In recent years, design thinking has become a valuable tool used by designers, businessmen, engineers and many others. The essence behind it is simple: when a problem arises, we must look at it in a creative way. To do so, there are stages and processes to follow. But what exactly is design thinking? And how to apply it to business? We will elaborate on these questions next.
Definition of design thinking
Design thinking was defined by Tim Brown, the executive chair of IDEO as “a human-centred 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”. It can be described as a procedure to handle complex and ill-defined problems. The idea is to understand the human needs involved, consider ways to solve them and develop prototypes that can be tested and approved. These procedures are cognitive, practical and strategic, with a high focus on innovation. The interesting feature is that there is a scientific and an artistic side to it, as it also considers ambiguous elements.
Design thinking has been evolving since the 1960s. In 1969, the social scientist Herbert A. Simon published “The Sciences of the Artificial”, where he described three stages of decision-making: intelligence gathering, design and choice. However, the definitions and practices have evolved and some now include a 7 phases approach. All these stages are crucial to guide us in the process.
Design thinking: how does it work?
This is a flexible and non-linear process. This means that we can go back and forth as many times as requested to obtain valuable information.
In order to provide some guidance in the course of action, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, also known as the d.school, presented five stages to apply to design thinking: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test.
- Empathize: this is the first step of the process and the main focus here is on the user. The goal is to forget our previous assumptions and beliefs and engage with the user or customer as much as possible. By doing this, we will be able to understand their needs and dilemmas. We should manage to concentrate on what users look for rather than on what we want to sell them.
- Define: after gathering the information about our user, it is time to analyze the observations made and define (or redefine) the problem we wish to solve. Don’t forget to take into consideration the user’s perspective.
- Ideate: bringing people from other fields of action is extremely beneficial for this stage. Here, we must discuss new ideas and come up with new solutions. To do so, we can use methods such as brainstorming, Scamper or the Six Thinking Hats.
- Prototype: after concluding the discussion about the possible solutions, it is time to make prototypes. Thanks to them, it will be possible to make improvements and verify the limitations of the product or solution.
- Test: once the prototype of the complete product is ready, it must be thoroughly tested. More often than not, new problems might arise, and the process might have to start again. Nevertheless, progress was already made as it already eliminated one or more options.
Once the problem is solved and the solution is implemented, it is likely that the user will be more satisfied, and, as a consequence, our company will grow. This is an ongoing process, as there are always new challenges ahead.
How to apply design thinking to businesses?
To take advantage of design thinking, it is important to know how to apply it. The Design Council launched in 2004 the methodology of the Double Diamond. According to it, there are 4 phases:
- Discover /Research— understanding the problem (diverging)
- Define/Synthesis — focus on the area to solve the problem (converging)
- Develop/ Ideation— consider possible solutions (diverging)
- Deliver /Implementation— put in practice solutions that work (converging)
These steps can be classified as diverging (no limitations in terms of thinking or action) and converging (focusing on the ideas found and narrowing them).
Design thinking implies concentrating on the problem and avoiding working in silos. All team members must be incentivized to ask questions, listen to every opinion and experiment. Experimentation is one of the key aspects, leading to new conclusions (or new questions).
Benefits of design thinking
For those wondering what design thinking can do for themselves, here are some of the advantages of this method:
- Develops new ways of thinking: in a world that is constantly changing, adapting and keeping up the pace isn’t easy. That is the reason why developing new ways of thinking is important. Thanks to design thinking methodology, everyone can improve, challenge previous assumptions and build important creative strategies.
- Encourages experimentation and testing: it is vital not to jump to a solution or conclusion until we really understand the problem and its roots. By constantly testing and experimenting with new ideas, we will be able to better handle the problem and come up with better results.
- It doesn’t require many resources: thanks to testing, companies don’t have to go through the entire process of product development, saving time and money.
- Drives change: design thinking is a non-linear process, which means that we can jump from one stage to another without necessarily following a specific order. While doing this, it is likely that new discoveries will come to light in terms of markets, processes, services and others. Furthermore, thanks to observation, we might encounter that people didn’t know they had.
- Address customer needs and questions: by putting ourselves in the user’s shoes, we will be able to understand what the problem is and what would be the ideal outcome to solve it. Apple is an example of how to handle a customer’s need. They started by realizing that people needed to reduce the number of devices they used. Apple’s solution was the smartphone, and they have revolutionized the market since then.
Despite having emerged in the designing area, it rapidly escalated to other fields. The ability to explore big questions and comprise different specialists in a team is one of the main reasons for its success.
Difficulties of design thinking
When considering the positive aspects of design thinking, it is important not to forget that there are also difficulties:
- It might get emotional and personal: in the first stage of the method, we are stimulated to focus and engage with the user as much as possible. Nevertheless, this can be regarded as a personal involvement that not everyone is ready to accept or practice.
- The process is long: we are incited to consider several options and examine prototypes instead of jumping to an immediate conclusion. This fact might make leaders believe that there is a decrease in productivity and efficiency.
- Learn to embrace failure: in this method failure is not regarded as a negative aspect. On the contrary, failure is seen as one more step towards progress. However, teams are not always prepared to deal with failure after failure. As a result, people might feel demotivated.
These difficulties can be overcome if team leaders are empathic and ready to encourage divergence and ambiguity.
Design thinking in practice
The success of design thinking led some renowned companies to put it into practice.
Netflix, for example, revolutionized the industry of DVD rentals. Many customers viewed the pick-up and return policy demanded as inconvenient. With this in mind, Netflix proposed a model where clients would subscribe to a service that delivered DVDs directly to their homes. Thanks to it, customers enjoyed more DVDs than before. When DVDs started to fall behind, they created the on-demand streaming service. Throughout the process, Netflix always considered the users and the ways to satisfy their needs.
Another significant example of the application of design thinking is Airbnb. When they realized that the pictures lacked quality or only showed a portion of the areas that customers would use, Airbnb’s founders started taking photographs of what they believed would interest clients. By doing this, they focused on what people needed and their business started to grow.
Despite being big organizations, they exemplify what anyone can do. First, consider all the options and think about possible solutions. During the process, practice empathy and question all your previous opinions. Then, conduct tests and experiments to determine what must be done and how. Finally, implement the solutions that best fit your clients as well as your organization.
Think outside the box
We must nurture thinking, empathy, and testing in every aspect of our lives to learn the main lesson. Jumping to conclusions too fast might be a big mistake, especially if we are talking about businesses.
Despite being a non-linear process that can bring about more questions than in the beginning, we must regard it as a powerful tool. It is extremely helpful due to its customer-oriented focus. It will facilitate decision-making by exceeding our initial expectations, and ultimately creating more value. Now, are you ready to start thinking outside the box?