Design through Coursera - Week 8 and wrap-up

This is the fifth and final post in a series about the Coursera course ‘Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society'.

In the last lectures of the course, Professor Ulrich looked at supply chains and the need for designers to understand the costs and steps of the supply chain (and that the design budget is usually only one quarter of the retail price of a commercial product). The Professor took us through the likely supply chain and costs of two types of electric toothbrushes.

While this element of design is less immediately relevant to the public sector, we as public servants also of course need to understand our ‘supply chains’, particularly the costs that our designs might impose on our users (who may not have a choice about whether to ‘use’ our services or artifacts) and the need for the public sector to be efficient and cost-effective.

Professor Ulrich finished up the course with a look at the question of whether or how design thinking differs from problem solving more generally. He noted that essentially, design is just a problem solving process (though he did spell out an interesting typology of different problems for which a full design process was more likely to help with some than with others).

As part of this discussion, the Professor also outlined the different types of decision-making/problem-solving that are used in different situations, considering the opportunity cost of your (or the organisation’s) time and the approximate value of the solution. Where the approximate value of the solution is low, we generally rely on default patterns of behaviour and automation. For
areas where the solution would be of great value and where the opportunity cost is significant, the general strategy is skill, specialisation and practice. Where the opportunity cost is lower, we use experience and resources; where the opportunity cost is lower again, we use a deliberate process.

So if design thinking is just problem solving, why should we make a fuss about it? Professor Ulrich suggested that an effective problem-solving process in organisations is actually pretty rare, so that even if design thinking is just thought of as problem-solving, using it as a structured process is still valuable. He identified some of the core elements that he thought captured the essence of design thinking:

  • A spirit of optimism

  • Early, frequent prototypes

  • Deep respect for user needs, but based on interpretation, vision and observation

  • Iteration and refinement are expected and accepted

  • A quest for elegance.


The Professor also outlined his key points and specific techniques and methods that people should take away from the course:

  • Am I solving the right problem?

  • What are the user needs?

  • Have we explored for alternatives?

  • Have selected a plan based on the desirable criteria?

  • And do we understand that we’re likely to have to iterate many times in order to get it right?


Professor Ulrich mentioned that he hopes to run the course twice a year – if you are interested in design and innovation, then I highly recommend undertaking it the next time it is on.

My reflections


I have really enjoyed doing the course and found it a great introduction to design, not just for physical products but for intangible artifacts as well. And it was really great seeing some of the varied things that other people were designing as part of their assignments for the course (and there really seems to be a big unmet need for helping people better organise things, as that seemed to be a big focus).

This was my first experience of a ‘massively open online course’ (MOOC) and I found that very interesting as well. Professor Ulrich mentioned that there were thousands of students from around the world who did the course and submitted the assignments, and thousands more who just watched the lectures.

A MOOC is an interesting platform for formal/semi-formal education, but I also wonder how it could be used by the public sector more broadly? Are there areas where it would be valuable if we could provide relevant information in a structured and interactive process, where we can re-use many of the same materials, and where users can support each other through forums and discussions?

Of course it is important to start with the question ‘what problem am I trying to solve?’, but this innovation struck me personally as a potentially disruptive innovation that could shake things up and offer some great new opportunities.

For anyone else who did the course, how did you find it?