Design Thinking: Not Just For Designers (Part 1)

How to Introduce Design Thinking to Your Entire Organization in a Fun, Hands-On Way

Written by: Pearl Chen

Typically applied to product or service design, the term “design thinking” has been on the rise since the 70s and was especially popularized by design agency IDEO in the 90s.

Design thinking is not one singular process but rather a set of creative strategies to help with problem solving. Some of these strategies could include user interviews, observational studies, customer journey mapping, and prototyping.

From the iconic “shopping cart” challenge from ABC Nightline in 1999, you can see how IDEO applies design thinking in order to redesign the shopping cart in 5 days.

More info about this broadcast: https://www.ideo.com/post/reimagining-the-shopping-cart

Despite having a team from diverse backgrounds, no one at IDEO starts off as a shopping cart expert so they “get out of the building” to interview and observe grocery shoppers and stakeholders. This human-centered design process improves customer insights which can result in increased idea generation.

The IDEO team then goes through a rapid prototyping phase where actual, physical shopping cart prototypes are built so ideas can be tested rather than theorized. Peter Skillman is quoted saying in the video at 5:11, “Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of a lone genius.” In other words, instead of following a classic waterfall project with a goal set by “the boss”, continuous testing and feedback builds better products.


Why design thinking is for everyone

I was formerly a full-time developer and have seen the organizational silos that can be created between designers, developers, and business. I believe that continually asking Why? and being empathetic with the end user has made me a better developer and helped me build better solutions. Asking why and getting to the root of the problem helps me focus on what’s important rather than simply outputting more code and building features that don’t matter.

Design thinking can be applied by anyone — not just someone with the word “designer” in their title.

Design thinking is used in varying capacities by large companies including IBM, Google, Apple, and Microsoft, and by small companies such as design agencies and tech startups. It has even been used in government and health care to design better public services.


Introducing design thinking to your organization

I first came across the design thinking crash course created by the Stanford University d.school at a conference. I was in the room next door and every 5 minutes music would start playing and the voices of what seemed like 100 excited people started talking. Was there a party going on next door?

I dropped by and observed the crash course in action. Everyone was paired up, with pieces of paper and pen in hand, and they were working on a hands-on exercise. Participants were very engaged with the content — this is the type of learning experience that sticks with people.

The presenter (Rachel Kalmar, a Standford d.school alumi) told me that all the worksheets required and a step-by-step facilitator’s guide with talking points to run this same workshop are available free online!

An example page from the d.school design thinking crash course facilitator’s guide.

The d.school has two variations of their crash course: The Gift-Giving Project and The Wallet Project.

Both follow the same problem solving process as proposed by the d.school: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.

Each of these steps align with hands-on activities in the worksheet.

I’ve since facilitated variations of this same workshop with three other groups and have had really good responses each time so I thought it would be perfect for hosting at Connected.


What happened

We chose The Wallet Project variation to run at Connected, with 40 participants working in pairs.

Over the course of the hour, participants took turns interviewing each other about their wallets to gain empathy for each other and identify key pain points. They brainstormed solutions and they sketched out ideas. In the spirit of “show, don’t tell,” they presented to their partners and listened to their feedback without judgement.

After the workshop, we found wall space to post everyone’s sketches. Of course, the goal of this exercise is not to come up with brilliant ideas but to gain hands-on experience with design thinking so everyone can incorporate it into their everyday interactions with each other and clients.


The feedback

Here’s what some participants had to say about the workshop afterwards.

Josh, Software Engineer

Born out of his partner’s fashion style, Josh’s design was a wallet integrated into a boot. Stores could get an adapter that connected to their point of sales system and the boot wearer would stomp or kick to pay.

In Josh’s words:

“My partner hated wallets. This exercise was challenging because I was given the pre-conceived notion of designing a wallet. But you don’t want to design a wallet, you want to design a solution to fit your partner’s needs. Something so she can get around, pay for stuff, and get into places that require ID. It was taking the core of what a wallet is, as opposed to the wallet itself.”

Yas, Software Engineer

Josh and Yas were partnered up (those are her boots pictured above). Yas’ idea for Josh was a mobile app for payments and IDs. After getting feedback from her partner however, she realized how necessary having cash on hand was for him. In addition to the app, Yas designed a thin, discreet cash holder that could be stuck onto and hidden into clothing

In Yas’ words:

“It was just so hard to come up with something out of the box, something new. I was so stuck on the idea of an actual wallet. The time limits on the sketching exercises, and the encouragement to go for volume of ideas, forced me to be more creative.”

Joel, Senior Account Executive

Joel’s partner had a fear of losing his wallet due to the tedious process of replacing cards and IDs. Joel envisioned a smartphone companion app that connected to a real wallet. If a card was removed from the wallet for too long, the app would alert the wallet owner. If the card was deemed missing, integrations with banks and government services could seamlessly start the card replacement process.

In Joel’s words:

“The first sketch I did, I wasn’t really listening to my partner. It wasn’t until I started asking my partner what does a wallet do for him — really driving at the job-to-be-done — and his fears of losing a wallet, that I was able to come up with this idea.

The biggest thing this exercise did for me was that it forced me to separate what I thought my ideal wallet was, from what my partner’s perfect wallet was. It was a challenge finding the right questions to ask that weren’t just going to lead my partner into saying the answers I wanted to hear.

I’m in sales and the lesson I learnt was to ask the right questions. Questions are a huge part of selling and they are a huge part of building trust in our capabilities as a company when speaking to potential and existing clients. It’s important to have that perspective, of what is the right question to ask to satisfy the needs of the client or the particular situation, not just my own.”

As you can see, this fun workshop impacted everyone at Connected even without formal design training.


How to run a design thinking workshop at your organization

Excited to participate in or run a design thinking workshop at your organization? Stay tuned for Part 2 next week in which I’ll detail step-by-step instructions on running your own successful design thinking workshop.


Pearl works in developer relations and is currently an internal training consultant at Connected. She likes to mix coding, hardware, design, and education together. Bonus if food is involved!

Thanks to Jacky Li, maia.rowan , and Clara Lomas for editing.


Connected Lab is a product innovation and delivery firm. Our mission is to build better products. We are digital natives and have helped ship some of the most disruptive products of the last decade.

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