What is Design Thinking?: Deborah Jordan of AARP Innovation Labs

By Mark Ogilbee posted 07-14-2022 08:39 AM

Deborah Jordan of AAR's Innovation Labs

Design thinking, also known as human-centered design, has been around for a long time, and for good reason: It’s an effective tool for bringing focus and structure to the process of innovating new solutions, including products and services intended to serve the 50-plus community. 

As a leader in AARP’s Innovation Labs, Deborah Jordan conducts research and regularly shares her design thinking expertise with participants in the AgeTech Collaborative™. To learn more about what design thinking is — and isn't — we turned to Deborah for answers.  


Can you introduce yourself and describe your role at AARP? 

I’m Deborah Jordan, but I go by DJ, and I’m the director of design thinking with AARP Innovation Labs. I grew up professionally in the world of consumer package goods where, among other things, I was brand manager at Kraft working on marshmallows and Shake ’n Bake, and I worked on Prego spaghetti sauce at Campbells. So I bring a lot of consumer focus to my job. 

I’ve been in this role about four years, and I love it — it’s been great working with startups and internal AARP business units, because as a mission-driven organization, you can really see that you’re making an impact.  


The image I have is that you were sitting at your desk, designing the labels for Prego and marshmallows and so forth. Is that on the right track? 

[Laughs) No. It’s bigger than that. As a brand manager, you’re working with the brand and how you communicate with people about new products or varieties you introduce, for example. I might give strategic direction to inform packaging, such as, “The label must appeal to these certain types of people,” but I’m not actually designing it.  

It’s fascinating the kinds of things you learn about people and what they want, and what they expect, when it comes to products. And this shows up in the work I do now: AARP wants to help people live healthy, happy lives, but we might miss what they really want and need if we’re not engaging with them on a regular basis. 


What is design thinking? How do you define it? 

For us, design thinking is less a standalone practice and more a method of operating. Another way to think of it is: We believe it’s really important to put your consumer, whoever it is that you want to delight, at the center of everything you do. It’s understanding and building empathy with your consumer, not superficially, but in the context of the area that you’re focused on. 

It’s also about creative problem solving by generating lots and lots of ideas, building them quickly, then iterating and iterating again. Because it’s unheard of that you get your product right the first time out the door. 


How do you get to know your audience in that kind of detail? 

By spending time with them and physically going to where they are. In our case, that might be a senior center — usually a quick phone call will give you access, and you can go to just observe, listen and talk. One thing we know is that people 50-plus feel like they have a lot of knowledge to share and are generally quite happy to tell their story. So immerse yourself: Go to the pool, the mall; wherever they are, go. Observe, ask questions. 

And if you can’t be with them physically, follow them on social media. I worked on a project where I literally just followed people on social media to see what kinds of things they like and were talking about. 


What are the types of challenges your team helps clients solve? 

Often the problems start out really big, like “boil the ocean”-type things. One of the first things we do is help them narrow down specifically what they’re trying to solve for. 

I’ll share an example. I worked with one team trying to understand the unique needs of women as it relates to savings and planning. The focus on women was a little bit narrowed-down, but it still felt like boiling the ocean. Was it all women? Women ages 50 to 59? Retired women? So we started by going to consumers themselves to understand what really keeps them up at night. And along the way we discovered that women over 50 who divorce are far more likely to end up in poverty than women who remain married. So we got from boiling the ocean to a more specific problem: the unmet needs of women over 50 who get divorced.


What is a challenge that startups in the AgeTech Collaborative™ face when it comes to using a design thinking strategy? 

For many of our startups, their solutions are born out of a need that they saw or experienced firsthand. Maybe they’ve talked to their grandparents or other people in their life who inspired them to work on a solution. But I remind them that the people in their inner circle are probably not that much different than themselves, and their target audience is probably far more diverse in terms of income, education and so on. So they should stretch beyond that inner circle, such as by forming an informal advisory board or finding some way of keeping their finger on the pulse of their target audience. 


It seems like design thinking can cover a lot of territory. How do you determine what is in and out of scope for your design thinking work? 

Yes — there are so many areas that design thinking could potentially touch. We tell clients, “We're going to help you understand your consumer, we're going to help you identify unmet needs, we're going to come up with lots of ideas to address those needs. We're going to help you evaluate ideas, and we're going to build a quick and dirty prototype. But we’re not going to be the ones who bring your product to market.” 

And oftentimes, we’ll try to get a sense from our stakeholders what’s in and out of scope by throwing out what we call “provocations” — “What if we did this? What if we did that?” The provocations aren’t the solutions, but they’re a way to help us stay in scope with what the stakeholder would define as success. 


Do you have a favorite design thinking success story? 

This was an eye-opening sort of insight we had. One woman in a focus group we were running came in and said, “You know, when I turned 50, I felt like I became invisible. Nobody noticed me anymore, and I felt really lonely. But then it occurred to me that if no one is looking at me, I can dress however I want. I don’t have to color my hair to hide the grey anymore. I can do whatever I want.” And she had blue and burgundy in her hair; she was very colorful and effervescent. 

I came away from that thinking about how much we, as solution-builders, empower others to do what she did. That is: People who are 50-plus really do feel ignored. And they have a lot of disposable income. So for me, hearing that she felt ignored and seeing the data that supports that, helped me realize there is still a lot of opportunity to delight a group of people with resources who are feeling overlooked. And so this has become part of the work we do to help startups in the AgeTech space capitalize on that opportunity.