Insight |

How I design-thunk my dirty laundry problem

Blog- Apply design thinking | How I design-thunk my dirty laundry problem

How I design-thunk my dirty laundry problem

Insight |

How I design-thunk my dirty laundry problem

Blog- Apply design thinking | How I design-thunk my dirty laundry problem
If you haven’t got a load of laundry going in the background, are you even working from home? Here’s how I applied a design thinking tool I use at work to streamline my home life.

Everyone’s got a “thing”.

A “thing” is something that doesn’t quite work the way it should. It might be a clunky process or a tool that isn’t doing the job. Whatever it is, it makes it harder than it should be to get the result you need, wasting precious energy in the process.

When something doesn’t quite work, it creates friction. In a HR context, this sounds like sighs when the annual performance reviews are announced. It looks like a load of paper that must be signed and scanned. It feels like frustration when things progress at a glacial pace, (despite your continuous email reminders).

Two “things” for me are inefficient people processes and the chaos that is my small laundry. The best part of my job is solving the first, using Design Thinking to critically review and redesign HR processes. I get a huge sense of satisfaction every time I can help a customer to get rid of one of their friction points and free up their energy for better use.

Unfortunately, doing this amazing job from home has brought the second issue to the fore. Every time I got up to stretch my legs, my messy, piles-of-clothes, not-enough-storage-space problem was there. Even if I closed the door, it lurked in the back of my brain, taking up valuable mental real estate.

Yes, I’m being dramatic, but the friction of an inefficient everyday process is just as real as clunky annual appraisals. Perhaps more so, since the average person does laundry more frequently than performance reviews. That’s why I was inspired to take the tool I use every day and apply it to a new problem.

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What is Design Thinking anyway (and why should I care?)

If you’re new to the concept of design thinking, the term usually brings a mix of awe and confusion. Everyone seems to be extolling its virtues, but how does it actually work?

Design thinking started as an attempt to scientifically capture and explain the process of design, then expanded beyond solving problems of traditional product design. Rather than a specific process, it’s a mindset that focuses on the person who uses the product/process you’re building.

It means trying to solve the issue for the user by:

  1. Understanding their experience.
  2. Breaking down the elements of the problem into meaningful parts.
  3. Coming up with solutions.
  4. Testing out the best ones.

It’s a process that never ends; once you’ve made the thing you’re designing, the next question is always: how can it be even better?

This is all great in a theoretical context; now let’s apply it to something real. Something relatable. Something like my messy laundry. I’d tried some quick fixes before, usually buying some new laundry gadget that disappointed after a couple of weeks. I was committed to fixing this once and for all.

When I do workshops with customers, they usually last half a day. I did this one in 30 minutes.

Step 1: Understanding my experience (5 min)

The most important part of solving the problem properly is understanding how it impacts the people involved.

As the Subject Matter Expert in my household’s laundry processes, I started by interviewing myself. I completed a quick empathy map: a list of things I say, do, feel and think when it comes to getting clothes clean. Here are some examples:

I say:

“Where is that black shirt?!”

I do:

  • Leave toddler stains to ‘soak’ for a week and forget about them (oops!).
  • Forget to bring the empty clothes baskets back from the line.
  • Put the wrong stuff in the wrong load and end up with grey whites.

I feel:

  • Mad when the delicates bag pops open again and my favorite work shirt gets snagged on Velcro.

I think:

  • Now which pile does this go in again?
  • There has to be a better way.
  • Where is this #$%@ lint coming from?

Step 2. Breaking down the problem (5 min)

Armed with evidence of the problem, I started grouping these symptoms together to identify the underlying causes. Some of these I was already aware of, others were a surprise to see written out.

  • Double handling: we sort our washing twice: once in the bedroom and again in the laundry.
  • Better tools needed: if I want different results I need to replace some of my tools: new delicates bag, lint catcher, and a better place to hang drying shirts.
  • SLAs required: process chain time is too long and unpredictable; I need some routines and a set turnaround time for getting clean clothes off the line.

Step 3. Coming up with solutions (20 min)

Solutionizing is always the bulk of the work. Fresh from the problem definition, I wrote out my desired solution: “I need a streamlined process for making sure our clothes and linens are clean and ready to use, regardless of who’s doing it and for it to look nice at the same time.”

For anyone who has been in my workshops, this probably sounds familiar; our goal is typically to make whatever process we’re focused on easier and less person-dependent.

Now that I knew what I wanted, the fun part: producing ideas!

Design thinking often has the word creativity” associated with it, and that scares some people. The exercise I used is maximum results and minimum risk. The exercise is called Crazy Eights. I commit to producing eight ideas in eight minutes. To take the pressure off, I tell myself they don’t have to be good, there just has to be a lot of them. How to do Crazy Eights:

Grab an A4 sheet of paper and fold it in half three times. You’ll have eight squares to draw in. One per minute, they might be a whole solution, or just a single idea. The goal is to get it all out before you have time to cast judgment over it.

My ideas were:

  1. A farmhouse laundry sorting bench I saw on Pinterest (way too big for my house, but a cool idea)
  2. Getting new delicates bags that wouldn’t pop open anymore
  3. A drying rack stuck to the wall for wet toddler things that need to dry
  4. Another sorting system (turned out to be a terrible idea, but I wrote it down)
  5. A clothes drying rack that went over the bath
  6. …Actually, I ran out of time here.

In my last 5 minutes, I got a fresh page and drew out my big idea. It combined a few of the other ideas and had more detail in it, along with a few notes of things I don’t know how to draw. I made a list of action items: things I needed to do, buy and still decide (30 minutes is a short window to solve a problem I’ve had for 10 years!)

Step 4. Testing out my laundry solution

I started with a list of small purchases and actions. I knew I needed a couple of good new wash bags from the internet. Taking the time to go through reviews and pick something reputable, I no longer had to deal with the frustration of velcro on silk as the bags stayed shut.

Buoyed by my success, the big-ticket item was next: shelving.

My solution called for three racks and four shelves. I measured the space up, did my research and some further sketching before making a shopping list at the right store. This was a big change for me; I’m much more of a “show up with a vague idea” type of Ikea shopper. I presented the solution to The Board (husband) for joint signoff. As an engineer, he appreciated the documentation of the thought process that had gone into this solution.

We bought and installed the shelves, and my laundry problems were a thing of the past!

Step 5. Iterating upon the solution

….or so I thought. It was better, but not perfect. My sketch made sure the shelves fit into the area, but once I had them up, they were difficult to get to. Fortunately, I had chosen a modular shelving kit, so I was able to shuffle things around based on feedback from my other household laundry SME.


Even though I was so familiar with design thinking as a problem solving approach in my professional life, it was a new experience to apply it to my personal problems. It forced me to critically review how I, the user, felt about the way things were, to put down in words what exactly wasn’t working and how I felt it should be solved. Coming up with eight separate ideas in quick succession was challenging, but it forced me to be more creative than before.

Being able to explain the “why” behind what I was proposing made it easier to get the other stakeholder on board, instead of just asking him to trust my gut.

Overall, it reinforced the value of design thinking as an approach to problems in any context; a thorough, methodical way to get from problem to solution, with much less friction.

So, what’s your “thing”? Do you have 30 minutes to try and solve it, and what difference would that make to your day?


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