Understanding Design Thinking

See also: Innovation Skills

Design thinking is certainly not the province of designers alone. It is a process that has its roots in the way that designers work, but which is now used to create new and innovative solutions to problems in any sphere. It places people—and particularly the end-users of products or services—at the heart of problem-solving. This allows designers and innovators to reframe big, intractable problems in a different way.

Ultimately, design thinking aims to address users’ needs in a way that is both technologically and economically viable. Many of the big tech companies are known to have used design thinking, including Apple, Google and Airbnb. It is generally considered to be especially good for problems that are not very well-defined or clear, because it allows a more creative approach to innovation. This page discusses the purpose of design thinking, and the five phases of the process.

Defining Design Thinking

Designers have developed a number of techniques to avoid being captured by too facile a solution. They take the original problem as a suggestion, not as a final statement, then think broadly about what the real issues underlying this problem statement might really be… Most important of all, is that the process is iterative and expansive. Designers resist the temptation to jump immediately to a solution to the stated problem.

Don Norman, who coined the expression design thinking.

Design thinking…

“…is an iterative process in which you seek to understand your users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions which you can prototype and test.”

Source: Interaction Design Foundation

“…has a human-centered core. It encourages organizations to focus on the people they're creating for, which leads to better products, services, and processes. When you sit down to create a solution for a business need, the first question should always be what's the human need behind it?”

Source: ideou.com blog

The Benefits of Design Thinking

Why do companies choose to use design thinking rather than any other approach to problem-solving?

Design thinking often provides new ways of thinking about questions. It also means that those who are not trained as designers can get involved in the creative process. Benefits from using the design thinking process include:

  • A better understanding of your users’ needs, and particularly their unmet needs;
  • Decreased risk in launching new products or services;
  • The ability to create solutions that are revolutionary, not evolutionary (and for more about what this means, have a look at our page on Innovation Skills);
  • Iterating faster through possible solutions, and learning lessons quicker; and
  • Collaborating better across teams and groups.

Three Elements to Design Thinking

Design thinking allows companies to bring together three key elements in their innovations:

  • Desirability: what people want from this product, and what makes sense for and from it;

  • Feasibility: what is technologically possible at this moment in time; and

  • Viability: what is economically possible as part of a sustainable business model.

Design Thinking Elements Venn Diagram

As the diagram shows, there are likely to be many things that users want that are not technically possible, or not economically viable. Similarly, there are many things that can be done, but which people do not want, or which do not form part of a sustainable business model. Indeed, the world of business is littered with examples of these products, such as the Sinclair C5.

The ‘sweet spot’ of innovation—or indeed, problem-solving more generally—lies in the middle of the Venn diagram, where all three elements come together.

A Five-Phase Process

The process of design thinking involves five phases:

  • Empathise to understand your users’ needs

    The first step is about understanding your users’ needs—but not simply through logic. A more empathetic understanding is essential. Put yourself into your users’ shoes, set aside your own assumptions, and experience their world as they see it. You want genuine insights into and a real understanding of the problems that they experience, and how they experience them.

    You can find out more about this in our page on Empathy.

    It is crucial to involve your users in this process. You cannot get any insights into their world without talking to them. You might interview them, or use focus groups to understand more—but you have to talk to them and hear their own words.

  • Define your users’ needs and problems

    Once you have gathered information about your users’ needs and issues, and understand more, you can start to define the need or problem.

    It is important during this stage to keep your users at the front of your mind to ensure that the process remains human-centred. Keep checking back with your users to make sure that you have understood the problem correctly.

    At this stage, you may find that analytical skills are useful in sifting and considering the information that you have gathered.
  • Ideate to create new ideas and challenge assumptions

    You now have a clear statement of the problem that you are trying to solve, and a good understanding of how your users experience that problem.

    You can now start to generate ideas to solve the problem.

    It is generally helpful to think as creatively as possible about the problem. It is also valuable to keep asking questions. Crucially, don’t stop when you think you have got to an answer. Keep asking questions and exploring the idea further. Make sure that you don’t start making more assumptions by continually questioning your own thoughts and beliefs.

    You may find our page on Creative Thinking Techniques is helpful in finding new ways to approach a problem. It explains about well-known techniques such as brainstorming, as well as providing ways to get your creative ‘right brain’ involved.
  • Prototype and start to create solutions

    Once you have plenty of ideas for solutions, the next step is to start experimenting with models and prototypes.

    This stage is all about trying things out. Your models can be very simple, and even cover only part of the solution. The point is to see what is possible, and how you might be able to deliver some of your ideas in the real world.

    Prototypes do not have to be physical products. You can prototype on paper, or even by building new teams to test organisational structures. This stage can be as imaginative as any other phase in the design thinking process.

  • Test your solutions with your users

    Once you have some prototypes, you need to test them.

    You should of course test them with your users. However, you may also want to put them through other tests, such as strength or feasibility testing, or try making them from different substances.

    As you go through the testing process, new information will emerge, and you are likely to want to go back to previous stages. For example, you may want to iterate your ideas further, or consider the problem again from another angle.

    This is not just acceptable—it is completely desirable (see box).

    Design thinking is not a cyclical or linear process

    It would be a mistake to think of design thinking as a linear or even circular process.

    Instead, it is best to think of it as iterative. You need to go backwards and forwards across the phases, using whichever is most appropriate at the time. You do not necessarily need to go back or forward only one phase; instead, you might jump two or even three depending on your need.

A Process for Everyone

Perhaps the most important message about design thinking is that it is NOT only for designers.

In fact, Don Norman coined the phrase to explain the idea that others should use the same process as designers when problem-solving. He saw designers’ way of thinking as the ideal creative process, and wanted others, including engineers and business teams, to use the same approach.

The final message is that it is crucial to involve as many people as possible in your innovation processes. You should therefore try to embed the ideas behind design thinking into your organisation as a whole.

The combination of empathetic inquiry and rational analysis is hugely beneficial to the organisation, to individual employees, and to customers.