Design thinking Q&A with Tom Solman

By Hannah Freeman - August 19, 2021

We talk to Lead UX Designer, Tom Solman as he discusses design thinking, biases in product design, confidence, and how Quest has evolved.

What does design thinking mean to you?

For me, design thinking is an extremely collaborative way of working that focuses on solving market and client problems. It’s viewed as a type of culture, or way of thinking, that helps you identify problems and discover solutions.

In the product design team at Concirrus, we try and find a process that works for everyone as designers will have their personal process. It is important however as a team to stick to similar principles. For us, those principles are discovery, validation, ideation, and then refinement into a solution. This is commonly known as the double diamond framework.

The discovery and validation process focuses on discovering the problem and then validating the problem. Once refined into an issue, you move into the ideation phase by throwing out lots of different ideas on how to fix the issue. Finally, we then work those ideas into a solution.


What is your personal creative process?

Creative process is interesting because everyone has their way of working. First and foremost, everyone's discovery process is different. Personally, I like to look at competitors, read blogs and articles, look at similar products and apps for inspiration.

It is also extremely important to talk to the relevant stakeholders, such as clients, the product team, and experts within the market. We are lucky to have a lot of these subject matter experts at Concirrus. Insight from relevant stakeholders forms the largest part of the discovery phase. The more you talk to people the better the solution will be.

Currently, I run a working group session every week which consists of experts within the business. I find this to be a great way to validate problems and discuss solutions.


Can you give us an example of a design issue you might come across in your day-to-day work at Concirrus?

We recently released a new risk scoring feature within Quest Marine. Influential factors from our risk models have been collated into categories, called ‘risk drivers’. This helps clients see the reason behind their risk score being high or low. This was implemented due to client feedback, letting us know that we needed to make influential factors easier to understand.

This was a clearly defined problem, so we didn’t need a huge amount of discovery or validation because we already knew the issue after talking to clients. We did take some additional time to investigate the reasons why this issue arose. Doing so improved our understanding, and eventually led to more focused categories, including hull specifications, behavioural data, and management factors.

This change helps our clients build a narrative. For example, an Underwriter could go into Quest Marine and see that the management score of a risk is negatively affecting the total risk score. They would then know they need to investigate the company managing those vessels.


Is product design a never-ending process?

We are continuously talking to our clients to help us inform the next stage of our design solution. It is unlikely you are ever hitting the mark 100 percent of the time in product design, so there is always room for improvement.

It can be difficult, as you don’t often get that sense of satisfaction of completing a project because we are continuously improving our product. However, this can also be the charm of the job because you are constantly learning and helping to make improvements. I like that I have a constant back and forth relationship with my work. I sometimes look back at some of my previous work that may be a few years old, and I judge it quite harshly.


How do you navigate working in a fast-paced environment?

Fast-paced environments often have time restrictions that affect the design process. I like to use the fail-fast approach, which speeds up the ideation part of the design process. Churning through lots of ideas, even if some of the ideas are not ideal, can inspire better ideas. You can then find a good solution in a shorter space of time.

In a perfect world, it would be great if I could use the blue-sky approach and come up with these amazing yet unrealistic ideas that require lots of resource. In reality, you have to scale back and create designs that are realistic to deliver, on time, and provide value to clients.


What do you love about being a designer?

My role requires me to work with different teams in Concirrus. A big part of what I enjoy about being a product designer is learning and collaborating with others. When it comes to design you can’t work alone because you have to have a product that needs to work for everyone, not just you.

The principles of design thinking and UX design rely heavily on diversity, inclusion, and empathy; so, product design is people focussed. You must understand people’s needs. For example, if I were tasked to design an app for women’s pregnancy journeys and didn’t talk to different demographics of women, I would not be able to find a solution that all women can relate to. Pregnancy journeys can be heavily influenced by culture so if you only speak to for example non-religious women, you might miss things that could potentially be helpful for another group of women. You must try and get an understanding of all the people who will be using the solution you have designed.

As designers, we need to try and get away from our own biases and what we think we know. Your solution is not for you but for your audience.


What is your biggest challenge as a product designer?

You can’t do your job effectively if you don’t understand other areas of the business. I am not saying that designers must do multiple roles, but you need to have a good understanding of what can and cannot be done within the restrictions of the product and business. For example, we could create a great data feature, but it may not be cost-effective, or the data may not even be available.

Earlier on in my design career, I found checking my own biases and learning to accept negative feedback was quite challenging. Feedback can be incredibly useful to help form the validation process. However, when it’s negative it can be difficult to sallow and make you defensive. Over the years I have learnt how to analyse feedback and use it to improve.


How has your confidence grown over the last few years?

My confidence has grown a lot and I think it comes from experience. Whilst product designers are creatives, there is a very fine line between being creative and focussing on problem solving. We are not all graphic designers and are needed to solve a problem logically whilst adhering to company brand guidelines. I’ve learnt that if we don’t deliver the perfect solution the first time round due to time restrictions, then that’s okay.

With experience, I know now to look at the bigger picture and prioritise what brings the most value over what can wait until further down the line.


How does design thinking solve business problems?

Problem solving is at the core of design thinking. It is important for me to create an experience that satisfies and brings enjoyment to an audience. We can all think of a time we have used an app or solution that is compilated and confusing which can leave you feeling frustrated. We want to remove all these frustrations through clear visual design and logical structure. It’s why design is so important in that sales and retention process.


As you didn’t come from an insurance background did you find this difficult when you first joined Concirrus?

When I first started at Concirrus I had limited knowledge about the marine insurance industry and the terminology used. It is fair to say however that no one expected me to be an insurance expert and know everything at first. Like with any job, you learn a lot along the way. My advice would be to delve into it and learn from the people around you. If you don’t get to grips with the industry you are designing for i.e., Underwriters and Brokers, then how can you design a solution for them.

It was important for me to ask a lot of questions, even if they were simple. The speed in which you pick up industry knowledge is a skill within itself and makes you better at your job. A natural ability to design and be creative is important, but for product design you must also be inquisitive in nature and mindset. You need to understand the problems that the industry has and comprehend these problems. This mindset is something I look out for when I am hiring.


How much of your approach is customer driven?

I would say that our approach has become more client-driven over the last few years. Onboarding many new and exciting clients has attracted a lot of new insurance experts to join the team. Having experts within the team that have experienced the needs and pain points of our clients is very important. We like to spend as much time with our clients as possible to ensure we are always in tune with their needs. The nature of our work is very client-driven. Product sessions and one-to-one interviews continually help us improve our products.


Where do you find your inspiration?

Usually, I like to research online and read articles on topics I’m interested in. I also like to look at different apps and products to compare them to ours. Unfortunately, within the insurance/marine industry, there is a limit on who we can compare ourselves with fully. There are also lots of insurance products out there that are gated, restricting research.

We all use different apps and solutions daily so you can use your own experience, even with products that don’t focus on insurance. There are lots of commonalities within apps and I like to look at how they visualise information and data e.g., there may be a well-designed bar chart that I gain inspiration from.

It’s also important to get involved with the design scene to keep up to date with what different companies are up to, and to be aware of any new design trends. Going to network events and meetups can also be a great way to meet new people who are into design. Since the pandemic, I haven’t been able to go to any meet ups, but networking is important for growth and inspiration


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