The Design Thinking Process

Goran Čolig
Apr 26, 2018 · 10 min read
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Every entrepreneur wants to create the next big thing, to be the owner of a company which helps people around the world, to become famous and/or be remembered as an innovator and a successful leader.

What Is Design Thinking

The expression “design” is generally connected with product’s visual appearance, but the primary objective of any design is to enhance well being in people’s lives.

Designers aim to produce emotionally, cognitively and aesthetically pleasing solutions for issues in numerous areas such as work, leisure, living and culture. They understand that those problems can be of any kind, so they try to enter customer’s mind and reach the best possible perspectives. They know it’s important to identify obstacles, context and processes so they can create the most effective solution for given problems.

In order to achieve that, it’s also necessary to approach them from different perspectives.

As the name implies, design thinking refers to how the designer thinks. It is rather unconventional in the entrepreneur’s world, but being successful in today’s highly competitive and technologically demanding world requires understanding customer’s needs, creative thinking in creating solutions, and innovation.

Tim Brown, CEO and president of , gave this explanation:

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

Design thinking is a process of creative problem solving. Thinking like a designer can transform the way organizations develop products, services, processes, and strategy. This approach brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. It also allows people who aren’t trained as designers to use creative tools to address a vast range of challenges.

The Process and Tools

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In their book , Liedtka, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, and Ogilvie, CEO of innovation strategy consultancy , present design thinking as a systematic approach to problem-solving built upon four questions:

  • What is? — exploring the current reality
  • What if? — envisioning alternative futures
  • What wows? — getting customers to help make choices
  • What works? — making it work in-market and as a business

Aligned to those questions are ten tools to use in design thinking process to drive innovation and growth:

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1.| Visualization — using imagery to envision possibilities and bring them to life. It is about utilizing images. It’s not about drawing. It’s about visual thinking. It pushes us beyond using words or language alone. It is a way of unlocking a different part of our brains that enables us to think non-verbally and that managers might not normally use.

When you explain an idea using words, the rest of people will shape their own mental pictures, usually informed by their training. When you say: “We need a new growth platform,” the IT specialist sees servers and code, and the marketing guru sees an advertising campaign.

If instead, you present your idea to individuals by drawing a picture of it, you reduce the possibility of unmatched mental models.


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2.| Journey Mapping assessing the existing experience through the customer’s eyes. Journey or experience mapping is an ethnographic research method that focuses on tracing the customer’s journey as he or she interacts with a company while in the process of receiving a service, with special attention to emotional highs and lows.

Experience mapping is employed with the objective of identifying needs that customers are often unable to articulate. It’s done by laying out a hypothetical perspective of what a certain customer group’s journey looks like, even the part that doesn’t include your company.

Conduct pilot interviews with few customers to make sure you’re precisely capturing the steps. Finally, identify essential moments of truth and subjects from the interviews and establish a number of dimensions that you believe to be helpful in understanding the differences in the information you have gathered.

The purpose is to produce a set of hypotheses for testing.


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3.| Value Chain Analysis — evaluating the current value chain that supports the customer’s journey. It examines how a company interacts with value chain partners to deliver, market and distribute new offerings.

Analysis of the value chain offers ways to produce better value for customers along the chain and reveals vital clues about partners’ capabilities and intentions. Value chain analysis is the business-side equivalent of customer journey mapping.

It begins by operating backward from value creation for the ultimate end customer and then adding the capabilities and bargaining power of other key suppliers.


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4.| Mind Mapping — generating insights from exploration activities and utilizing those to create design criteria. It is used to represent how ideas or other things are connected to a central idea and to each other.

Mind maps are used to produce, visualize, structure and arrange ideas to look for patterns and insights that provide key design criteria. We do this by displaying the data and asking people to cluster them in ways that allow subjects and patterns to emerge. To succeed, mind mapping must be a group activity.

Tap into the power of visualization to communicate the key components of what you have learned and present them as clearly and simply as possible. Create posters that capture key subjects and patterns in the data. Invite a group of thoughtful people to tour the visual data and record any learnings that they believe should inform new ideas, then cluster those learnings into subjects. Look for connections between clusters and insights.

Pose the question, “Based on what we’ve learned, if anything were possible, what attributes would our design have?”


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5.| Rapid Concept Development — assembling innovative elements into a coherent alternative solution that can be explored and evaluated.

In the primary stage, take the design criteria, the customer personas and their pain points, and the value chain insights you have uncovered in research and apply all of it to come up with new ideas — lots of them. In the second stage, assemble the ideas into a manageable range of interesting concepts. Finally, in stage three, elaborate on the business design behind that handful of concepts.

The goal is to create ideas rapidly and get them out to customers to observe them as soon as possible.


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6.| Assumption Testing — extracting and testing the key assumptions that will drive the success or failure of a concept. It focuses on identifying assumptions underlying the attractiveness of a new business idea and using available data to assess the probability that these assumptions will end up being true. These assumptions are then tested thought experiments, followed by field experiments.

After you have figured out which assumptions are most important to the potential attractiveness of your new concept, identify the data that allows you to conclusively test key assumptions. Here, you are identifying the information you need and then figuring out how to get it.

Sort the information you need into one of the following three categories: what you know, what you don’t know and can’t know, and what you don’t know but could. The third category is paying dirt for the creation of thought experiments.

Identify what it would take to get the information quickly, then design your thought experiment, carefully considering the information that could prove you wrong.


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7.| Rapid Prototyping — expressing a new concept in a tangible form for exploration, testing, and refinement. These techniques allow you to make abstract new ideas tangible to potential partners and customers.

These include story-boarding, user scenarios, experience journeys and business concept illustrations — all of which encourage deep involvement by important stakeholders to provide feedback.

Prototyping is all about minimizing the “I” in ROI. The cost of a basic 2D prototype could be as low as a pen and paper. Business concept prototypes take visual and narrative forms in general: images and stories. They can even include role-playing and skits.

Play with your prototype. Don’t defend it. Give others a chance to validate it — not the individuals who created it.


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8.| Customer Co-Creation — involving customers to take part in creating the solution that best meets their needs. This method incorporates techniques that allow managers to engage a customer while in the process of generating and developing new business ideas of mutual interest.

They are among the most value-enhancing, risk-reducing approaches to growth and innovation. In our Six Sigma world, which values perfection and polish, we tend to get anxious about showing customers incomplete, unpolished “stuff.” Get over it.

Innovation is about the learning, and customers have the most to teach us. The sooner we get something in front of them that they can respond to, the faster we will get to a differentiated value-added solution. Engage a diverse and candid group of customers one at a time. Offer them a visual stimulation, but nothing fancy at this stage.

Leaving elements of the concept incomplete is a good way to elicit the customers’ creativity and competence. Offer a few alternatives and start exploring the one they are drawn to.


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9.| Learning Launches — creating an affordable experiment that gives customers a chance to experience the new solution over an extended period of time, to test key assumptions with market data. These are designed to test the key underlying value-generating assumptions of a potential new-growth initiative in the marketplace.

As opposed to a full new product roll out, a learning launch is a learning experiment conducted quickly and inexpensively to collect market-driven data. We call them launches, rather than experiments, because they are intended to feel real to both launchers and customers. Only then can they yield reliable data.

They are an extension of the co-creation process, but at this stage, you are asking customers to put their money where their mouths are. Those that say they will buy, remain only potential customers.

The only true test of the value of an idea for customers is their willingness to part with real money.


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10.| Story Telling — weaving together a story rather than just making a series of points. It is a close relative of visualization — another approach to make new ideas feel real and compelling.

Visual storytelling is the most compelling type of story. All good presentations, whether analytical or design-oriented, tell a powerful story. Like images, stories allow us to access emotions and emphasize experiences. They add the richness of context and allow us to “sell” a problem as well as its solution.

Great stories follow some basic principles: make sure to identify your audience. It is crucial to create a storyboard; it allows you to pay careful attention to flow and logic.

Set the scene to sell the problem, make your cast of characters feel real and work the plot; all good stories unfold with some tension, and maybe some surprises develop — here is where you think about how to combine data and images to drive home your points. For the climax, uncover your solution to the problem. Make it compelling.

How To Apply The Process and Tools

Emphatize to understand the way customers do things and why, their physical and emotional needs, how they think about the world, and what is meaningful to them. Observe, engage, watch and listen.

Define the challenges you are taking on, based on what you have learned about your customer and about the context. Create a meaningful and actionable problem statement that focuses on insights and needs of a customer.

Ideation is about pushing for a widest possible range of ideas from which you can select, not simply finding a single, best solution. Determination of the best solution will be discovered later, through user testing and feedback. Engage in brain/body storming or mind mapping.

Prototype is intended to create low-resolution prototypes that are quick and cheap to make (think minutes and cents), but can elicit useful feedback from users and colleagues. Start building, don’t spend too long on one prototype, and build with the customer in mind.

Testing is looking for feedback about the prototypes you have created from your customers and have another opportunity to gain empathy for them. Ask customers to compare, create experiences and show, don’t tell.

Final Thoughts

To create innovative solutions, it’s crucial to understand your customers - their needs and pain points. If you truly care about them as an individuals, about their thoughts and exact problems, you can easily build prototypes by applying the design thinking process, and test them to learn more about the solution itself and customers.

Do you use design thinking?

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Goran Čolig

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All things creative, digital marketing, project management and business solutions

Digital Reflections

How to cope digitally