The best opportunities are the ones you never expected. They’re serendipitous. – David Perell
Horace Walpole defined Serendipity in 1754, as ‘the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.’ I have grown up reading stories of scientific discovery attributed to chance encounters. Whether it’s Newton’s naming of gravity, Nobel’s discovery of dynamite, Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of the X-ray, or George de Mestral’s inspiration to create Velcro. In travel, medicine, science, technology, and inventions, serendipity is often cited as a key factor in the success of the new. Chance leads to the possibility of new behaviors, patterns, ideas, and structures. It allows people to change their behavior in response to context, in the moment, however fleeting.
As I started reading more about this, I understood how the seemingly random idea of serendipity is actually a capability. David Perell notes, “Serendipity is a skill, which means it can be learned.” Liz Danzico in the article for acm.org says, “As the power that citizens have with their media grows, so must we grow opportunities for creative exploration, new ideas, and chance encounters.”
Serendipity as a series of ‘happy accidents’ is actually the result of social interactions. Thus, the serendipitous discoveries become insights. As engineers, designers, developers this directly forms the basis of our innovations or at least better design and user experience. Liz Danzico recounts how she decided to incorporate this idea in a graduate project at Rhode Island School of Design
How much could we design for serendipity? To test out some of these ideas, I took to the streets and recently conducted a three-day workshop at Rhode Island School of Design as part of the Graphic Design Graduate Program’s Visiting Designer Lecture Series an inventive thesis course put together by program director Bethany Johns with the graphic-design graduate students. The students’ charge was to create an interactive product or service that would inspire serendipity for them and their neighbors in the city of Providence. This was their call to seek out and invite the unknown, the unplanned, the unseen. They imagined ways to craft interactions so they could intentionally influence new opportunities for discovery and creativity. In a culture steeped in exact queries, specific interactions, precise retrieval, and masterful customization, they imagined how their community could be made better through chance encounters.
But the design thinking process has been defined as a structured methodology, following the steps of – empathizing (with user needs), defining (the pain points), ideating (creative solutions), prototyping (sample solutions), and testing (to get user feedback), in that order. At the face of it looks like a closed process with little room for serendipity. How do we make room for accidental encounters then?
This is where we incorporate a Serendipity Vehicle in our design process. I first came across this term David Perell’s blog. While he describes a serendipity vehicle for an individual, there’s no reason why we cannot extend it to the design process for building products in organizations.
I see two ways of incorporating this idea in the design process and subsequent product development steps-
– Discovering Serendipity
In my understanding, the first step to enable serendipitous discoveries would be to go beyond the structured techniques of observation, interviews, and research. Teams should explore new avenues of collecting user research data beyond the conventional surveys, polls, etc. For example, talking to strangers who aren’t primary subject targets could give a broader perspective. Listening to random conversations among clients and customers, deliberately spending time in physically shared spaces could all be facilitators of chance encounters. If you’re researching a client project to design a better classroom layout, then spend time in unexpected places beyond interactions between students and teachers. Maybe hang out in the cafeteria and hallways, explore the gyms and playgrounds, stand in lines, all the time striking up conversations with strangers.
Additionally, as Sky Gilbar writes, “Encourage clients and their teams to become agents of serendipity. As design thinkers, bring client teams together who we are engaging with to connect with each other in the discovery phase, encouraging unexpected conversations to take place, and then debrief with those people after the fact.”
– Identifying Serendipity
Design thinking begins with discovery which begins with building empathy for the people you are designing for. So it makes sense for us to increase the frequency and quality of these unexpected moments into our design thinking discovery process. But I feel it’s equally important to identify these moments, the unexpected experiences of the user to design better products, services. This comes back to empathy. Take the help of technology to collect and log data from user experience from all possible sources. Of course, collecting user data raises the question of security and privacy and there needs to be a thoughtful analysis of these. There obviously also is the human-centric way to log user experience. Have client team members, users write down and share the discoveries from the unexpected occurrences and add these rich insights in your design process.
It’s true that in the true sense of the word it’s not entirely serendipitous. Because we are choosing to do these things to enable serendipity, have made a choice, thus eliminating some part of the serendipitous equation. But as Louis Pasteur said, “In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” and we are just creating pathways to find chance. Chances are, we will.