As the popularity of design thinking in business gathers momentum Craig Allan, Legal Counsel in the Outsourcing, Technology & IP legal team at RBS, discusses what it means and how it can be applied to legal services in advance of his interactive session at this year's #LeadingLegalExcellence Annual Conference.  

Rapid technological advancement and digital disruption continue to present both opportunities and threats for the business of tomorrow. More so now than ever, organisations are focusing on innovation – and the thinking that stimulates innovation – as a means to solve problems and maintain a competitive edge.

For many – like Nike, Airbnb, Apple, RBS and its Entrepreneurial Accelerator Programme – design thinking, the human-centred methodology for innovation, is an effective way to solve the increasingly complex problems presented by the digital age.

That all sounds great in the abstract – but what is design thinking and why is it so popular?

You’ll no doubt be familiar with the idea of ‘failing fast, failing cheaply and failing often’: this is the gateway to design thinking. It’s an iterative process for understanding customers or clients, interrogating assumptions and redefining problems to identify alternative strategies or solutions that may not be immediately obvious. To work, design thinking requires a deep-rooted connection with and understanding of clients.

There are 5 key steps to design thinking:

  1. Empathise: you need to know your clients and care about their lives. You need to understand the way they do things, and why. You also need to understand their physical and emotional needs, how they think about the world and what’s meaningful to them
  1. Define: the goal is to create a meaningful and actionable problem statement. Framing the clients’ needs and their problems is the only way to create the right solution
  1. Ideate: this isn’t about coming up with the ‘right’ idea; it’s about generating the broadest range of possibilities. It is this process that leads to the most innovative outcomes
  1. Prototype: this is the iterative generation of outputs to answer questions that get you closer to your final solution
  1. Test: you solicit feedback on the prototypes created, allowing another opportunity to gain empathy and further understand your client.

Cumulatively, these steps drive behaviour and foster an energy: it’s about getting ideas out there early and testing them against your clients’ needs. The steps aren’t hierarchical or sequential, either: they can occur in any order, at any time and be repeated as many times as necessary. The idea is at the end of the process you’ll have a workable solution that actually better meets the needs of your clients.

How does this apply to lawyers?

My team recently had the privilege of Prof. Cat Moon, Director of Innovation Design, Program in Law and Innovation at Vanderbilt Law School, give us her take on design thinking in the legal space. One of her central tenets was that you can only begin to focus on problem solving once you’ve focussed clearly on finding, and truly understanding, the problem.

Since we’re a profession forever looking to understand our clients’ requirements, lawyers should be encouraged to speak to their clients about their actual problems and concerns around service provision. We should be encouraged to harness and engage with other specialisms (like product designers, technologists and programmers) when devising new solutions and not be reticent in trialing services or products. If the end goal is a product which understands and meets our clients’ needs, the agility and ‘fail fast, fail quickly’ mentality of design thinking is one way to make substantial progress.

My boss often talks about ‘t-shaped’ lawyers: those who not only have deep-seated knowledge in a particular specialism, but also an expansive understanding of other specialisms (like coding) and softer skills (like emotional intelligence and being collaborative). It’s this broad spectrum of general knowledge that will lend itself to design thinking in the legal sector.                

For me, the key takeaway from all of this is: you can only really understand a problem if you approach it from different perspectives and the emotions behind problems are as important as the problem itself. Design thinking is about recognising this and ultimately understanding the user behind the problem.

You can find out more on design-thinking from Craig Allan at an afternoon interactive session, chaired by Council member Sheekha Saha at this year's #LeadingLegalExcellence Annual Conference.

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