Design Thinking to Find Your Place

place planning Oct 26, 2022
design thinking tools

“What if I sell my home and relocate to a new area only to find out it is the wrong place? I’ll never get the time and energy back and I’ll likely lose money, too.”


This was a legitimate concern by a participant in a place-based workshop earlier this year. The participant was right: the fully loaded cost of a mistaken move is significant. Surely there are ways to make a move to a new place less risky.  


Cue Design Thinking


Design thinking is an iterative approach to innovation that relies on understanding users’ needs, challenging assumptions, developing prototypes, and testing their effectiveness. It becomes rinse and repeat until an adequate or breakthrough solution is found. Design thinking is an approach used by leading companies and top universities and is credited with a number of fa­mous innovations, including the computer mouse.


The design thinking approach can help narrow down options that you think may lead to the right answer. The operative word is “think,” however. The cost of a bad decision can be significant, so finding ways to move from think to know can be valuable. Design thinking suggests that you outline specific ideas or possible outcomes and then test them simply and quickly, where possible, to determine whether what you assume you would like is true. Reality often sur­prises us.


Design thinking is an iterative process to make sound decisions (Source: Unichrone)


Design Thinking Applied to Place


Design thinking can be a valuable approach to find your place. Examples are numerous. Let’s suppose you think you want to downsize from a single-family house in the suburbs to a condominium apartment in the city. Try it without making the change first. Find a friend who has a place downtown that you could use for a weekend or a week, or search online for short-term rentals. Find something close to the location and layout that you desire. Try it, and take careful notes about your experi­ence and how it differed from expectations. Consider which parts are changeable and which are not. If you are not satisfied but want to learn more, try it again, making the necessary tweaks to provide better in­sights around areas of concern. For example, if you thought you could live in 1,200 square feet but found it too small, identify a larger space that you think could work better but is still in your budget.


It's a particular important approach for big moves with greater levels of uncertainty. Suppose you are considering a move from the Northeast to the Southeast. You may be familiar with and attracted to the warmer weather but what about cultural considerations? Are you confident that the general mindset and culture of the area match your desires? Are you optimistic you will be able to find your tribe? Design thinking principles would suggest that you arrange visits at different times of the year and get a chance to know people who live there and to do so with an open mind. What you learn may discourage you from taking more significant steps towards a relocation or move ahead with greater confidence. Both outcomes are valuable.


Design thinking can be helpful when one partner is more skeptical of change than another. Have the skeptical partner identify concerns about a move, and link them to a particular option. Then, create a test that specifically addresses those concerns to see if they hold. Having both parties confidently and jointly onboard with a big decision can enhance odds of success on the other side of a move.


Moving downtown may not be the right decision; design thinking can help (Photo by Jeremy Doddridge on Unsplash )


Don’t Be Doug


Design thinking could have helped Doug and his wife in their deci­sion to downsize from the suburbs of Austin and move to the city. Going in, they had a number of hypotheses. They were assuming that they would enjoy the urban lifestyle (true), Doug would have an easier commute (true), they could make friends (false), and they would be satisfied with their small space in a high-rise apartment (false). These untrue hypotheses outweighed the true ones and triggered another change in place – back to a different house in the suburbs.


Doug and his wife could have spent more energy testing their hy­potheses before moving. They were confident that they would enjoy the entertainment of the city, and Doug’s work was objectively much closer. Hypotheses about the urban lifestyle and easier commute were not risky.


The uncertainty was with their ability to create community and live in a small urban apartment. They could have reached out to friends and acquaintances who relocated from the suburbs to the city to un­derstand in detail how satisfied they were with the move and what they learned in the process. They could have researched the culture of some of the apartment condominium buildings and nearby areas to get a feel for whether the people who lived there were their type. It may have helped them understand how confident or concerned they should be about creating social connection. There were multiple ways that they could have tested whether living in a small apartment would work for them. They could have rented an apartment for a weekend or a month to get a feel for fit and size. A more helpful experiment would have been to rent an apartment for a year and rent out their house at the same time. This would have given them a more complete taste of urban life while still retaining the option to move back to their suburban home.


Don’t Let Risk Scare You But Take Measures to Lessen Risk


A move to a new home, particularly if it involves relocation to a new region or country, is fraught with risk. But risk alone should not deter a decision that could have a significantly positive impact on your life. But, as risk increases, finding ways to lessen the risk becomes important. And, as the participant in the place-based workshop articulated, no one wants to needlessly waste time, energy and money. Following design thinking principles can make that outcome less likely.


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