Design Thinking 101

I was recently asked to give an overview of Design Thinking to a group of my colleagues. While I’ve been studying design thinking and applying the approach for a couple of years, it was interesting to step back and reflect on the overall discipline.

Design thinking is a process for creative ideation and problem solving, with a human-centered core. It was started in the 1960’s by applying principles of design to the way people work and it gained momentum in the product development space in the 1990’s. In the 2000’s, design thinking gained even more popularity as people struggled to make sense of increasing complex technology offerings. Design thinking helps people explore not only what’s feasible and viable, but also what’s desirable (what people actually want).

Overall, it’s an iterative process in which we seek to understand what makes people tick, challenge our own assumptions and biases and redefine problems so that we can explore alternative solutions, which in turn drive innovation.

In recent years, design thinking has been adopted even more broadly than product development and software. It’s being used to drive business strategies, how customers experience a service, their purchasing behaviors and even how companies engage their employees and build culture. It’s extremely useful in solving problems that are ill-defined or unknown, because it forces us to really think about how to frame and re-frame the problem in a human-centric way. By challenging our assumptions around what the problem actually is, it helps us to get around the natural human biases we bring to developing solutions.

There are a cadre of process flows and tools that different practitioners are using, but at its core design thinking uses design artifacts to explore, design and communicate, often in the form of drawings, sketches and diagrams. While a quick google search will produce many design thinking process flows, it typically happens in five phases, which may or may not be linear.

5 phases of design thinking

The empathize phase is the first step. This is adapted from the fields of ethnography and sociology, and the focus is on examining what encompasses a meaningful journey for the human, rather than on collecting and analyzing data. It involves immersion and exploration, often in the form of collecting stories and observing behavior. This material leads to a better understanding of those who solutions are being designed for. While a critical step in the process, it can result in an overwhelming volume of material, which can feel messy and chaotic. Some of the common tools used during this phase include interviews, observations and surveys.

During the define stage, we make sense of the material collected from the users and start categorizing them into themes. We take this time to deeply explore the problem space, seeking to ask more interesting questions based on the feedback from we collected. We work diligently to identify opportunities, and refrain from jumping to solutions. This is an important phase because when we define problems in obvious and conventional ways, we tend to get obvious and conventional solutions.

When it comes time to ideate, we gather a diverse group of voices to build a portfolio of options. Building the team early on to include some divergent thinking is critical to ensure many voices at the table during ideation. IDEO is known for saying “all of us are smarter than any of us.” When working with clients, it’s important to involve them and their critical stakeholders in this phase because champions of change usually emerge from these types of conversations, which increases chances for quicker and smoother adoption down the road. After brainstorming several ideas, eventually ideas converge to isolate potential solution streams.

The creation of basic, low-cost artifacts are developed during the prototyping phase, to capture essential functions and develop a minimum viable product (MVP). The MVP can be easily altered and/or updated based on user feedback. Prototyping is done early and is an iterative process, meaning that radical changes, including complete redesign, can happen. It’s not uncommon to see a robust loop between ideation and prototyping.

Lastly, during the testing phase, the prototype is exposed to users and continuous feedback is incorporated into future iterations. In design thinking, we often hear “fail fast,” meaning if something doesn’t hit the mark, we quickly take the feedback and make adjustments. You may also gain greater insights from testing that may take you back to defining the problem in a different way.

Design thinking can appear on its surface to be focused on “soft” elements such as emotion, intuition and feeling. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, says: “Nobody wants to run a business based on feeling, intuition and inspiration, but an over-reliance on the rational and analytical can be just as dangerous.” Design thinking is a truly integrated approach that takes both the emotional and analytical into consideration to drive innovative solutions.


Photo by Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash


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