My Experiments with Design Thinking

Vijay Ullal
5 min readMay 19, 2017


Photo courtesy of Stanford

In early 2011, while I was working at Maxim, I signed up for a “Design Thinking Boot Camp” at Stanford’s I hoped it would help make my group more innovative. I forgot about it until a few months later; I was surprised to get an email with the questionnaire:

  • “Did we get opinions from customers before designing products?” My answer: Hell no!
  • “Did we routinely bring customers into our design process?” My answer: Never!!
  • And an assignment…“Go to the airport and ask passengers about their travel experience.” My reaction: Extreme discomfort!!!

I almost canceled the class right then and there, but I’d already paid the money. So I reluctantly went to it.

The first day of class was even more discomfiting.

  • “Design a gift giving experience for a stranger.”
  • “Take a trip to SFO International Terminal to interview JetBlue passengers about their curb to jetway experience.”

This was as far out of my comfort zone as I had ever been. The first gift giving experience I designed was embarrassingly unempathetic (my teammate was polite but critical). My first few interviews at SFO were flops. I missed important details. Our team leader had to intervene while we peppered a bright, young MIT grad with questions rather than give her time and space to give us thoughtful answers.

It took several more immersions in the design thinking process for all the lessons to sink in.

  • Empathize with the user
  • Search for deep insights that one normally overlooks
  • Capture the Point of View (POV) of the customer
  • Target the product towards an extreme user
  • Create a prototype (even rough) so as to facilitate honest feedback
  • Iterate rapidly
  • Be open to feedback during the iterative process

By the end of the week, I was a convert. I went back to Maxim armed with new knowledge, and ready to spread it as widely as possible. I set up a session for top management to attend at Stanford. The reactions were mixed, to put it charitably. I tried once more and set up several sessions where instructors coached middle management at the company headquarters. The results were much better. Finally I set up coaching sessions with engineers — most of them loved it. The lower down in the hierarchy and the younger the demographic, the more likely it was for an employee to embrace these concepts.

I found my nucleus of supporters. We sent out a survey to all the employees in my group. The feedback was at the same time enthusiastic and critical. More than 80% responded that they wanted more freedom to explore and make their own decisions. Maxim had a very centrally controlled, top down culture. I started to make some of the changes they asked for though admittedly, it was difficult to change ingrained habits. The effort to change was well worth it. Although my group was already the fastest growing part of the company, its growth accelerated even more after we relaxed the culture. The group’s revenues increased by almost 2.5x over a period of five years and the business was almost sinfully profitable. I had learned that design thinking and a more open environment would create better products. Since design thinking was best served by an egalitarian culture, I pushed for an overt symbol: an open office layout. To lead by example, I gave up my office. I felt that in this digital age no one really needs an office except as a status symbol.

My former office converted into a design thinking space

That’s when I felt the first rumblings of discontent especially with middle managers who had worked their butts off in a cubicle to earn the right to a private office and maybe even a corner office. Eventually there was a compromise. Some of the middle managers were displaced from their offices while others retained theirs. Needless to say this was far from optimal and there were many unhappy middle managers.

I was encouraged with what we had achieved with inculcating design thinking at Maxim. I took the same principles with me when I joined Fairchild in late 2012. I was gung-ho about making design thinking an integral part of the culture. I did all of the same things I’d experimented with at Maxim. The coaching, the brainstorm sessions, customer empathy events, rapid prototyping. The reactions were different than at my previous company. Everyone was uniformly enthusiastic in participating in the design thinking events and even held some events of their own. My favorite success story is that of a manufacturing plant that reduced its turnover of mostly 20-something female operators from over 50% to less than 20% — best in class for that area. Their creative solution? Setting up a dating service!

Unfortunately, most Fairchild employees tended to go right back to their old ways a week or so after attending the design thinking events. Like Maxim, senior management was the least comfortable with the change in culture. And once again, of all the changes I advocated, the open office layout received the most visceral push back. Unlike Maxim, even when front line employees were given more freedom the results were less than encouraging.

My two large scale experiments with design thinking had brought about different results and learnings. Here were my key takeaways:

  1. Start training front line employees before management
  2. Focus on a group whose leader readily takes to design thinking and can be a beacon for the rest of the organization
  3. If there is no leader who embraces design thinking, hire the right leader and create a new group whose culture can be built from scratch. Make sure incentives in this group are aligned to the new culture and not copied from the main organization.
  4. Don’t push for superficial changes like office layouts that evoke an emotional reaction from management

In retrospect, my experiments with design thinking resulted in longer-term benefits. Many front line employees in both Maxim and Fairchild adopted these ideas as their own and propagated these lessons in their new teams and projects. I also learned something about myself: I had been a closet design thinker trapped in comparatively stifling corporate environments. I realized I was a fish out of water. So I got out. Now I love working with startups where free thinkers abound. Some of the start-ups even got incubated as a result of my design-thinking evangelizing efforts.

If you are thinking about implementing design thinking in a large company, here’s my advice. Go for it! You will inevitably encounter naysayers but the long term results will be worth it. If you keep in mind that you are running a marathon rather than a sprint, you will be able to sustain your energy long enough to see the fruits of your efforts.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to @Adeeti Ullal for helping me get through my writer’s block, giving me wonderful suggestions and edits.



Vijay Ullal

Family guy. Investor/mentor for start-ups. Fitness/sports enthusiast. Music lover. Gadget freak. Car buff. I care about women’s education, cancer research.