Darin Eich of Innovation Learning talks User-Centered Design

Interviewed and written by : Emily Cruz

Darin Eich, founder of Madison, Wisconsin-based company, Innovation Learning, creates, designs, and delivers innovative training programs, engaging speeches, interactive workshops, books, online courses, and leadership retreats for every level of innovator out there. Eich’s projects range from hundreds of college speeches, to helping institutions develop leadership programs & retreats, to facilitating design thinking and professional brainstorm innovation sessions for the most innovative Fortune 500 companies. Eich designs unique leadership and innovation programs for institutions such as Dartmouth College, the University of Wisconsin, and USA TODAY.

Darin and I met at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Improvement Showcase while I was a student. The Improvement Showcase is a chance to share the best practices and innovation ideas happening throughout the university. I had been working on a design thinking project which had been featured at the showcase. We got to chatting, but it wasn’t until I a few years later that I reconnected with him in hopes of getting into the real field of innovation. For the past couple of years, Darin and I regularly meet for coffee to talk innovation, bounce ideas off of each other, and frequently collaborate with each other on projects. Being such a  motivated, passionate, and experimental innovator, it is only fitting that Darin Eich claims my first interview on innovation.

Question 1 : How did you get into your field?


I’d call my field more innovation, and maybe more specific than that, design thinking, and even more specific than that user-centered innovation. I got into that field by starting a startup company called BrainReactions with some fellow students at UW. We recruited the most creative students, trained them on brainstorming, and turned them loose on projects where we would create ideas for products, services, and new ways of doing marketing for an organization.

“ I guess you could call it design thinking, but we didn’t think about it as that then”.

Essentially I got into my field by creating a business doing it. Once we started BrainReactions, more and more people started telling me that what we’re doing was similar to what IDEO did in the infamous shopping cart video on Nightline. Once I had become aware of it, I was really lured into design thinking through the IDEO approach. We were coming up with innovation in a new way. The companies we were working with needed an outside approach. We found out who their customers were and what they wanted, needed, and how they would want to be communicated and marketed to. I was learning as I went, not even knowing I was in the field but at the same time designing a company around it.

Question 2 : How do you use design thinking in your work now?


I am always trying to learn design thinking for the ultimate purpose of teaching it to others. By using the processes to teach myself I can teach it to others through workshops, events, books and online programs. I use design thinking to determine what I do in my business. I use the minds of the user to find out which direction to go. Before I learned the process, I used to just guess what my users wanted. Now I don’t do that because every time I have ever played with something I think is cool or interesting, I never end up selling much of it, which isn’t useful to me or to my users. When I shift to finding out what people want and need, then I can design things for them that are beneficial and have a positive impact on them.

Question 3 : How do you learn design thinking?


I use the Stanford Design School and IDEO as my main sources because these are the experts and the thought leaders. I want to know their thought processes and what tools they use. Other resources I use are ted talks, PDF toolkits, images searches for visuals of different processes, and books. One of my favorites is the latest book called, Creative Confidence (by Tom and David Kelley). Looking at and reading information doesn’t really help you develop your skill of design thinking. It’s more about putting the process, tools, and techniques to use through doing different projects. Initiate something, never stagnate. If you have downtime, do a real project. A variety of projects puts you in different industries, facing different challenges, and interacting with different users. Ultimately, this is how you really learn.

Question 4 : Through the workshops you facilitate, what attributes do you see in your users that make them a successful design thinker?


If you’re not engaged, it’s going to be hard. I look for somebody willing to get into action and interview potential users. It takes courage to do the first interview and get yourself out there. It’s a little thing to burst through, but once you get going, it’s fun and you learn and develop so much. The Stanford D.School has certain mindsets towards design thinking and one of them is to be biased toward action. Are you willing to get into action? That is how we learn, that is how we design, that is how we get feedback, and that is how we move forward. I also look for somebody that can create a lot of ideas, someone who is a quantity approach ideator. In this line of work you need to have a lot of different ideas to mash-up and make something better. You’re always needing to be creative.

Question 5 : Where do you see design thinking going in the future?


I see design thinking becoming wildly popular and more mainstream than when I got into it 10 years ago. At first design thinking seemed very heavy in product design, but it has spread to every challenge. Design thinking can be applied to almost everything. I have see it spread to a lot of different fields with companies investing in design labs within their company. Service design and user experience (ux researchers) are prime space to use design thinking. I also see design thinking getting less complex. Everyone can use design thinking without using all these different complex processes and tools. That’s why I love IDEO and their Human Centered Design approach, hear, create, deliver. Simplification will be in the future.

Question 6 : I recently watched a Netfilx Original Show called, Abstract, The Art of Design. They begged the question, What is the one real thing you’re trying to get good at (as an artist). With all the different facets of design thinking, what is the one real thing you’re trying to get good at?


I think my sweet spot is in a very specific space. I’m trying to get good at using design thinking to design design thinking workshops, and facilitate these workshops in a way that is high impact for my users. My products are not for the design thinking experts. I want to find real people that have never used or experienced it before and teach them design thinking. I’m not worried about designing physical products. I want to design learning programs that can help people learn design thinking through doing it. The way to get good at it is to keep doing it. Keep designing and keep launching those designs. What gets in our way most of the time is courage. Courage is needed to take action. Get yourself out there and get things done. I’m trying to do that in my life too. It happens through action, not just thinking.


Emily Cruz

Emily is a Design Thinking specialist focusing on the design of physical spaces. Emily received her undergraduate degree in Interior Architecture with a certificate in Design Thinking from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. She is passionate about the change design can make within the world and hopes to share the power of design thinking.

You can follow her twitter @EmCruz_Designs  and on instagram @EmCruz_Designs. You can also connect with and get in contact with her on LinkedIn