want to change the world, however getting started I think can start with one person or two before 10 people and having this idea that the whole world has to change is alack a focus and is maybe too much to right at the beginning and I think that it does make sense to figure out if ever you’re proposing to do works with two people if it doesn’t work with two people it’s not going to work with a million.

Danielle. So again starting small and maybe adapting based on feedback at that smaller level and grows from there with the demand and the feedback.

Leslie: Exactly, exactly so this exact idea, grow, better, learn it’s like build little thing and see how it’s working in that and then build a slightly bigger thing and it’s all about one step at a time and getting feedback as early as possible. I think one challenge all entrepreneurs have in general and including social entrepreneurs, is that they build a lot before getting feedback and before launching or try to get something perfect before it hits the world and as someone who builds websites sometimes and but I can definitely identify with that impulse it’s never fine, it’s never good enough but you have to kind of push through perfectionist and be like okay, this is a thing and this is how it works.

Danielle: it’s in the world for everyone to experience and let me know if they think.

Leslie: exactly, exactly and then you can build another thing or a different thing and everything but if it’s just like something that’s just for me it’s not really serving anyone.

Danielle: that’s good I like that perspective so just to wrap things up do you have any last advice or words of wisdom or examples that you’d like to share for future or current social entrepreneurs as they set out on this exciting and challenging and windy path?

Leslie: I think it’s important to not be afraid to think small. And I think that for many social entrepreneurs the idea is that it must be big, and it must be rotating. I think that you can start small and learn from what you’re doing, you definitely get bigger in the future but I think that I’ve seen in several different situations where people get so overwhelmed with the feeling that it must be very big and don’t even make progress on something that’s just an emerging idea, or just an emerging product, service or solution. I also it’s important to think about who your customer is and create for the people that are going to be paying as much as you can. Or, if it’s something that donor funded being able to create good ways to motivate donors and see how that works in the short-term small-scale and then build from there.

Danielle: Yes that’s great advice I think it’s something that especially for social entrepreneurs tend to so much passion and excitement and really a sense of purpose for what they doing. It’s probably quite easy to get caught up in this idea changing the world and which is certainly possible, like you said it’s okay to start small and learn small and everybody starts somewhere so it’s actually smarter to have real back these ambitions at least in the beginning stages to really come up with a solid foundation that as you mention it can always grow later which is fantastic, that can still be the end goal but on a day-to-day decision and action basis maybe it’s really smart to think small and start small.

Leslie: Yeah and you can start local.

Danielle: Yes that’s another great idea, awesome, thanks Leslie but there was anything else that you wanted to share?

Leslie: I can’t think of anything. If anyone else wants to continue the conversation you can reach out to me, my website is Leslie foreman.com; I’m also on twitter and LinkedIn and I would love to hear from you, thanks a lot.

Danielle: Great and we’ll post your twitter handle and linked in profile as well with the interview, okay thanks Leslie!

Leslie: thank you, buh bye!

Danielle: bye!