The Beginner’s Guide to Design Thinking

Understand Design Thinking and how you can use it to improve your relationships

“A woman's dark silhouette looks out the window into the brightness of the day.” by Kate Williams on Unsplash

In today’s highly globalised world, business problems are significantly more complex. While some problems have yes or no answers, some tend to be vague with no clear parameters in mind. Several frameworks have surfaced over the past decade to tackle problems like these. Design Thinking is one of them and by far one of the more popular frameworks used by major corporations. In this Guide, we will look at the key steps of Design Thinking and discuss a little on how you can use Design Thinking not in a business context, but in your everyday lives.

Design Thinking is essentially an experience-focused framework that allows you to tackle problems through building on wants and needs. Developed in 1969 by Nobel Prize Laureate Herbert Simon, there have been several variations with different amount of stages, although the key premise and focus are similar. They revolve around the stages of empathising with the problem, defining the scope of the problem, generating possible solutions to the problem, prototyping and testing the solution, and lastly implementing it.

Empathise: Understand the Problem

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To tackle vague problems with no clear scope, the first step is to immerse yourself into the problem. Through watching and interacting with the people experiencing the problem, or even experiencing them yourselves, you can achieve a deeper appreciation and understanding of the problem. The information gathered at this stage allows you to confirm or reject your own assumptions about the problem and the environment in which the problem is occurring. 
Objective: Collect data on users’ needs and wants, assumptions, context of the problem and any problems that may occur in the solution conceptualisation and implementation.

Scope: Define the Problem

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After collecting relevant data from your observations and experiences, the next stage is analysis. The aim here is to determine the problem statement. This is the trickiest but most important step of the entire process. When looking through the data, it is easy to be lost in user complaints, or to be swept away by suggestions on how things can be better. As such, it is important to find the single common thread underlying the pain points and suggestions. That forms the root of the problem. Your core problem statement should be general enough to cover the entire scope of the problem, but detailed enough to hit at the underlying issue. A vague or misguided problem statement will send you down the wrong path as you develop solutions that may not tackle at the root of the problem, or develop solutions for problems that may not even exist. To prevent this from happening, it is good to constantly check in with your users and get them to validate your problem statement.
Objective: Determine your problem statement, which then becomes the scope of the issue.

Ideate: Brainstorm the Solution

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After understanding your users and determining the problem’s scope, it is time to brainstorm possible solutions. There are several brainstorming techniques that organisations use at this stage such as Worst Possible Idea and SCAMPER. Most of them have their roots in divergent and convergent thinking. You begin with divergent thinking to think out of the box and generate as many ideas as possible, and then use convergent thinking to pinpoint the most effective solutions. Before you move on to the next stage, ensure that your solution answers the problem statement and satisfies the issue’s scope.
Objective: Come up with solutions that answer the problem statement, and determine the key solution(s) to prototype and test on.

Prototype & Testing: Develop the Solution

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After coming up with the key solution or solutions, it is time to see how they hold up against the problem. The solution is developed on a small scale and sometimes tested against the problem within a controlled experimental setting. Depending on the solution’s effectiveness, the team may go back to improve on the solution or work on another one. This cycle of reiteration often happens as many times as needed to fine-tune the solution. Most organisations tend to skip this stage citing tight deadlines for delivery and implementation. However, this iteration process is crucial as it allows the team to determine key failure points and fixing them before the solution is fully implemented. 
Objective: Ensure that the solution is effective in tackling the problem statement.

Implement: Rolling out the Solution

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Once the solution has been proven to be successful at tackling the problem statement, it is then time to implement it. Organisations traditionally see implementation as an outcome-focused process where speed and cost are key considerations. Within a Design Thinking framework however, implementation is human-focused. During this period, the solution is rolled out in phases. As it is rolled out, the team engages the users at constant intervals to understand what they like or dislike about the solution. They then go back to brainstorming and enhancing the solution using the implementation data gathered before rolling out the enhanced solution. This process continues until the solution is polished. After that, it is very important to revisit the solution once in a while to ensure that it is sustainable in the long run. 
Objective: Ensure that the end-users are able to use the solution effectively to tackle the problem statement.

Applying Design Thinking in your relationships

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We understand that Design Thinking excels when tackling problems that have unclear parameters. That’s why organisations globally have been engaging experts and conducting training to include Design Thinking techniques and methodologies in their problem-solving repertoire. However, problems with unclear parameters do not just apply to the corporate world. Design Thinking is a way of thinking that can be used in relationship problems as well.

Relationships do not always go as planned. There are bound to be disagreements that at best result in a stronger relationship and at worst escalate into relationship-severing catastrophes. In this segment, we explore how having a design-thinking mindset to relationships may help strengthen how you communicate problems you may have with your loved ones.

Empathise. When you feel negative emotions towards your loved ones, it may be easy to dismiss his/her side of the story as illogical or irrelevant. This is especially common when you let the negative emotions take a foothold on your words and actions. However, always take the time out to understand the other side. Instead of going “You are always like this” or “I don’t understand why you always do this”, ensure that you understand the other side fully. Use statements such as “Could you help me understand your train of thought behind this?” or “I am having some trouble understanding your point of view, could you elaborate further?”.

After you have taken the time out to hear your loved one’s reasoning behind the issue, confirm that you understand. Use phrases such as “So that I understand,…” and “To summarise…”. This not only minimises misunderstanding of the problem when trying to diagnose the root cause, but also ensures that your loved ones feel heard. This goes a long way to build up a collaborative environment when trying to solve the problem as opposed to a combative one where each party is defensive and begins playing the blame game.

Scope. As presented in the previous segment, the aim here is to get at the underlying core problem. The kids may be getting into a whole lot of trouble at school, but the core problem could be a lack of attention from the people around them. To get at the problem statement, use sentences such as “Why do you think this is happening?”. As you are requesting your loved ones to bare their vulnerabilities as well as to be frank with your own, ensure that all parties are in a safe environment physically and emotionally when embarking on this stage.

Ideate. When brainstorming solutions to the problems, use techniques such as Worst Possible Idea. Brainstorming requires creativity, and these techniques can help to ease the tension and help put all involved parties in a collaborative mindset.

Prototyping and Testing. After a potential solution has been agreed upon, it’s important to start small. This is especially important if the solution means a huge change in each other’s way of life. Instead of implenting the solution everyday, do it once a week. Revisit the solution together at the end of the week to see how all parties involved can enhance the solution, and then increase it to twice a week and repeat. Through slow iterations, either parties can sound off if the solution does not work for him/her, and all parties can go back to the drawing board to try again. This also allows all parties to slowly acclimatise to the new way of life.

Implementation. Assuming everything worked out well, it is still important to revisit the solution once every month or every quarter as necessary. This serves to ensure the long-term sustainability of the solution, and is also a great gateway to connect with your loved ones on how your relationship with them can be improved.

Throughout the entire process, it is important to use these stages to guide your loved ones away from a combative blame mindset into a collaborative one. After all, any relationship problems affects everyone involved, and thus everyone will need to work together to ensure that the way forward is a sustainable one.


About The Beginner’s Guide:
The Beginner’s Guide series provides you with a quick understanding of everyday items or concepts that you come in contact with. This includes articles on how something works, where something originated from, or how to make something better. All to provide you with tidbits of information that you can use to show off at your next dinner party.

Author’s Note:
There are several introductory articles out there on Design Thinking, but there didn’t seem to be much information on how it can be used in other aspects outside of the corporate world. As such, I hope this Guide can help shed light as an example on how innovative thinking techniques can be used in your everyday life too!