Why’s & How’s of Using Design Thinking: A Specific and Actionable Introduction

Yuri Zaitsev
Dec 19, 2019 · 11 min read

If you’ve been curious about Design Thinking then start here. This article is about putting the fundamentals of Design into context, so I’m not going to use hoity-toity designer jargon. If anything that sort of language gets in the way at first and makes things seem much more intimidating than they really are.

Right off the top, Design Thinking isn’t easy. But it is not difficult either. It just takes a while. Let’s start.

Part 1: What is Design Thinking?

Part 2: What is Design Thinking used for?

Part 3: Design Thinking as a process.

Part 4: Design Thinking as a mindset.

Part 5: How Design Thinking could be used.

As always, we try to make everything actionable right away and always sourced.

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This will all make sense four paragraphs from now. (Photo credit: Bryan Minear)

Part 1: What is Design Thinking?

It’s a method that starts when you have noticed a problem but you aren’t sure what you can do about it.

Generally speaking, people are working on one “type” of project. There are four types total: 1) Paint By Numbers, 2) Quest, 3) Hollywood, and 4) Design Thinking.

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Usually the first three types of problems are inherently actionable because there is either something you can do or something you can work towards. The “Design Thinking” type of problem means you aren’t sure exactly what you are looking for, nor necessarily what to do. Design Thinking is the method that makes this ambiguity not so scary.

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It’s a bit like being thrown into the middle of a forest and then being told to just “go”. No clues, no maps, no real destination in mind. Design Thinking helps figure out where you need to get to and then figure out the right path (like a compass). It is absolutely OK to not know the right answer right away; it’ll take some observation and analysis.

We are about to jump into the basics of Design Thinking and we need to be in the right state of mind. What we need to begin is: a big challenge, optimism, and some curiosity. By the end we’re going to change that into creativity, confidence, and keep the optimism. We don’t need answers to start because we’ll figure those out along the way.

It’s going to be a lot at once, but with practice you will get it. This method has been developing for a very long time (since the 70’s at least), and this is just a start to get you on your feet.

Those 3 dots signify the start of an example, because all of this makes way more sense in context. Feel free to skip the italics and go directly to the next section. Otherwise, continue for a not fun, complex, gnarly example that we’ve all run into and probably thought about. Pollution:

It causes 40% of deaths today and combines with nearly all areas of life. David Attenborough has been on crusade against it and its effects on the natural world since the 60’s using the documentary as his sword. An overpopulated Earth has become home to over 3.7 Billion people suffering from malnutrition because the polluted environment has also affected people. Entire countries are struggling with recycling, and trash is being shipped around the oceans with nowhere to go.

Could we do anything about it? Always yes.

What could we do about it? Not sure. Yet. And that’s the point.

Part 2: What is Design Thinking used for?

You use Design Thinking to come up with an idea where nothing yet exists. What ends up happening though is that you sometimes create new behaviors.

Scientists invent and discover things. Designers do the same thing but in a different way. Scientists put emphasis on literature review, pre-formed hypotheses, and theory driven answers. Design Thinkers emphasize using information from many different sources: prototypes, interviews from experts, neglected community members etc. Here is a paper exploring the differences.

It’s different from other methodologies (like lean, agile, design of experiments) in that you take people’s instincts, hopes, dreams, everything into account. Because of that, Design Thinking can sometimes lead to changing fundamental behavior. It is good when you change behavior intentionally to be better; it is bad when you change behavior unintentionally to be worse.

Recently, companies have been implementing some Design Thinking principles to how they do business and have seen good returns (here is the biggest study on this that we could find). Design Thinking tends to be used in the same sentences as “innovation,” so many start ups, consultancies, and larger corporations have turned to it to create new things for their customers.

Continuing with our pollution example, Design Thinking would be used to change how people perceive pollution and provide them the tools they need to fix it. It is NOT used to create a new way to chemically re-purpose plastic, but instead a reason why you would want to in the first place.

Part 3: Design Thinking as a process

Design Thinking is a prescriptive method to solve problems. Here is a map from Stanford’s d.School, which is ground zero of Design Thinking. It is daunting at first, but you can practice steps individually until becoming comfortable with the whole method. The real power comes from using the entire process from start to finish. We give you an actual technique pro’s use for each step, but remember that it is not the only way.

Here’s the basic method:

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1. Empathize with those facing the problem.

Here you find the specific group of people who are directly affected and learn from them to get a better understanding of the problem. We have written about this. Example technique: Ethnographic Interviewing.

The goal of this step is: to gain an understanding about the users, their problems, their feelings, their motivations, and what they hope to achieve.

Pro Tip: Always ask why. Dig beneath the surface level of what people tell you. Often the answer that we need is not something that the user can tell us but one we can figure out based on what they say.

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2. Define the problem to a specific point of view.

This helps us define the right scope to begin solving our problem. We have written about this. Example technique: Journey Mapping.

The goal of this step is: to express your user’s wishes using verbs and pairing them with non obvious insights which you base your solutions on.

Pro Tip: Here is a good initial template for a point of view:

My big idea lets [USERS] to [ACCOMPLISH A NEED] in a way that [NON-OBVIOUS INSIGHT].

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3. Ideate ideas around the point of view.

This is where we generate as many, distinct, unique, ideas as possible. We have written about this also. Example technique: Brainstorming.

The goal of this step is: Get as many ideas as possible. Do not censor yourself. Flex your creativity muscle.

Pro Tip: This is tiring work! We recommend setting a 5–10 minute timer and either writing out the ideas or quickly sketching them. Secondly, do not evaluate your ideas yet, that happens in the next step. We’ve noticed that this is sometimes a big hurdle for people to overcome.

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4. Prototype ideas quickly to learn more.

This is when you look at all of the ideas your came up with in the previous step and try to pull out certain themes that emerge, ideally that lead to new questions that you need to answer. Then you create a quick test to try and answer these. We aren’t testing solutions yet. Example technique: Low fidelity post it note tests.

The goal of this step is: To get more information based on how we see people interact with an idea. Be clear with what it is you are trying to find out.

Pro Tip: Usually the best test is to make something that your user can interact with in some way. The answer to your question lies in observing what they do with your prototype.

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5. Test solutions to see if they have worked.

This happens once we have done a few prototypes and are ready to try the final solution. A good test lets us understand if our solution is having the impact that we expected. Example technique: High fidelity user experiences (UX).

The goal of this step is: To check that our idea will have the effect that we want. If it does not then it would help to refine your point of view (the green hexagon) or move onto different assumptions to prototype around (the orange hexagon).

Pro Tip: Keep showing your idea to everyone. At this time feedback is golden, and you will quickly get a good understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of your innovation.

6. Rinse. Repeat.

The best first move would be to speak with the experts around pollution, as well as anyone directly involved in it’s effects. Go to the recycling center in NYC and then to Xicai village in China’s Hebei province (EMPATHIZE). Figure out the hopes and dreams for specific people, and find your own opinion on the matter (DEFINE). Translate all of that into as many creative ideas as you can and distill out the important qualities that emerge. Ideas could affect shipping, take the shape of a PSA campaign, offer medical services for low wage sorters in developing villages, or be an art installation using reclaimed objects from the various trash islands floating in the Pacific (IDEATE). Once you’ve settled on something, reach back out to the people in NYC and Xicai to check whether you are on the right track (PROTOTYPE). Just stay true to the people you identified, and your own capabilities. Then try it! Use what works, ditch the rest (TEST).

Part 4: Design Thinking as a mindset

Mindset is the underlying thread that connects the process together. When people say that something has become “second nature” to them, then they are speaking about mindset. Internalizing each of the steps from above, really getting them, lets you push the limits of the process and to tailor it to yourself and to whatever problem you are working on.

Following the rules gives you the right mindset which then lets you break the rules and make up your own.

Mindset is generally seen as the fluffy, unimportant part but we have seen the opposite to be true. People who consciously think about mindset tend to be more results oriented, go deeper with the process, and have more power to do good. One study found that a workplace which emphasized the mindset behind the process consistently outperformed competition and had more mentally healthy employees.

Here are some qualities we hope you discover for yourself from working on more projects:

1. Empathy with optimism

Design Thinking is often combined with the term “human-centered.” For a good reason. Sometimes we get caught up in something and forget what we are trying to accomplish, but importantly, who it is we are trying to help in the first place. Design Thinking forces you to keep the people you want to help front and center.

2. Embracing Ambiguity

Seeing a problem and not knowing an answer to it right away is scary. As designers, we have to get really comfortable with not knowing something, and being open and humble about it. It helps you learn. We’ve noticed there are two types of ambiguity everyone deals with: 1) “Seeing a hard math equation” syndrome: being unafraid to examine seemingly complex problems and wrestle them into something actionable and 2) “Blank page writer’s block” syndrome: filling an overlooked blind-spot with ideas and meaning.

3. Creative Confidence

Creativity is like a muscle that can get stronger if you exercise it. You may not know the correct answer right away but you can trust yourself to be able to come up with it eventually. With this power you gain the ability to shape the world with the confidence that you will succeed.

4. Iterate. Iterate. Iterate.

Sometimes people can spend hours rewriting an email to be perfect, always changing little details and adjusting the language to convey the right idea. It is the exact same in design, except we make our edits publicly. We have to be showing off our ideas early and often, constantly getting feedback, and always perfecting them.

5. Learning from failure

Failure is a weird word in this industry. You never really fail because you are always getting information that you didn’t have before to make your idea better. That’s not really failure. It’s more like critical thinking.

As you get more comfortable with the process, you’ll start intuitively approaching problems right away. In terms of pollution, you might chose to first help people in NYC to grow more gardens and improve their air quality. Once that is done, you could decide to look at the health and safety of off-shore oil rigs to make sure that nothing gets spilled. With this knowledge you might then be asked to improve the wellness of sorters in developing countries. As your comfort with Design Thinking grows, so does your experience, allowing you to solve increasingly challenging problems.

Part 5: How Design Thinking could be used

“The house being a mess is not the problem that drives people to clean. It is the looks neighbors gave that one time they were invited over for a dinner party.”

A seemingly small thing can immediately be unpacked to become so interesting. Once we understand the story at a deeper level, little details emerge that we can tug at and explore. Who knows what will be the detail that launches a new, Earth shattering, idea.

Bank of America “Keep the Change” Program — People would round complex numbers up when trying to balance their checkbooks and pay for bills, to keep things easy. Bank of America created a simple system that saved those extra dollars and cents so that people could be surprised with some money once it reached a certain point.

Shure in-ear monitors — Musicians were losing their hearing at increasing rates from playing on stage; stuck behind loud monitors. Shure created in-ear buds that preserved hearing that become the industry standard because they let the musicians connect with the audience by being able to move anywhere on stage.

GE Healthcare pediatric MRI machine — Children were extremely frightened to enter the MRI machine and would panic at the doctor’s office. GE repainted the entire facility and retrained technicians to make the experience feel like an adventure and drastically improved the efficiency of the procedure.

Super Heroic child’s shoes — Athletic shoes for children used to be scaled down shoes made for adults. Super Heroic created shoes that are made for small feet that need to grow and develop healthfully while also encouraging a sense of wonder.

AirBnB homes — people didn’t know what they were paying for when looking for places to stay while traveling. AirBnB took care of that with personal photos and 2-way reviews to improve trust between travelers and homeowners.


Curious ruminations on human-centered design, by Amplifi Design and friends

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