For Humans, By Humans

From the NFLPA to healthcare, Valdes and IDEO are redesigning the world we live in.

By Nick Sommariva 15C

Story Photo

Annie Valdes 98C

A redesigned shopping cart inspired Annie Valdes 98C to reimagine her career. Now, she works at IDEO and uses her human-centered design skills to tackle interesting and complex problems for the NFL Players Association, Eli Lilly, Google, and others. Her company "helps organizations innovate, build businesses, and develop their own innovation capabilities" with high profile clients like British Airways, Microsoft, and Wells Fargo.

In 2004, when a professor showed her class a Nightline video of the IDEO design process, Valdes was more than intrigued by the global design consultancy firm headquartered in Palo Alto, California. In fact, the day after watching the video, Valdes applied to a job posting by IDEO and was soon after given a six-month trial period.

“They didn’t know what to do with me,” she said, speaking to her diverse background—an anthropology degree, experience as a web developer, and an MBA. But the trial worked, and Valdes has been with IDEO ever since, working at both the Palo Alto and San Francisco offices.

Put Human Needs First

Valdes remembers what she calls her first “aha design moment.” When she was a web developer people constantly asked her to build them a website. “But I thought, why do you need a website? What are you trying to do? And why is this the right solution?” Valdes said this realization took her from trying to design websites, to instead trying to understand what problem her clients and their end users needed to solve.

An important lesson she learned early on was not to assume she knew the answer going in. “The more I talked to people about what they wanted to accomplish, the more I realized I needed an open mind to find the right solution.”

Even though Valdes has been immersed in the design world for many years, she still struggles to define exactly what design and the design thinking approach mean, because their applications are ever-broadening. She best sums it up saying, “IDEO’s human-centered approach begins with understanding human needs first, building from that, and continually iterating.”

From Gridiron to Retirement

One of Valdes' recent projects was to help NFL players transition into retirement from active play in the league.

Valdes offered this example to show how a design thinking approach is different from other problem-solving methodologies. “First and foremost, it’s a design approach, so we’re looking for inspiration. We get that by deeply understanding our users, but we’ll also seek out people and experiences that provide us new perspectives on our design challenge. People will instinctually seek out their core user first, and while it’s important to make sure your design will work for the core, they’re not always the greatest source of new thinking. One way to push past the obvious is to look for extremes, either people who are extremely familiar or extremely unfamiliar with the product or service area you are designing, as this often highlights issues that are key to inspiring solutions to the design challenge. These are usually issues that the target is unable to articulate.”

Valdes’ work with the NFLPA helped them find ways to better support NFL players by exploring not just what services they might offer active and former players, but also how they might better engage players.

As pro football players transition to retirement, they find themselves unprepared for life outside of football. Valdes related the problems NFL players have entering the “real world” to what she saw when helping cancer patients navigate the healthcare system. “The issues were actually similar. All of a sudden you have this disease, and because of that you have to navigate a system that is completely foreign to you. Up until that point, you haven’t had to be a professional patient.”

Valdes envisions a healthcare system where the patients play a more active role. “We are trying to design a system that treats the patient as a partner.”

In today’s healthcare, you have to be what Valdes calls a “professional patient.” “Between learning a new language, dealing with insurance, different doctors, and more, being a patient today is a full time job. You have to connect all of these disparate pieces and there is no support system to help.”

Solve by Doing

When wearing your “Design Thinking Hat,” Valdes says it is crucial to get firsthand experience so you can intuitively understand what’s important as you design. “You can’t fake the empathy gained from being on the ground with the people you’re designing for. To dive into what truly matters, you have to get out of the office and experience the problem firsthand. Be the end user and focus on the details.”

Advice for how to get started with design? “Don’t wait until you have a title to start designing. Design Thinking is a methodology for solving problems—anyone can do it. Try to understand what matters to the people you are designing for, and design with that in mind. Don’t try to get it perfect right away, just create something you think gets at the needs, and ask for feedback as you go.”

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Michelle Valigursky