An intro to Design Thinking

My team and I love Design Thinking. Like really love it. Which is good, I suppose, given that it’s a core focus of our job — going around and introducing others to the concept, and then helping them apply it to various business challenges they’re trying to solve. We live and breathe it in everything we do, both professionally and personally, because it’s just one of those things that can’t be “turned off” once you know it. We often joke that it’s something akin to that scene from The Matrix where Neo is offered two pills. One pill — the blue one — makes him go back to sleep and continue living the life he always has. The other one — a red pill — opens his eyes to the world around him so that he can see things as they truly are. That might be a little extreme as an example, but it’s not too far from the truth — once you’ve seen the benefit of taking a user-centric approach to problem solving, you can’t help but notice all the instances in which people don’t do it!

Given our obsession with design thinking, we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that not everyone is as familiar as we are. In fact, it’s probably a fair assumption that lots of people have never even heard of it (gasp!). Well, if you’re one of those people, fear not, this post is for you.

So, what is design thinking?

IDEO, the company widely credited with inventing design thinking, defines it simply as “a process for creative problem solving”, but let’s go a little deeper.

At its core, design thinking is a methodology for solving human-centered problems. A human-centered problem being one which directly involves a human being — usually your customer or user. So for example, while design thinking can’t help you figure out how to solve that algebra equation your kid brought home from school (what’s a coefficient again?), it can help you figure out how to improve the usability of your website. The difference being that the former problem doesn’t have a human at the center of it, whereas the latter does — the one that’s trying to navigate your site.

While design thinking is often associated with the development of physical or digital products, it can also be applied to more experiential problems, like improving the efficiency of your customer service hotline. It’s even been used to come up with solutions to things like hunger, poverty and how to get drinking water to a remote third-world village. Anything that has a human being at the center of it.

How does it work?

While incredibly powerful when done correctly, design thinking isn’t particularly complex or difficult. It’s really about simple mindset shifts and ways of asking questions differently.

Design thinking can be applied in any number of ways, but the standard flow goes something like this…

Empathize: One of the fundamental cornerstones of design thinking, the logic goes that ‘in order to truly solve for your user, you first need to put yourself in their shoes’. This is done by gathering data — qualitative data from something like an interview generally being the best suited for this step — in order to really immerse yourself in the experience that your users are having. This is critical to the process, and is the only way to keep teams from solving for themselves, or based on their own assumptions.

Define: Upon immersing yourself in the experience of your users, you’ll then clearly define who specifically they are and what problems they have. Most products or services have multiple user types they need to cater to, so this step helps to narrow your focus on the one or two you’re most interested in solving for in the near term.

Ideate: Next, you’ll start to come up with solutions to that user’s problems, confident that those ideas are grounded in real data. You’d be amazed how many projects just jump to this part of the process, getting people together in a conference room to brainstorm ideas based on a potentially made-up problem that hasn’t been validated.

Prototype: Once you’ve settled on an idea or two, it’s time to prototype. The idea here is to quickly build something that you can use to learn whether or not you’re on the right track.

Test: Finally, it’s time to test your idea… with real users! Using your prototype, you’ll find out whether or not people understand your idea, and whether or not they like it. These findings then feed back into the process such that it’s continually iterative.

What design thinking isn’t

We’ve seen design thinking help teams come up with truly innovative solutions time and again. It’s an invaluable tool, and can be applied to a huge range of problems, but it’s worth noting some of the most common misconceptions people have.

Design thinking isn’t something only designers can do. While plenty of creative-types leverage design thinking in their roles, it’s something that absolutely anyone can do. It doesn’t require a degree in graphic design, just a commitment to the process and a passion for solving problems.

It’s not a ‘check the box’ activity. It’s not something you just insert as an additional step within your existing process, because design thinking is an entire process in of itself. You can’t just “throw it” at a problem you’re trying to solve. Properly leveraging design thinking means truly shifting you and your team’s mindset and re-evaluating the fundamental way in which you solve problems. In many instances, it also means being open to the possibility that the problem you’re trying to solve isn’t actually the right one.

It’s not something you can rush. While it’s entirely possible to navigate most of the process in just a few days, the Empathize phase in particular generally takes some time. It’s not always easy to identify a representative subset of your users, and once you do, you then need to schedule some time to talk in-depth with each of them. Mind you, we’re not talking about months here, but it’s not unusual for it to take a few weeks to gather valuable, usable data. And since this data is the basis of everything else you’ll do in the subsequent steps, it’s not something you can skimp on.

It doesn’t assume any particular solution. We often see teams who already have a solution in mind — maybe a new technology or tool they’ve come across — and who are working to find a problem to align it with. Design thinking is focused first and foremost on identifying the problem, and only then pivoting to ideas as to what solutions might help to solve it.

It doesn’t shy away from failure. Design thinking is an iterative process, meaning the underlying assumption is that you won’t get it 100% right the first time. We sometimes find that teams coming out of one of our workshops have determined that the idea they prototyped and tested isn’t one that ultimately solved the problem. That’s fantastic! Learning that something won’t work is just as valuable as learning that something will — especially when you’ve come to that realization after just two days and a few hundred post-it notes. Think of the cost involved had that idea been fully built and launched before realizing it wasn’t hitting the mark.

Like Neo, after taking the red pill, there’s no going back to the old way of doing things once you’ve seen the benefit of taking a user-centric approach. The most successful teams put their user at the center of all they do, and ensure that each and every decision that’s made can be mapped back to the problems they’re trying to solve for. It’s truly a way of thinking as much as it is a process, but it can lead to some incredible insights when used properly. It’s just a matter of choosing the right pill.