Design Thinking: A Primer

You might’ve heard of Design Thinking or Human-Centered Design! Or, maybe you or your colleagues have been trained in the method.

I’ve heard a big handful of questions lately on what Design Thinking IS, which is absolutely a question we can answer. This article seeks to share some easy definitions in a way that hopefully everyone can understand.

Design Thinking answers the question, “Uhh…. so what do we do now?” when something new arises, either as an opportunity, a risk, a threat, problem, or potential upside.

Sepecifically, Design Thinking is a way of approaching problems to create and validate workable solutions.

It follows a few specific rules/steps:

  1. Start with “Who” (Empathize)
  2. Define the problem they’re solving (before attaching to a single solution) (Define)
  3. Create LOTS of ideas to go about solving any single problem statement — including ideas generated from many people, and often combinations of early ideas and solutions (Ideate)
  4. Test proposed solutions quickly & cheaply (Prototype) — creating minimum viable sketches or draft versions early in the process, before investing a whole lot of time and money (and loyalty) into a single solution, and
  5. Test with users to validate results (Test), abstaining from the more typical approaches of “let’s debate about it,” “convincing each other,” or “going with the HI.P.P.O.” (HIghest Paid Person’s Opinion) in favor of real results from real users. This works because actual reality, the one we experience with real customers, is always more reliable than our models of reality. In this economy, it’s particularly valuable as so many things are now changing so quickly.

There are a lot of things Design Thinking is not, too.

What Design Thinking is Not:

  1. It’s not a wishy-washy business buzz-term. In the school of thought created and practiced by Tom Chi and the user research team at GoogleX, it IS easily and clearly possible to tell distinguish whether a team is utilizing the approach. It’s not just an amorphous business concept like “synergy” — what the hell is synergy anyway? — where anybody might be doing it or not, at any time, because you can ask some really quick questions to figure out if it’s ACTUALLY what’s happening or not (in other words, innovation? or innovation theater?). If someone uses DT in a way that sounds buzz-wordy, ask: (1) Who are you designing for? (2) What did you test this week, (3) When’s your next test and who are you looking for, and (4) What are you learning? If they don’t have an answer or can’t create one, they might not be in the actual world of Design Thinking.
  2. It’s not a theoretical science. Design Thinking has some theory and writing to it, but it’s not meant to be learned or absorbed through reading — the real trick is to think by *doing.* If you really want to get a handle on design thinking process, create a prototype and test it with some friends — you can even ask them to play the role of your target user, to get some practice with the method before you run a real user test with real people. If this sounds confusing or interesting, post in the comments — I’ll write a future article on how to do this, but you heard it here, folks — action is the key.
  3. It’s not a graphic design or aesthetic creation process. Design Thinking is REALLY not about aesthetics or how things look, though lots of design thinkers look weird or cool or take care to dress for their work in a way that keeps things curious and upbeat and doesn’t create too much of a “traditional business-folks” perception that might alienate those they’re working with. Design Thinking is all about usability and functionality — what do we need to create to get X job done, to make Y product work for Z user, to accomplish T objective? You do NOT need to be an artist or graphic designer, or understand computers or even pixels to practice Design Thinking. It’s as useful in the analog/non-digital world as it is on the web.

Design Thinking in Practice: When Might One Use it?

A very simple illustration on how Design Thinking might be used is one I frequently share with my dad. I ask, “What if TV Remote Control companies gave you a sample/dummy remote to try using with the TV, before investing gobs of money into officially producing and manufacturing the whole thing?”

In other words, what if Remote Control designers brought the first sample of their remote control product to their own dad or parent on Christmas, then watched and took notes as (s)he floundered about, cussing in the frustrated hunt for the “Menu” button or “Record to DVR” as the show starts unapologetically (without theme song even playing)?

Design thinking as an approach would have the product designer do just that — get right up close with a solution’s user ASAP, then truly listen to how, where, why and “what for” they’re using the product, and gleaning deeper insight through the whole process on the user’s REAL dream for the item. They’d then play around with the implementation of that object, ideally making lightweight changes in realtime, to explore in reality how the product needs to shift in order to effectively serve the user’s needs (without a bunch of yelling, product manuals, or in-person troubleshooting or explaining).

In general, whenever a user laments that they’re clearly too stupid to use a product, the product could reeeeeaaaaaaally benefit from some human-centered design or Design Thinking-aligned work.

And SO many fewer projects, change initiatives, products, and product experiences — and new launches — would cause cascades of cussing (and ultimately waste a ton of money and flop on launch day) if we actually took the time to test our assumptions about how people use objects & opportunities, before investing all the money in actually building a thing.

And your company could survive (longer)!

And what if the social sector and philanthropy got on board with that all too?

Who can learn?

Literally anyone can learn. You don’t need to be a manager, but you can be. You don’t need to be an executive or a philanthropist, but you can be. You don’t need to be a technologist, but you can be.

Social sector, private sector, financial sector.. literally anyone whose work (or hopeful work) affects other people in this world can benefit from and be more effective in the results they want to accomplish, both in work and in teams and in life, as a result of this toolkit.

And given globalization, that’s pretty much everyone.

Design Thinking In Practice: What Does It Feel Like?

When you use the 5 basic steps of Design Thinking to guide your work (1. Empathize, 2. Define, 3. Ideate, 4. Prototype, 5. Test), there’s definitely a distinctive experience that crops up. It’s definitely not the same as arguing with your colleagues on the Engineering Team in a room, or taking endless changes from the Design Director, or hearing your boss or executive sponsor say they had a dream last night, and as of this morning they are absolutely certain the homepage background should now be blue.

Design thinking as a process feels:

  • Iterative
  • Lightweight
  • Collaborative
  • Fun, and
  • Experimental —

And of course,

  • Uncertain.

… because you’re absolutely utilizing this process to deal more productively and rationally with the deliberately-chosen realm of the unknown!

That’s right! Design Thinking has us give up the certainty of the back-and-forth rationalization and internet research game, giving us tools and a new approach to get into the uncertainty of the yet-to-be-created and right-hear-ready-to-be-emerging reality that you absolutely have the opportunity to create through your project, workday actions, or team.

Design Thinking is useful to pick up when you:

  • Start something new
  • Get or hear about a HUGE idea that could totally change everything!
  • Are stressed about a recent shock to your system — be it a surprising announcement or distressing breaking news article
  • Make a big change to something that will affect your customers, or users, and want it to go “well”
  • Find yourself excited about a new possibility or trend, and want to explore how to leverage it valuably with your customers or other people
  • Find a need to deprecate or decommission something, but want to minimize impact and create a great experience for those who still use it
  • Want more customers, or to increase your revenue, or
  • Encounter a pain point, either yours or someone else’s, and you aren’t quite sure yet what to do.

There are countless more, but what are the common threads in these situations? Design Thinking is a great toolkit to explore whenever you’re:

  • Creating something new
  • Dismantling something people still care about/use
  • Changing something
  • Facing a new risk or objective you don’t know a lot about
  • Pursuing a new opportunity or trend
  • Making a new behavior, choice, ability, or action possible for people that they couldn’t access or didn’t experience access to before.

Artists, architects, and some service professionals may already be operating by the principles and general rules of Design Thinking without even knowing it — the basic 5 steps of its approach were distilled from the intersection between how artists, engineers, and architects create successful work that people love.

How to Start:

How do you start utilizing design thinking for your project, mission, or team’s working style? Design Thinking includes a number of amazing tools, and generally follows a flow of 5 stages, but because it’s an iterative methodology there are lots of great places to start.

If this is your first time interacting with Design Thinking, I recommend starting with articulating the types of end users, customers, or ultimate stakeholders your project or objective is catering to.

I call this the “Who Matrix,” a really simple table that gives you the space to clarify the “Who” your project involves.

To do this, create a simple table with columns for:

Who | What they Come With | What they Do | What they Leave With.

Create a row in your table for each “type” of user or stakeholder your project will interact with — if you’re a B2B productivity app, maybe you have different entries for a company’s CEO, IT Admin, End User (i.e. an account manager at the firm your product is supporting), and Payments Manager. Each one of these stakeholders is a distinct profile for your service, and if you’ve been at your project for awhile, going through this process will often allow you to tease out the different needs, desires, starting points, and actions different ‘roles’ of users will very much need your service to allow them to take.

A business might also have different user types (or “Who” rows) for Small & Medium Business customers, Mid-Market, and Large customers.

A non-profit or social impact project, or government service, might find that their user populations distinguish themselves based on income level, urgency of need, language access or ability, or how/where they live/work — in an urban/rural area, for example, or surrounded by family or a bit more isolated in their day-to-day.

Once you break out your user types, you’ll be on track starting to think about specific user types one by one — which will let you pick up some Design Thinking practices at the Empathy stage, or even go straight to a later stage, depending on where you’re at so far.

(This process is especially valuable for startups or Big Hairy Audacious Goal-havers — who I find frequently have an awesome product or solution idea, but aren’t yet clear on who their user is. It’s no problem — you can use this process to clarify all the possibilities, then start with the highest-likelihood user type for you, and take your sense for who has the most urgent need for your product or service into a next stage of the Design Thinking process.)

If you’d like to read more on the process, I love the articles at the Interaction Design Foundation — you can start with this one on the 5 Stages of Design Thinking, to learn more, or comment below/reach out to a Design Thinking educator or facilitator in your circles to get some ideas on where to go next.

Are we Doing it Yet?

One of the biggest questions I get from teams who’ve trained in Design Thinking is a diversely-stated version of, “Are we doing it yet?”

When you’re following the process & methodology of Design Thinking, you’ll find yourself embodying or operating by a set of pretty reliable principles. If your work isn’t yet set up to work this way, you might find that your training workshops aren’t making their way into your overall approach or day-to-day workflow. These are some principles that you can begin building for, if you’re committed to building in more of a human-centered design approach into your existing team.

Don’t get down on yourselves, above all — part of the reason this work is revolutionary and carries ridiculously outsized potential is that it facilitates a very, very different way of working that we’ve not optimized for in the last 50 years or so. Give yourself time, treat it like an exercise or practice, and get a core group of folks in your team or office excited about practicing doing things in a different/new way. (A manager sponsor can also help.)

Hallmarks of Design Thinking Team

Design Thinking encourages teams and practitioners to:

  1. Immerse. Immerse yourself in your user base or target medium — i.e. the people who you’re designing for! Human-centered design work makes humans its center, not just at the beginning of the process, but all the way through. It’s collaborative — your DT work should naturally surround you with people.
  2. Be Open. Through and through, Design Thinking is a learning process that requires creativity and embraces the rigor and insight of surprise. To allow for this benefit, let go of being right, and make “I don’t know” your buy-in to the proverbial poker table of Design Thinkig progress. Embrace the opportunity to be “wrong” or discover something you didn’t know! This includes the question you’d never have thought to ask, and especially asks that teams support one another discovering new things and being free to jettison old ideas as experience proves them to be outdated. Any time someone chagrins that you don’t know the answer, own it and embrace the process of learning! You’re now righter than you were! Follow the trail of the fruitful questions, and your product or new experience will increase its potential customer value more and more. When in doubt, ask “why” or “what if?”. Curiosity is a good and totally critical thing.
  3. Be & Stay Curious, both about your users, the process and each other. If you find yourself feeling scared or intimidated about reaching out to your customer population or certain stakeholders, check it at the door and get curious instead. A wise person once said, “The mind cannot be curious and cruel at once.” Stay curious, and you’ll be more compassionate to yourself and those you are out to help. Minimizing un-curious mental chatter is also a great way to increase your presence, and therefore your rate of learning.
  4. Err on the Side of Leaping. Be quick to try out new ideas! Any time you don’t know, just say it. Then, pick the biggest risk and move it quickly into Paper Prototyping mode.
  5. Invest the Effort/Do the Work. Design Thinking requires work to show up to the process whole-heartedly. Work and organization are definitely involved, including organizing user interviews and delivering on the priority of being in the same place at the same time with your team. In order for human-centered innovation to work, you must create time for the method. This is not a multi-task-friendly endeavor — to get the results, you must engage with the process and take the actions we know will work.
  6. Make Things Easy. Sometimes starting a new project is hard, and when you don’t yet have an existing customer base, it can be a steep learning/creating curve to bring in lots of potential users to test with. But, for those who’ve completed a design thinking project, you’ll note that getting users to test with is the same process as drumming up users to sell to, market to, engage in your brand conversation, and requests referrals from! As you create new things week over week, embrace “Make things easy” by asking on a routine basis, “What created a lot of value this week that we could try building into our system, to increase our ease?” If a Monday morning checkin to line up users for the week worked well, awesome — try repeating that next time, too.
  7. Keep Going . Once you start learning, it’s time to keep going. A one-time workshop or project jam can be fun, but until you bring a piece of work before each stages to create full user tests and completion on your learning & feedback loops, you may not feel like you get the full value. Once you start learning, keep going.
  8. Work to a Clear Finish Line. While Design Thinking and user testing require openness to any discovery, it’s beneficial to have a clear frame on what you want to learn and why you want to learn it. What are you trying to improve or make better? What user or stakeholder behavior are you trying to enable or support? What outcome or result are you trying to facilitate more of? What pain are you seeking to ease? Get clear on these anchoring questions — and ask “why” a few times to get to the real root — and use that root as your guiderail as you discover more throughout your project.
  9. Ask for Support. While continuity is important, getting stuck (and banging your head against the wall) aren’t productive in any stage of ANY process. Engage with a Design Thinking coach or facilitator in an ongoing way to keep your team on track and get an outside view on what’s working and what needs to shift. This kind of relationship can be invaluable for both your specific project outcomes, and for helping your team develop great new habits that cause the team exponential new results.
  10. Keep your Sponsors Nearby. Whether you’re working in an entrepreneurial environment on behalf of specific users or advisors, or in a corporate environment with a specific sponsor, give your sponsor the job of holding the ultimate “why” — the value proposition and business or social impact case behind your project — so that when things fall off the tracks or you’re not quite certain where to go next, you can go back to your sponsor and get some renewed clarity on what’s important. Remembering the ultimate drivers for your work and actions. When there are new discoveries, share them enthusiastically and vividly with specifics with your sponsors — including user quotes and photos whenever possible! — so that they can learn as you’re learning, and help guide the big picture of the project as well. If the big-picture “why” shifts, have an open conversation about the shift and what new rationale you can create, so that the work isn’t hindered by an incomplete shift in context. It’s always better to address it directly.

And You Might Be “Design Thinking” if…..

  • You have a clear sense of who your customers are and who you’re building for, and how these relate/overlap with/differ from one another in their starting point, top desires inside the world of your product/service, and the top outcomes or benefits they need.
  • You spend at least 2–4 conversations per week with people that you’re designing for. You spend these chunks of time listening for the (1) jobs they find important to be doing, (2) concerns they have, (3) opportunities they seek, and (4) why their hopes/interests are important to them, and what they’re truly committed to underneath pursuing those
  • You spend at least 1 day a week attempting to create something of value for your target audience, and sharing it with at least a few of them to see if you’ve successfully created value, or what you didn’t see was important, during times you did not
  • Your meetings and conversations avoid veering into “Who’s right,” “What we should do,” arguments about the preferences of specific people who are not in the room, or ongoing debates or rescheduling of commitments that are lacking the clarity they need to move forward
  • You have a clear, articulated Point of View about the customer you’re building for, such that when you learn something significant about them that you didn’t expect, you can come back to your Point of View and update it to more accurately frame your work & exploration.

I hope these principles for staying engaged in design thinking are helpful for you!

If you’re working with Design Thinking, what other principles or ways of working do you find useful to keep your process going and to create results you’re proud of?