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Design Thinking Case Study: Steelcase & User-Focused Problem Solving

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

User-focused problem solving is a key component of design thinking. But how might companies apply user-focused problem solving? This case study of the company Steelcase examines real-life applications of user-focused problem solving.

User-Focused Problem Solving

How can companies create products and services that actually help customers? In design thinking, one way to do this is to engage in user-focused problem solving. This involves thinking about the problems that people might have and finding solutions to them.

There are three general steps in user-focused problem solving. First, a company must discover a problem faced by potential customers. Then, they must brainstorm ways to address that problem. Finally, they must design a product or service that addresses the problem.

In order to understand better how user-focused problem solving works, let's take a look at a case study for the company Steelcase.

Case Study: Steelcase

Back in the 20th century, Steelcase was known for one thing: office chairs. It was doing well manufacturing chairs that were stylish but basic. Steelcase wanted to grow and do better, so they decided to take a step back and think about what customers wanted and needed. This small shift in their thinking propelled them to award-winning and best-selling products for decades.

Steelcase enacted user-focused problem solving when it realized that many businesses were moving away from closed-off workspaces and towards more open concept offices. The company understood that open-plan offices presented their own challenges. For example, in traditional workspaces, workers could have meetings in their offices or cubicles. But what happens when people don't have offices and instead work in open spaces?

In open-plan offices, many companies had conference rooms for meetings. But these conference rooms had to be booked by employees to use them, and Steelcase identified a problem: what happened when multiple people wanted to book a conference room? How could companies keep track of which rooms were available and when?

By identifying this problem, Steelcase's user-focused problem solving began, and there were many ways that they could have tried to solve it. They could have designed temporary walls that moved and allowed for 'pop-up' meeting areas. They could have made work spaces designed acoustically to reduce sounds and therefore allow for meetings in the open. They could have worked on implementing online meeting spaces for people. All of these solutions (and others) might have come up during the brainstorming stage of user-focused problem solving.

Ultimately, Steelcase designed a piece of technology that allowed employees to electronically book conference rooms. This elegant solution allowed companies to easily keep up with who needed meeting spaces, when they needed them, and which spaces were available. In the final stage of user-focused problem solving, then, Steelcase designed and redesigned what would become a successful product for them: Room Wizard.

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