Free thinking

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Changing perspective and giving free rein to ideas: this ostensibly philosophical approach is highly effective for agile project management. That’s because, when Aareon’s employees and customers join forces to develop innovative digital solutions in the DesignLab, the user is always the focus of attention.

The workshops in DesignLab are deliberately structured freely. What matters is each participant's creativity.
Photo: Angelika Stehle

The two small, bright yellow boxes on the shelf rattle enticingly when handled. What on earth could they contain? The answer is soon revealed: Lego bricks of all colours and sizes. Not perhaps the first thing that visitors would expect to find in an office of the leading European provider of consulting services and systems for the property industry. But that’s not all: brightly coloured felt balls, wax crayons and a wealth of handicraft materials can be found on the shelf below, while giant orange bean bags are ranged along the windows. Sinking into one of them, you catch sight of a black punch bag on the wall opposite. This is the moment when you realise beyond doubt that this is anything but a normal office. We’re in the DesignLab.

This creative laboratory was established at Aareon’s headquarters in Mainz in the summer of 2016 with a view to finding unconventional ways of developing innovative solutions in collaboration with colleagues and customers. Design thinking is the name of the game. This approach was developed in the USA in line with the maxim “design first, develop later”. The benefits of an agile method of this type is that requirements and objectives can be modified quickly if need be. In an age of progressive digitisation in which generations of technology are succeeding one another ever more rapidly, clinging to rigidly defined processes is counter-productive: companies have to be able to react quickly and flexibly. In customer communication, for instance, the goalposts are constantly changing owing to the increasing diversification of communication channels.

“Everyone is unique, which means that everyone thinks quite differently – there is much to be learned from this, especially when we are not constrained in our thinking, but have the chance to give free rein to our ideas.”
“Design thinking wasn’t a completely new concept for us, but our workshop in Aareon’s DesignLab marked the first time that we had developed a specific digital solution using this agile approach. It wasn’t just an exciting experience; above all it was productive, user-oriented and effective.”
“Not only do we have to digitise processes, but we have to revise them too. Use the DesignLab!”

Empathising with the user
“The property industry is no different from other sectors, in that customer relationships are increasingly moving away from the analogue and into the digital world,” explains Stefan Roth from Strategic Product Marketing at Aareon, sitting down on one of the green swivel chairs at the long conference table. “It’s often a question of finding out how our customers can best communicate with their own customers. If we establish that an app is the most sensible networking method, then users need to be reassured that it isn’t merely functional, but above all easy to operate – otherwise nobody will ever use it.”

But establishing what precisely users consider “easy” and what their detailed requirements are has much less to do with technological competence than with empathy and imagination in the first instance. That’s because design thinking involves people from various disciplines coming together in an environment conducive to creativity with a view to developing solutions by adopting the mindset of potential users and anticipating their needs.

“This interdisciplinary approach is extremely productive, given that we are used to thinking largely in terms of technological implementation,” says Martin Dunkel from Aareon’s DesignLab team. “We have always worked with user models known as personas to date. But a customer is naturally welcome to bring actual future users, such as tenants, to the workshop so that their suggestions can be incorporated directly.”

From design to technology
Aareon’s DesignLab workshops are deliberately structured freely and roughly follow the five individual stages of the design thinking process: empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test. If the urge takes them, participants can illustrate an idea using Lego bricks, formulate a thought in writing, or even attack the punch bag in search of inspiration: anything goes. “Things generally kick off with a conventional brainstorming session and the clustering of content,” explains Dunkel, indicating a glass panel half-hidden behind his desk, which is covered in writing from top to bottom. He moves a second panel towards him, bedecked with colourful stickers on which participants have written, while a third panel is adorned with sketches which actually vaguely resemble the user interface of an app.

These demonstrate the step-by-step approach based on user models and customer requirements adopted by Aareon’s employees and customers as they gradually progress from initial sketches all the way to full technological implementation. This collaborative process not only results in considerable cost savings, but also in a solution that is tailored precisely to the relevant customer.

Dunkel and his colleagues have already welcomed a handful of customers to the DesignLab. The design thinking concept has proved a new, but successful venture for them all: the workshops have without exception initiated specific developments that are set to be launched in the market in the near future. Aareon’s employees also enjoy using this special space. Even some of the company’s colleagues from abroad “have had a good look round and expressed great interest in the design thinking method,” reports Dunkel.