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Design thinking strategies for better problem solving

Design thinking is a large-scale problem-solving strategy, but within it exist multiple smaller frameworks that can be applied on their own to help solve problems in various contexts.

What is design thinking?

The design thinking process. Circles depict the 6 major stages: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test, Implement. The 6 stages are interconnected by arrows. Underneath, they are broken into three larger phases: Understand (Empathize + Define), Explore (Ideate + Prototype), and Materialize (Test + Implement).
The design thinking framework. Image credit: Nielson Normal Group

Design thinking is an innovative, human-centered approach to the development of products, services, and processes. Rooted in deep customer empathy, design thinking helps individuals and teams make decisions based on their customers’ real needs and rapidly design creative and inventive solutions. You can learn more about the basics of design thinking here.

Utilizing design thinking strategies

The five major steps of the design thinking process are strategic in and of themselves, but within each of them and throughout the entire process, different techniques, activities, and frameworks can be used to enhance the overall results. Beyond design thinking, these same strategies can be used on smaller scales to help solve problems without delving into the entire design thinking process.

Use the following tactics to revamp your problem solving:

  1. Scarcity to abundance
  2. Diverge, then converge
  3. Rapid prototyping
  4. Crazy 8s
  5. “Yes, and…”

1. Refocus from a place of scarcity to place of abundance

Traditional design focuses on what its users don’t have. Instead, try reframing your potential solutions to focus on what your users do have.

Not only is a mindset of abundance a more positive and productive mindset, but it also helps us as designers find solutions that fit seamlessly into the lives of our customers.

I do this by collecting all my user research notes at the end of my empathy phase and not only writing down the problems my users are facing, but writing down everything they talk about having a lot of — whether that’s feelings, physical things, or habits.

Example: I once worked with a group designing solutions to help recovering addicts stay sober. We talked to 150 recovering addicts and discovered that some of the things they had in abundance included: a (usually new) exercise routine, carbonated drinks, and time to socialize with sober friends. These helped us come up with innovative solutions like a soda brand and a gym designed specifically for those in recovery.

2. Diverge, then converge

On the left-hand side of the image, a heading says “Diverge”. Underneath it, two arrows begin at a point and stretch out and away from each other, toward the middle of the screen. Within the arrows, there is text saying “Create Choices”. On the right-hand side of the image, a heading says “Converge”. Underneath it, two arrows begin far away from each other and stretch out toward the right of the screen, where they come to a point. Within the arrows, there is text saying “Make Choices”.
Diverge / Converge

Diverge by creating choices — go big, think of possibilities, brainstorm. Then converge by making choices — narrow down to ideas and solutions that are most feasible or best solve your users’ problems.

Divergence and convergence can be used in various spots throughout the design thinking process. Empathizing, for example, creates choices, options, and information, then defining narrows all of that down to a single problem. Ideation opens up more choices, options, and information — then prototyping narrows those down to one product.

Example: When you reach the ideation phase of the design thinking process, sit down for 10 minutes and try to come up with as many ideas as you can (diverge) — regardless of their desirability, feasibility, or viability. Just keep coming up with ideas without thinking or moderation. Then, begin to eliminate the ideas that can’t or won’t work and slowly narrow down (converge) to a few that you want to prototype.

3. Rapid prototyping

A paper wireframe is shown underneath a paper model of an iPhone, making the paper wireframe look like it’s on the screen.
Example of a paper prototype. Image credit: JustInMind

Rapid prototyping is just what it sounds like — quickly and continuously creating rough prototypes of your solution. The purpose of rapid prototyping is purely to get user feedback — and lots of it. The process is simple: develop a prototype, test it with your users for feedback, then refine and repeat. But the catch, and what makes this different from any other kind of prototyping, is that the goal is to repeat this process as quickly as possible.

One of the most challenging parts of rapid prototyping is that it relies on creating the most rudimentary possible version of your solution in order to keep the process quick and cheap. The best rapid prototypes are low-fidelity, which essentially means they aren’t very pretty to look at because they don’t have any visual or aesthetic detail — they just contain the fundamental structure of a physical or digital product.

Once you’ve decided on a solution you want to test with your users, think of the easiest and most basic version of that you can create. When deciding what to create, it’s most important that you capture your user’s most vital interaction with your solution in order to get their feedback on it. This may involve creating just part of the solution — for example a single screen that will eventually be part of an entire app — or creating the entire thing.

Rapid prototyping is fast, allowing designers the chance to get a lot of feedback from users in a short amount of time or even a single session thanks to opportunities for quick adjustment. It’s also inexpensive, allowing teams to create scaled-down versions of their solutions specifically for feedback before hiring developers or purchasing materials. This combination allows for multiple iterations of a product before it’s ever really built, making the final version efficient and effective.

Physical Product Example: Say you’d like to create a new medical device to aid cardiac surgeons in applying the right amount of pressure when inserting a pacemaker, like these students in the Stanford India Biodesign program. Creating a prototype out of popsicle sticks and a simple spring would allow you to test the design and functionality quickly and cheaply.

Digital Product Example: Paper wireframes are excellent for rapid prototyping of digital products. Draw up wireframes representing the screens on your app or website, focusing on basic layout, navigation, and functionality. Present those screens to your users and get their feedback, then iterate. You can work your way up to digital prototypes, and then into the rest of your solution. You can read more about paper prototyping here.

4. Crazy 8s

A piece of paper is folded so that 8 rectangles are visible. Within each rectangle is a rough sketch of a prototype idea.
Crazy 8s exercise.

Crazy 8s is a fun as it sounds! This is a quick ideation exercise that can be used in almost any brainstorming scenario. The goal is to come up with eight different ideas or potential solutions to a probelm. In order to perform Crazy 8s, each member of your team will need a sheet of paper and something to write with (I like to use Sharpies, because they’re fun and that matters).

Start with a blank sheet of paper. Fold it in half three times. When you unfold the paper, you’ll see eight squares to sketch in.

Set a timer. Set your timer for eight minutes — you’ll have one minute per idea.

Get sketching! Use each minute to sketch out a single, distinct idea or solution.

Example: The image above is a Crazy 8s exercise I did as part of a course. We were prompted to design solutions for a coffee shop, who was facing the problem of an underutilized customer loyalty app.

You can read more about Crazy 8s here.

5. “Yes, and…”

While this may have been stolen from the improv world, “Yes, and…” is an incredibly valuable technique that can be utilized throughout the entire design thinking process and beyond. “Yes, and…” is really a mindset, and requires designers and team members to keep an open mind to any and all ideas and solutions. Rather than rejecting anything that diverges from the expected or fails to fit certain criteria, saying “yes, and…” allows for the natural flow of concepts and ideas, encouraging individuals and teams to push the limits of their creativity and remain open-minded.

Example: “Yes, and…” is most commonly used as a brainstorming technique. One person on a team brings up an idea and the next person is challenged to say “yes, and…” and build on that idea. The team continues to iterate on ideas in this manner for a set amount of time or number of rounds. There is no evaluation or discussion of ideas until the exercise is over.

Next steps

I encourage you to learn more about design thinking through:

And to practice “yes, and…” while trying out these strategies.

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Ariana Shives

Ariana Shives

Social entrepreneur and product designer stoked on design thinking and UX⚡️