Buzzwords for beginners . . . Design Thinking

Design Thinking

It’s a commonly held misconception that to ‘make your millions’ all you need is one good idea. But the truth is that to succeed you’re probably going to need a lot more than that. Success often requires some financial backing, a lot of determination and to be honest some sheer luck. But there’s no denying that everything great starts with a good idea…

But where the hell does that idea come from?

Introducing Design Thinking 😉

Design thinking first came to prominence in the late 1950s and early 1960s as an attempt to boost the creativity of engineers by getting them to think more like designers.

Design thinking was initially implemented in building, product and machinery design.

Design thinking represents a post-industrial shift in mindset. Rather than thinking “what are we building and how can we do it more efficiently?’ businesses instead began to think ‘what problem are we looking to solve for the user?’

Design thinking has in-turn been described as a design methodology, a problem-solving process and a user-centric framework for innovation and creativity.

Companies like IBM have built lucrative side businesses selling corporate training courses and certificates in design thinking. These have in-turn grown the popularity and application of design thinking outside of its traditional domains.

Today, design thinking has many prominent advocates including Airbnb, Apple and Uber who have used design thinking frameworks to produce market-changing innovations.

How to use Design Thinking in Your Business

The following five phases provide the most generally agreed-upon framework for implementing a design thinking project. It’s important to note that this is a non-linear, non-prescriptive journey where flexibility is essential to enhance creativity.

#1 – Empathy

The first step in the design thinking framework is empathy. In this phase, empathy is developed for the person who you’re trying to serve. You might go into the design thinking journey with a very clear idea of the challenges faced by your customers. You might only have a very vague idea of their challenges or you may even have no idea at all!

Either way design thinking demands that you put aside everything you think you know.

Empathy is the ability to see the world through the eyes of others. To develop empathy you start with understanding – through research, observations or simple conversations.

As you learn more your empathy will grow and you’ll uncover the needs of others, the problems which they face and, perhaps most valuable, the dreams which they hold dear.

There are various tools that can be used to assist with empathy-building including user journey mapping, empathy mapping and customer persona creation.

Put aside everything you think you know.

#2 – Define

Once you’ve gathered all the information and gained a level of empathy with your audience it’s time to define it. This is a collaborative process where all members reflect on what they’ve learnt, discuss and make use of their own experiences and perspectives.

The result of this process can be a list of user stories such as:

  • As a (type of user) I want/need to (goal) so that (reason).
  • As a remote workerI want human interaction so that I don’t feel isolated.

Or a list of point-of-view problem statements such as:

  • A (user) needs to (their need) because (insight).
  • A backpacker needs to stay warm because she spends long periods of time waiting in cold airport transit lounges, windswept train stations and dank bus stations.

The format you choose to define your ideas in doesn’t really matter. The key is to take a collaborative approach, agree on the core insights and get everything down in writing.

#3 – Ideate

The next phase of design thinking is to come up with the ideas. In this stage, the information from the previous two stages is used as a starting point to generate ideas or solutions. Again it is very important that this is approached in a collaborative and open way. Judgement is the enemy of creativity – no idea should be considered off-limits.

The key is to generate as many diverse ideas as possible. You can refine them later.

Common means of ideation include word association, brainstorming and mind mapping. It’s always worthwhile asking those involved in the process of what ideation techniques they have successfully used in the past. Or check out these popular ideation techniques.

Generate as many ideas as possible. you can refine them later.

#4 – Prototype

The prototype phase is where a scaled-down version of the final product or service is created. Prototypes are not just for physical products but can also be created for websites, online services etc. For social impact or wider-reaching projects, a market test can be conducted: eg. a new school lunch menu could be rolled out to just one school.

Recent technological advances, such as augmented and virtual reality allow for truly impressive user-centric prototypes. For example, an augmented reality car prototype allows a designer or customer the experience of actually sitting in the driver’s seat.

#5 – Test

Now that you’ve a prototype it’s time to test it! Get some customers in or better yet take your prototype out into the real world. Make sure that you know what you’re testing for. The question you want an answer to is not ‘do they think it’s cool?’ but ‘is this the solution to their problem?’ Don’t just ask testers but also observe them using the prototype.

Be prepared for unexpected outcomes. For example, perhaps your prototype is solving the user’s problem but maybe it is also creating an entirely new problem. Maybe it’s working but not as well as it could. Or perhaps, your prototype is having an unintended additional positive outcome – and it’s addressing a need you didn’t even know existed.

During this phase, it’s often necessary to go back to earlier stages including empathy, define or ideate to resolve issues discovered in the prototype. Don’t fight this – design thinking is not a linear process. An iterative and flexible approach is recommended.

design thinking is not a linear process

Is Design Thinking worth it?

Yes. Design thinking is a great way of stimulating innovation. The success of design thinking relies heavily on employee buy-in. A collaborative approach must be taken and participants must remain open-minded, empathetic and be comfortable with ambiguity.

A design thinking project can easily fail due to unrealistic or judgmental management expectations. It’s also important to guard against the development of cynicism. This can often set in when creative solutions are either compromised or not brought to market due to budgetary or other pragmatic concerns.

Read the first edition of our Buzzwords for beginners series . . . Growth Hacking.