What Is Design Thinking?
If you are an avid follower of leading design trends, you’ve likely come across the theory of design thinking. While not exclusively for designers, multiple fields have adopted design thinking like computer science, technology, engineering, business, music, literature, and art. So, what is this method of creative, human-oriented, and innovative thinking?
In simple terms, design thinking is about understanding the humans for whom today’s products are designed. Design thinking puts human consideration back into product design, problem-solving, and business strategies. In addition, this process seeks to understand how humans encounter problems and how to challenge assumptions about the ways we operate. At the end of the design thinking process, participants emerge with new solutions, ideas, and lessons for moving forward.
The most popular Design Thinking technique is the five-phase process originated by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University.
- Empathize: Understand who your users are.
- Define: Understand what your users need, what their problems are, and what insights you can bring.
- Ideate: Generate ideas for solutions to your users’ problems.
- Prototype: Start creating the solution.
- Test: Pilot your solution to your users and see how effective it is.
While this process does occur in five phases, they do not have to take place in the same order. In fact, the theory of design thinking encourages participants to repeat phases, pilot them together, go back, rearrange, start over. Design thinking strives to break away from hierarchies, sequences, and structured steps. It’s in this innovation that truly effective solutions can have the space to emerge.
One of the reasons that design thinking has become so popular is because it’s a process that focuses on the user. In a world that’s driven by efficiency, design thinking allows the opportunity to challenge common assumptions and identify alternative solutions to problems that might not be immediately visible. It adds a human element to web design, among other disciplines. Concurrently, design thinking is unique in that it constantly seeks the best solution to common problems by looking not for the most efficient solution, but for the best solution for a multitude of users.
Design thinking has an intense focus on understanding the people who use a product or service, like a website. It uses tenets like empathy, questioning, introspection, and redefining to create solutions to user problems that work. By using strategies like brainstorming, hands-on prototyping, and sketching, design thinking allows professionals to find the best solution to a problem, ultimately leading to superior products and services.
By introducing design-thinking concepts, strategies, and exercises into the office, you can encourage your team to break free of the mundane and begin exploring new and creative solutions.
What Design Thinking Is Not
Design thinking is an admittedly vague and amorphous concept. To better understand it, it can be helpful to think of what it’s not. Each of us has a genetically hardwired ability to learn based on accessing commonly held knowledge and shaping through repetitive actions or behavior. From an evolutionary standpoint, this helps us make quick decisions that could be the difference between life and death. However, this ingrained decision-making process is not always necessary and could prevent us from seeing innovative and better solutions to problems.
These hierarchical sets of commonly held knowledge are called schemas. These schemas become more focused as we become older and learn more, and are the reason that a young toddler might refer to all furry, four-legged creatures as a “dog.” As we become older and wiser, our schemas become more specific, allowing us to draw faster conclusions and create more complex patterns of thought.
However, our ingrained schemas also work against us. In other words, the natural tendency to reach a quick solution can obstruct a better one to a problem. Design thinking is not hierarchical thinking, and it does not apply our ingrained expertise to a problem. Instead, in layman’s terms, we can think of design thinking as simply “thinking outside of the box,” where a box is a schema.
Problem Solving With Design Thinking
It sounds simple enough: if you want to develop an innovative solution to a problem, think outside of the box. However, this is an exercise that takes time, as by definition it challenges our normal thought process. Here’s an example of design thinking in action, using a hypothetical situation:
A truck driver tried to pass under a bridge for which his truck did not have the clearance. Predictably, he got stuck and was unable to reverse out or move forward. As traffic began to snarl and create long backups, more experts began to arrive on the scene – first responders, engineers, firefighters, and even other truck drivers, all offering their own solutions to the problem. The emergency workers suggested cutting out a section of the bridge, the engineer suggested readjusting the cargo to provide clearance. All the options were in line with each area of expertise, commensurate with each party’s experience and mode of thinking.
In this hypothetical story, a boy rides by on his bike and observes the debate, each with its own costly and involved method of extricating the truck from the bridge. He looks at the truck, and asks, “Why not let the air out of the truck’s tires?” A young child, not constrained by the “expertise” of hierarchical thinking, did what a team of experts could not: come to an obvious, and effective, conclusion.
This story emphasizes two important points: first, that we have a tendency to become invested so fully in our own area of expertise that it’s hard for us to approach a problem with a fresh perspective. Secondly, that by taking an outside view, we can develop the best solution to a problem by releasing the constraints of our own making.
The Five Stages in the Design Thinking Process
In order to break these self-imposed constraints, it’s helpful to break the design thinking process down into stages. Having a process will help reach that innovative perspective that allows for the best solution. Keep in mind, however, that this process is both iterative and non-linear. Fittingly, there is no hierarchical process involved in design thinking. That’s part of what makes it so hard to accomplish, but also part of what makes it so effective. You should constantly review and revisit these steps as you tackle problems involved with a product or service.
When you begin the design thinking process, you will need to deepen your understanding of the problem which you are trying to solve. To this end, you will need to engage in the Empathize stage.
During this stage, you will collect information on the problem at hand to use during the next few phases of the process. The first essential step is to set your own assumptions about the world and the situation to gain an accurate picture of the issue. You will develop a deeper understanding of your users, the issues they face, and the needs they are looking to fulfill. With this information, you can start developing ideas for products and services that could make your users’ lives easier.
The empathize part of the design thinking process may involve consulting experts in the matter – in web design, this doesn’t mean the designers, but your users. They’re the ones engaging with the product most often and are hence the best source of information regarding the issue. At its core, the empathy stage allows thinkers to properly assess the needs of the user, which in turn helps with the defining stage of the problem.
Remember that these stages do not need to occur in order, but you do need to formally define the problem in terms of an average user. Typically, this occurs after researching the issues and involves using a problem statement or series of statements. Defining the problem in this stage will help your team discover new ideas for solving it later. This problem must be defined in a human-centric way, however, and not through the lens of your company.
For example, instead of saying, “We need to drive our sales for our heavy jackets,” define the problem as, “The weather is getting colder and people need heavy jackets to survive the winter.”
Design thinking has a solid basis in rationality, but it flips a general business assumption on its head to create a holistic view of the common problems a human faces. It uses empathy to identify with human beings, rather than a bottom line. This involves some introspection but also an examination of vague concepts such as emotions, motivation, needs, and wants. Defining a problem using these subjective sets of notions allows for the ideation of solutions based on the actions, thoughts, and preferences of actual users.
Once you’ve defined the problem, you can begin to generate ideas for solutions. With research and a clearly defined goal in front of you, you can start to think outside of the box to create innovative solutions.
The goal of this phase is to find a way to solve the issue or help people avoid it. You can use any brainstorming techniques that work for you during this process. You can also collaborate with your colleagues to learn more ideation processes.
Ideation is arguably one of the most exciting aspects of design thinking, especially when facilitated in a productive way. In a sense, you can think of ideation as “casting a wide net.” By throwing out a vast number of ideas, your team can begin to generate even better, more innovative ideas, starting the process of thinking outside of the box. From there, you can narrow down ideas to the best options. This allows your team to look beyond the typical solutions to a problem – the one you glean from hierarchical knowledge – and find better, more elegant, and more fitting solutions to a user problem at hand.
Next, your team will develop small, inexpensive prototypes of the solutions you came up with during the Ideate stage. You can test and share these prototypes with your team, department, or outside the office. You will gain insight into the effectiveness of the product before creating the complete version. Here, you may find it necessary to cycle back to earlier parts of the process, such as redefining the problem or even seeking a deeper, more empathetic look at your user and their problems. Perhaps the prototyping phase brings out other issues or provides more insight that merits consideration.
The final stage of the design thinking process is to test the complete product for its effectiveness. After the testing stage, you can alter, refine, redefine, or even recreate the solution. Whatever happens during this phase, you will develop a deeper understanding of your products, solutions, and users – which will benefit you in future use.
It’s important to understand that design thinking is for everyone. Often reserved for the “creative” professions, it has a place in every level of business. Everyone can benefit from using this thought process to break free from the self-imposed restrictions of “expertise” and approach a problem from a fresh perspective. To further illustrate the subject, it can be helpful to rely on examples and exercises that you can apply in your workplace and incorporate design thinking into everyday practice.
Design Thinking in the Workplace
Design thinking focuses on creative action to solve problems faced by humans. It can help digital marketers create new ideas in a low-risk, stress-free environment. It can help businesses and organizations grow and learn faster as well as create long-lasting solutions.
When done correctly, design thinking exercises can help your team:
- Understand the needs of your customers.
- Think of the different opportunities for business that can provide these needs.
- Understand how your customer base thinks.
- Develop creative ideas for new marketing solutions.
- Start developing strategies, guidelines, and anchors to help direct your products, designs, and advertisements.
- Foster a creative, entrepreneurial mindset among your team members.
Sample Design Thinking Activity
Follow this exercise to practice design thinking strategies with your marketing team. Divide your team into groups of two or three.
First, warm up with an exercise that fosters human connection. This is a foundational principle of design thinking, and you want to bring your team into that mindset. A simple game to play is Clap, Snap, Stomp.
- In pairs, have each person take turns counting to three. Person 1 will say “one,” Person 2 will say “two,” Person 1 will say “three,” Person 2 will say “one,” and so on.
- Let the pairs practice counting off for one minute.
- Stop the pairs and tell them to replace saying “one” by snapping. For example, Person 1 will snap, Person 2 will say “two,” Person 1 will say “three,” and Person 2 will snap again.
- Let the pairs practice for a few minutes. If they mess up, tell them to keep going!
- For the next round, replace “two” with a clap. Have the pairs practice.
- For the final round, replace “three” with a stomp. One remains a snap and two remains a clap. The order should be: Person 1 snaps, Person 2 claps, Person 1 stomps, Person 2 snaps…
After the exercise is over and your teammates are experiencing a greater sense of bonding, you can move into the main design thinking activity.
1. Prior to the activity, write a handful of scenarios. Make enough scenarios to assign at least two teams to each scenario. Make sure each one has a clearly defined user and a problem or set of problems the user needs help solving.
2. Hand out the scenarios to pairs at random. Each scenario should have multiple pairs assigned to it.
3. Have each pair work through the design thinking process and create their own solutions.
4. Next, tell the pairs to find the other group(s) that have the same scenario.
5. In the larger groups, have the teams discuss their individual solutions.
6. Next, have the teams work through the design thinking process again to create another group solution.
7. At the end of the exercise, have the groups read their scenario aloud, discuss the solutions they produced during the pair exercise, and discuss the solutions they produced during the large group exercise.
8. Following this session, have a full team discussion on the design thinking process. Consider these questions:
- What worked about the process?
- What didn’t work?
- What did you enjoy about this activity? Is there anything you didn’t enjoy?
- Was this activity helpful? Why or why not?
- How could we incorporate this mode of thinking into our workplace?
- How can we apply this process to our current work?
- Do you think design thinking is helpful? Why or why not?
- What could make this process stronger?
- What could make this process more helpful for our company?
Design thinking is an innovative and useful tool for crafting compelling solutions to common human problems.