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The Innovators’ Compass, Making Design Thinking Accessible, and How to Design Well with Others with Ela Ben-Ur — DT101 E2

Ela Ben-Ur joins me in this episode to talk about the work that she’s done to make design thinking accessible and easy with the Innovators’ Compass. Ela spent 13 years at IDEO, and has taught courses from product design to life design at pioneering Olin College as an assistant adjunct professor since 2007.

Photo of Ela Ben-UrAs you’ll discover, Ela has a breadth and depth of knowledge and experience with design thinking. She has seen its evolution over time, as well as how it functions in a variety of contexts. She’s here to share what she has learned over the last 20 years while teaching design thinking, and while working to make the Innovators’ Compass an accessible way for anyone to get started.

Ela had a lot of free time during her childhood due to family circumstances, which she’ll explain in more depth in our conversation. This led to her seeking out places where people figure out how to get through challenges, which in turn explains her choices to study at MIT and work at IDEO. Through these experiences, she arrived at her current mission: making design thinking as accessible to any person in any moment as possible.

In our conversation, Ela will talk about the five questions in the Innovators’ Compass:

  • What’s happening, and why?
  • What matters most?
  • What ways are there to make things better?
  • What’s a step to try?
  • Who’s involved?

Ela will also discuss other points, including what she would address if she were going to coach a design thinking coach, why it’s often better to give people less rather than more when it comes to design thinking, where she thinks design thinking is going in the next couple of decades, where big breakthroughs can come from, and why it’s important to go slow to go fast.

Show Highlights

[01:50] Ela starts things off by explaining her origin story, or how she came into design thinking as a practitioner and educator.
[07:18] Since leaving IDEO six years ago, Ela has tried to tune into where design thinking feels as accessible as it should be, as well as where it isn’t accessible.
[07:55] We hear more about Ela’s desire to bring people into the space of accessibility she has mentioned, as well as the barriers and challenges.
[09:53] When Ela has found people who are really struggling with design thinking and the process, what has she done to help them?
[13:31] Ela talks in more depth about the questions in the Innovator’s Compass, and how she arrived at that configuration.
[17:44] Dawan takes a moment to mentally parse the many representations of a design process, and points out that in many ways they mask the inquiry that is the heart of seeking a pathway from the world we have to the world we want.
[21:01] Especially if you’re involved in a challenge, it can be so hard to explore questions and admit that you don’t know what’s happening or why.
[27:04] Dawan talks about some of the work that he has been doing with Elon University, which involves looking at ways to build out an approach to design thinking that syncs up with the university’s learning environment.
[29:32] When working with people who are new to design thinking, or others who are experienced with human-centered design, how does leadership flow?
[35:46] Ela talks about some of the key elements that she would address if she were in the role of coaching someone who will be the facilitator of design teams and activity inside an organization.
[40:18] If you layer on too much too fast, it’s not just diminishing returns, it’s negative returns, Ela points out.
[44:11] Where does Ela see design thinking, or the Innovators’ Compass, going in the next five, ten, or twenty years?
[47:06] Ela points out that so far the conversation has involved a lot of generalizations, and offers some concrete stories in contrast.
[53:43] Ela takes a moment to express gratitude for people who have Tweeted their stories to the #InnovatorsCompass hashtag.
[54:14] Where can people find out more about Ela and Innovators’ Compass?
[56:19] One of the things that Dawan ends up correcting in people is seeing design thinking as a recipe for innovation. He and Ela then discuss this concept.
[60:04] We hear about the ways that Dawan tries to get around the recipe concept.
[60:57] Ela responds to Dawan’s method for getting around the recipe problem, and shares some of her own patterns.


Ela Ben-Ur at Olin College
Ela Ben-Ur on LinkedIn
ElaBenUr on Twitter
Innovators’ Compass
Olin College
David Kelley
Audrey O’Clair
Garrett Mason
Valeria Rodriguez

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How to Learn Design Thinking + Design Thinking Pedagogy with Julie Schell — DT101 E15
Teaching and Learning Service Design for Designers and Non-designers with Maurício Manhães — DT101 E34
Learning Design + Designing for How People Learn with Julie Dirksen — DT101 E42

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