What began in the mid-20th century as a creative and innovative approach to solving problems in architecture and engineering, has permeated the landscape of modern business as we know it today.
We’re talking about design thinking. A human-centred methodology that puts the user at the forefront of its technical and social innovations.
If you want to know what design thinking is, what the key concepts of design thinking are, and what are some design thinking techniques, then you’ve come to the right place.
Here is what you'll find:
- What is Design Thinking?
- Where does Design Thinking start?
- Key principles of Design Thinking
- What are the 5 stages of Design Thinking?
Let’s get to it!
What is Design Thinking?
First, a quick refresher on what design thinking actually is.
Design thinking is a problem-solving method that uses practical processes and creative thinking to create outstanding products and services for customers.
It's an iterative approach that focuses on meeting the needs of the user.
We will discuss the 5-step process of design thinking later. For now, let's take a look at some of the key concepts that are central to design thinking:
- The goal of design thinking is to better understand the end-users - the people we create products and services for - by taking a keen interest in their motivations and needs.
- Design thinking encourages great empathy for our users, this helps us to identify their unique challenges and pain points related to products and services.
- Design thinking adopts an open-minded approach and assumes nothing. Instead, you are tasked with challenging common assumptions about a problem, the problem itself and the implications of your proposed solutions.
- For lesser-known problems or ones that haven't been clearly defined, design thinking is a great method for finding clarity.
- The iterative aspect of design thinking involves collaboration, idea generation, sketching and prototyping, experimentation and testing. It’s a continuous feedback loop of finding the right solution.
This approach to solving complex problems is grounded in business reality and aims to produce achievable results:
- Technically achievable: Products and processes have to be technically feasible so that they can be developed properly.
- Financially viable: The business must be able to afford the development of a solution and its implementation.
- Desirability and usability: The solution must meet the genuine needs of the end user.
Without feasibility, viability and desirability, design thinking could be reduced to little more than a fantastical notion of idealism. But it’s these business-minded foundations that keep it focused, realistic and deployable across teams.
Where Does Design Thinking Originate?
As the saying goes, “we must look to our past to know where we’re going”, or something to that effect.
Design thinking has its roots in engineering and architecture but has since revolutionised many industries, including:
- Space exploration
- Travel & Hospitality
- Food and Beverage
- Automotive industry
But where did all of this begin?
Design thinking has evolved from many influential moments throughout history. To learn more about its rise to power, check out the image below.
This details a decade-by-decade timeline leading up to where we are now.
You might spot the term “Wicked Problems” mentioned in the chart above.
“Wicked” problems are complex issues that are highly stubborn and difficult to solve.
This might be governmental like crime or immigration. Another example is global issues like poverty or climate change; business-level issues such as achieving sustainable growth or digital transformation.
Design thinking's innovative mindset enables us to develop sophisticated solutions for complex, or wicked problems.
Skip to the present and we can see tech giants such as Google, Apple and Samsung, retail goliaths such as Amazon, right through to travel titans like Airbnb all adopting the design thinking approach.
Design thinking methodologies are taught in leading universities worldwide, such as Harvard, MIT, and the University of Oxford, among others in the UK, Europe, the US, and Asia.
Design thinking is well and truly everywhere.
What are the Key Principles of Design Thinking?
Design thinking is a methodical process but supporting this is a set of guiding principles that drive it. Here are the 5 key principles for design thinking:
User-centricity and empathy
This is the leading principle that design thinking revolves around.
User-centricity and empathy refer to how companies find solutions based on human needs and through user feedback.
Empathy towards users means understanding their unique challenges, desires, and needs on a human level.
To put this another way, you want to treat the cause, not the symptom.
As an example, let’s say you want to increase the download rate of a newly launched app. By prioritising a user-centered customer experience that addresses their needs and pain points, you'll naturally increase downloads as a result of showing empathy towards users.
Design thinking champions alternative perspectives and ideas to create a melting pot of innovation and ingenuity.
Every department across an organisation can lend valuable insights when asked.
People from sales, administration, data, marketing, warehousing, etc., all deal with different aspects of the customer journey, making their input not only useful, but critical to the development of successful products and services.
After all, if you only focus on one part of the user experience, how can you reasonably expect to solve problems they encounter in other areas? Collaboration pools the collective talents and insights of everyone to produce more effective solutions.
Design thinking is a solution-based framework and ideas are the lifeblood of this.
The process of coming up with as many ideas as possible - good or bad - is part of collaboration, the second design thinking principle.
Ideation sessions led by designers should be a judgement-free zone where people can feel comfortable voicing their opinions and makes use of ideation techniques such as mind mapping, sketching, brainstorming and others.
Experimentation and iteration
Armed with a host of great ideas your next design thinking step is to narrow them down and run experiments. Design thinking embraces this iterative methodology by defining and building experiments, and setting KPIs for measuring the results.
As each experiment runs, designers collect feedback and data to refine their experiments and prepare to run again. The iterative process of ideation, experimentation, and iteration is fundamental to product teams and guides the approach to finding the best solution for user needs.
A Bias Towards Action
Design thinking instils a mentality of action through continuous experimentation and refinement.
Rather than team members keeping ideas stuck in their heads, they’re encouraged to build prototypes and gather user feedback after each iteration.
Every trailed version of a product or service inches companies one step closer to a complete solution for their users, empathy feeds action and action fuels the solution.
Putting Principles into Action: How the Design Thinking Methodology Works
Now that we’ve covered the definition of design thinking, an overview of its history and the key principles that underpin its framework, let’s now look at how design thinking plays out in the real world.
This happens in 5 stages:
Together, these stages inform the design thinking process but it’s important to note that design thinking is very much a non-linear approach, meaning these stages are interchangeable.
As ideas take shape, are prototyped and tested, the user feedback will have teams jumping in and out of different stages constantly. Don’t think of it as a rigid structure, more like a flexible guideline. We’ll break down each stage in more detail now.
The first design thinking stage is to find out about your user’s needs and wants.
Your product or service can only be successful if it meets the demands of the user, this is where empathy comes in.
But how does translate into a practical process?
The initial step will be to conduct research on your target audience to identify their pain points, their challenges and what it is they want.
Seek out experts in the field who can lend valuable perspectives on users too.
In addition, conducting surveys, interview sessions and competitor research will show you how other products or services have tried to solve this problem in the past, and where your solution may gain the edge.
With all the information gathered from the empathise stage, you’re ready to define the problem statement.
In a true design thinking manner, this is centred around the problem of the user, not the company. So for example, the problem statement wouldn't read like this:
“We need to increase gym memberships by 25%”, instead it would sound like this:
“Maintaining your physical health also improves mental health which helps to live a happier, more productive life.”
See the difference? Keep the problem statement focused on the user and the specific challenges it’s trying to solve. This will act as a guide throughout the process.
Designers can now gather around and start generating ideas based on the information accumulated in the first two stages.
Commonly, designers will use ideation techniques to get things started. Worst Possible Idea and brainstorming are examples of techniques that facilitate ideas and get people talking.
Your goal in this stage is to come up with as many ideas as possible. It’s a case of quantity over quality as you later whittle down the best ones to move forward with.
With a shortlist of potential solutions, you’re ready to produce some scaled-down version of the product or service that you want to test.
Prototypes can be shared within the team, other departments and in select user groups too for feedback.
As you address each of the problems highlighted in your initial three stages, one by one you start to eliminate ideas based on user feedback.
Prototypes can range from basic models to full interactive digital products. Each time you test them, gather feedback and refine a feature or aspect of the prototype, you get that much closer to realising the end product.
Now comes the moment of truth, testing your end product on real users.
This stage allows for many things.
For starters, you get to see what works and what doesn’t. And you get a deeper insight into how consumers react or behave with it.
Feedback sessions also help companies decide where investment should be placed for developing or implementing their solution.
But keep in mind that design thinking is an iterative process. It’s possible that an entirely new solution may be required post-test or teams will need to loop back to previous stages with their new-found knowledge!
Test, refine, repeat.
Design thinking is an iterative process grounded in principles that place the human experience at the forefront of its methodology.
From humble beginnings to becoming one of the leading frameworks for the world’s largest companies, design thinking aims to solve complex problems with empathy, collaboration, experimentation and user feedback.
If you’re interested in learning more about design thinking and how to apply innovative solutions to your own company, check out our course: Design Thinking Certificate.
The 5 stages of Design Thinking are Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. Click the link above to read the section on the 5 stages of design thinking.
2. What is Ideation in Design Thinking?
Ideation in design thinking refers to the process of generating and developing new ideas to solve a problem or create a product or service. It involves brainstorming, prototyping, and testing potential solutions and is a critical stage in the design thinking process.
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