This is what Design Thinking really is

You may have heard that design thinking is a glorious fad. Allegedly, it is a nebulous concept. Even those who get hired by championing design thinking’s revolutionary methods cannot define it. CEOs demand that you use design thinking, but they cannot tell you what it is, and how you do it. Worse still, whenever anybody shows you parts of the ‘design thinking’ process, all you can think is, ‘But I have been doing this the whole time.’

The truth is, you may be right. And that is the point.

Design Thinking is real, and really powerful

Design thinking is really a structure for developing products that orders conventional methods to create the best possible outcome. The process is defined by a fundamental value that seems obvious. Yet, design thinking came about as a reaction to the fact that company after company loses sight of this fundamental value in the mess of running a business, and all of the competing priorities, resource constraints, bureaucracy, market pressures, financial fears, and employee egos that come with it.

The value is simple:

Any company ought to be primed to make things that people want.

The design thinking process is structured to make sure that every product you create is one that people actually want. If you think about it, really good products are so perfectly suited to customers’ desires that they need no radical marketing strategy to convince people that the product is worth it. In the weigh-up between

making people want things vs making things people want

Design thinking gives you the process to make things that people want, because you would much rather make those (unless you’re in marketing).

So let’s define the design thinking process that structures product development to make things people actually want. The steps are:

Empathise — Define — Ideate — Prototype — Test

Each step is vital to ensuring that you create the absolute best product possible. Many industries fail at the first hurdle.

1) Empathise

This is sometimes called human-centred design. Often, businesses note a want or need that no one has created a product to satisfy, but become so excited at the opportunity that they immediately become complacent. They make a raft of assumptions about potential consumers, based on instincts that are only informed by the limited anecdotal experiences of people in the company, many of whom aren’t even target consumers. The result is product-led design, when the product is not ideal. If you have been involved in product development, but have never spoken to someone who uses your product, then you have made this mistake.

Without a thorough investigation into the lives and minds of consumers, your product will be tripped up by unforeseen factors. Meaningful information to create something that people really want requires you to spend time getting a complete understanding of those people. The vision is to develop many potential solutions that are inspired by observation, rather than trying to force the solution you devise from ignorance down the market’s throat.

At the very least, you ought interview a sample of consumers who share the same want you are trying to satisfy. You need to learn:

  • What they currently do to try and satisfy the desire
  • What they think about this desire (how important is it to them)
  • How they feel about this desire (does it cause frustration, embarrassment)
  • What resources they have available to use satisfying this desire (time, money, technology)
  • What competing priorities affect their ability to satisfy this desire (work, family, hobbies, interests)

People ignore design that ignores people. The more attention you pay to forming a full notion of the consumer, the better your potential solutions will be.

The Japanese empathize best by going even further. They embody the lives of consumers to gain experience-based insights. It is called Genchi Genbutsu. It requires business leaders to “go to the scene and confirm the actual happening.” It is a core business policy across industries that

“requires managers to become involved in the company’s daily operations by experiencing the work on a production site or in a business section for themselves and seeing the problems to be solved first-hand… Whereas in the West knowledge is gleaned and digested in the office or the boardroom, in Japan it is gleaned on the factory floor.”

When you think about it, the practice makes perfect sense. Decision makers who know what it is like to work for a company are far more likely to develop strategies that make the company more effective, and better to work for. The exact same approach is used to make sure that creative leaders understand the customers they are designing for.

“Each professional is expected to spend time out in the field talking to car buyers. The Japanese have a name for it: genchi genbutsu — go to the scene and confirm the actual happenings. Most big companies have something like it; what distinguishes Toyota is that its executives actually listen and have turned those insights into profits.”

Empathize properly to make the product the customer wants, rather than the product that you want.

2) Define

The next step requires interpretation.

You take all of those learnings from your diverse sample of potential customers, and talk them through. You identify common trends amongst many interviewees and store them as themes. You consider anomalies and unusual stories, and interpret whether these outliers are significant enough to take seriously when contemplating potential solutions.

These customer insights ought to culminate in a research-informed Customer Point of View. In other words, what does the customer want, and what factors influence their desire. An excellent way to make your Customer Point of View a fruitful source of inspiration is to imagine what jobs the customer needs to do to fulfill their desire. A ‘Jobs to be Done’ conception allows you to isolate all of the steps that need to be completed to fulfill the desire. With this, you can imagine how you can make each step easier to complete.

Once you completed this customer-centered immersion, you can ask the vital question:

How might we help these people achieve their desires more effectively, and with greater ease?

3) Ideate

In this stage, you take inspiration from the empathising and defining stages to come up with potential solutions. There are many great strategies that stimulate ideation. No matter what the approach, you must ensure that your team has radical creative freedom to imagine. It is helpful to let the mind wander and think about what could be done to help customers in a world where there are no constraints at all on what can be made. This imagining clarifies what is most important, and often sparks ideas on how you can manipulate resources to produce much more revolutionary solutions than you first thought were possible.

The aim is to come up with a number of potential solutions. Ideally, different solutions help customers solve different issues that prevent them from getting what they want. The result is often a product that could improve customers’ experience in more than one way.

4) Prototype

Once you have agreed upon the most prospectively exciting solutions, you build them. You begin by storyboarding how the products will be made, how they will work, how they will likely be used, and how they will be experienced. Then the solutions are designed, and built. The team must critique the development constantly, throughout the prototyping process. One of the best times to learn about your product is when you make it. Allow space for refining the product when prototyping. Once a prototype is completed, take the time to be sure that your built solution faithfully embodies the idea and design requirements. The prototyping phase is dangerous, because the challenges of building your product can easily lead you to obsessing over it to the point where you lose sight of the human-centric design focus.

5) Test

The final stage is crucial. You return to the target consumer sample and get them to use the prototype, so that you can gather insights and iteratively develop your solution. You return each time with your latest iteration, until you have worked the product into a form that best satisfies the wants of the target user. This method returns the product to the people you want it to appeal to. In doing so, this ensures that you end up with a product that people want, because it meets their expectations and is easy and pleasurable to use.

It is a real thing

These five stages make up design thinking. This process results in the best products, because it leads to products that really satisfy the consumers’ wants. The structure makes people the focus of every part of your conventional creative strategies, and drives you to work that consumers will be delighted by, because it is made for and, in a sense, by them.

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