Justin Threlkeld on: Learning and Reframing Complex Challenges

Sometimes, you need to flip a problem on its head before you can solve it. This is Justin Threlkeld’s philosophy.

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Justin, a lifelong learner with a keen curiosity, grew up rebuilding old computers. After reconnecting with his passion for technology in college, he worked with various tech companies throughout Nashville.

Among other areas of work and expertise, Justin ran design sprints and led research to guide companies with their digital transformation projects.

Using design sprints, he helped reframe problems to redesign how organizations approach timesheets and even business models. “We practiced various sprint models and then broke them down to develop our own, allowing us to tackle all sizes of challenges uniquely,” he said.

Now, Justin is a senior UX designer at Asurion, a global technology insurance company.

“As a senior UX designer with Asurion's Design Group, I research experiences and design tools to support people when tech goes wrong,” he said.

Continuing our Design Sprint Q&A Series exploring this powerful method of innovation, we spoke with Justin to get his take on design sprints and pan his seasoned tips on learning and reframing complex challenges for golden insights.

Justin, what is one of the biggest strengths of a design sprint?

Learning. Design sprints can be a waste of time if you do not seek to discover new insights, as well. You might put all your eggs in one basket, and it is OK to fail fast and hard as long as you learn. At the end of the sprint, you’re going to take your prototype and test it with users, and at the end, it might flop. This is OK if you are prepared to learn and act on those insights in the future.

The trick, then, is not to get too attached to an idea too soon. Even if it doesn’t have legs, you can still capture insights from it. There are still incredible learnings we put on the shelf and use months later.

How do you capture and “put ideas on the shelf”?

Capturing our discoveries has been a puzzle. I’ve been working on an insights library of sorts, inspired by the work of Tomer Sharon at WeWork. He did a bunch of stuff to create Polaris, [a democratized UX library of WeWork research observations and insights], and I’ve taken a lot of stuff from that and combined a lot of our unique data.

I’ve been chipping away at a way to turn insights from all these sprints and research efforts into something that Asurion can use internally. I have a hypothesis I’m currently exploring--and I’ll keep it at that until a later date.

What is one of the most common problems you frequently encounter with design sprints?

The first day can be tough, especially if your sprint topic is too narrow or poorly defined. Crafting the problem statement can be hard and it’s easy to set yourself for up for unproductive failure. You battle through it, and either design by committee takes over, or someone has a ‘pet problem’ they want to work on. Sometimes proposed problem statements are already packaged with an ideal solution. That kinda shortchanges the value of a design sprint.

What has proven to be a great workaround? Alternatively, do you have any inspiration to help our readers?

The Frame Innovation Model can help overcome these obstacles. Frame Innovation by Kees Dorst has been one of the best books I’ve read on the subject of designing for innovation. The Frame Innovation Model tackles a big, complex challenge one problem at a time, focusing on the discovery of the problem instead of solving everything at once. So in some cases, you reframe a challenge to develop a different approach.

The Frame Innovation Model is a whole process for, well, framing a challenge. It’s about how you immerse yourself in a problem space. It’s the divergence and convergence, the double diamond in action to bring you to the best challenge statement with opportunities of deep learning and insight.

In a frame, you might approach problem X as if it were a problem of Y, turning assumptions on their heads.

For instance, imagine solving for low public transportation usage as if it were, say, a problem of daycare availability. Your team would set up an exciting design sprint. You’ll discover new, unexpected insights. With this type of reframing, no one will be able to bring in preconceived solutions. You expand the options into fresh, innovative territory.

If passion is the secret sauce to kickstart great innovation then Justin is a crucial ingredient at Asurion. A proposed 15-minute interview easily became a 40-minute discourse on design and innovation principles. Justin is a bank of knowledge and a lifelong learner, always exploring to expand and deepen his already diverse skill set.

When he is not helping product teams explore new ways of supporting Asurion’s customers and partners, Justin can be found organizing Nashville UX or helping other apply design at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center. Find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.