Tinkering in a world of conformity

“I had as many doubts as anyone else. Standing on the starting line, we’re all cowards.”

After conforming to 2 years of 9-to-5, I finally mustered up the courage to leave. Patiently I was preparing for the next shift. While waiting for the departing train, I went on to talk to not less than 50 people, and made a few quick decisions. One of them was finally getting myself certified as a Premier Skills Community Football Coach. The other goal was setting up Design Tinker. The bigger goal behind this action is to start a quiet but effective movement, where people are inspired to be creative and inclined to solve problems.

In October 2017, a new experience transpired. It’s the first engagement we planned and executed together as a team (Chooi Yen and I). Of course there were array of challenges to infuse design thinking in a 2-hour workshop setting, followed by a designathon (design marathon). The time constrain is an opportunity in disguise, where we cracked our brains to make 120 minutes useful for the students from 5 institutions of higher learning. Their challenge? Improve existing crowd management system and visitors’ experience at Penang Hill.

We thought that documenting our key learnings here would help others to chew over the importance of instilling problem solving in your daily lives, instead of focusing on the glamorous side of design thinking. It will also act as a reminder for ourselves to keep challenging the status quo of “how things are done” and going into the unknown.

Here are some really raw observations and baked insights as your food for thought:


Breaking assumptions: We always believe that facing a long queue frustrates people generally.

With a deeper understanding using the typical five why’s interview technique, participants discovered that the main reason of visitors feeling frustrated is the unclear notion of queue condition at a specific point of time.

Due to this uncertainty, visitors are not able to justify if it’s worthwhile to buy the fast lane tickets. They also feel helpless after entering the queue, mainly due to being stuck and leaving the queue for a quick toilet break is almost impossible. Tourists get bored while waiting for up to two hours during the peak season. Some suggested entertainment and a proper seating during the queue to ease the pain of waiting.


“I need to bring additional power. The queue is just too long.” — Picture by aCAT Penang


Team from Equator College engaged deeply in a conversation with the users. One of the insights from their in-depth interview: People with disability find it hard to be separated from their family members when they were boarding the funicular. Note: People with disability have priority to board but most of the times are unable to do it together with their families. (Picture by aCAT, Penang)

Defining the problem: The example above explains the importance of clarity when you frame your challenge. A well-defined problem lays a effective path towards solving it with minimal resources and by hitting the bullseye. Long queue is an unwavering fact, and it could take a massive restructuring to tackle this fact. Instead, we re-defined the problem and came out with the opportunity statement of:

How might we make visitors happier by giving out information on the queue status?

How might we make tourists less frustrated by improving the state of waiting?

Simple solution: You might be thinking a catastrophic challenge usually deserves a highly-sophisticated solution.

In contrast, one of the teams’ solution points out that it can be as simple as setting up multiple queue zones for the visitors before they board the funicular.

Zoning queue - PHC Designathon Idea.001

Concept based on presentation from Team INTI College

With each zone, the visitors are able to estimate how far they are from boarding the funicular, while they are given access to different facilities in every zone. This will effectively minimise the frustration level of visitors in queue, at the same time being a low-cost implementation instead of high-cost technology application.

Technology is not always superior: 5 out of 7 teams in the competition suggested that technology is the way to go. But what if you have a 10x-cheaper way to achieve the same impact? Would you still want to break your bank to go tech? And a great solution can start from a real simple improvisation, such as this barrier could actually help manage the flow of the crowd better. What made us proud was one of the teams actually suggested that we can use the same concept to better manage the crowd before boarding the funicular.

Comfort zone is a beautiful place: But nothing ever grows there? As the workshop came to a closure, and we were back in Kuala Lumpur, 4 hours away from the Pearl of the Orient, we realised the preparation of work, the execution, the mentorship we rendered throughout the designathon, did help us to look at workshop differently. It serves as a platform for a party to learn from another. The icing on the cake though, is how much we have unlearned and reflected on how we look at:

Assumptions, Technology, Simplicity

This was indeed a great exercise for us to tinker through the possible ways of conducting more effective workshops subsequently. It resonates with the idea of tinkering, and that’s what Design Tinker sets up to do: improve things through continuous human understanding, called empathy.

Check out the designathon video here, and thanks to aCAT Penang for inviting us to conduct the workshop.

As a minimalist consultant, Design Tinker aspires to do things differently — We help solve problems by putting people first. Our audience includes young kids, college students, startups, SME and corporates. Follow us on our Facebook page where we share our tinker stories.

This article was first published on Medium.com.

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