Design thinking is a problem-solving framework that is ideal for tackling ill-defined or unknown problems. This makes it very effective for addressing the multifaceted problems faced by today’s increasingly complex organisations. In the words of IDEO Founder, Tim Brown, for businesses, “design thinking is all about upgrading within constraints” – meaning companies must innovate without disruption to drive growth and stay relevant. The successful ones are those which are always seeking new ways to compete in their sector – and design thinking is one framework that can help them achieve this.
In this article, we will first discuss in depth what design thinking is. Then we will cover the design thinking process, whereby we will also go through the five stages of the design thinking process: Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test.
What Is Design Thinking?
Design thinking was developed by Stanford Professor David Kelley who is also the founder of the design agency IDEO. His work was also influenced by Professors Terry Winograd and Larry Leifer at the d.school at Stanford University. Unfortunately there is no single, agreed upon definition of design thinking. However, in a study conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group, the majority of the UX and design professionals define it roughly the same, regardless of industry and experience. Still, there is no agreement on the specifics.
A concise sentence that defines design thinking would be the following:
Design Thinking is a human-centric, iterative, solution-based, problem-solving framework
Whoa! Let us break this down.
Design thinking is:
- A problem-solving approach: It is a methodology that is ideal for tackling complex problems that are ill-defined or unknown. This is because design thinking helps us define a problem, challenge any assumptions and thus reframe it in a way that will help us come up with solutions that may potentially solve it.
- Human-centric: In design thinking, we seek to understand the user. This is why the user – the person for whom we are designing our products or services for, is considered at each stage of the design thinking process.
- Iterative: This means that in the different stages of the design thinking process, you will use the results to review, question and improve any initial assumptions, understandings and outcomes. This makes the design thinking approach a non-linear one.
- Solution-based: The design thinking process provides a very hands-on approach to problem-solving. You will formulate several potential problem-solving approaches, prototype them and test them in the context of the problem being solved. Due to the iterative nature of design thinking, you will be able to re-shape and optimise these approaches until an optimal solution is chosen.
Characteristics Of The Design Thinking Process
Design thinking can be seen as ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking since it encourages you to explore alternatives by creating different, and often innovative solutions that you might not have thought about. At the same time, it focuses on the users’ needs, and thus, it will help you address the problem as experienced by the user, and that includes contextual and cultural factors.
Another critical aspect of design thinking is that it encourages collaborative, multidisciplinary teamwork to leverage skills, personalities and thinking styles of different persons. This will come in handy in all the stages of the design thinking process.
In the words of the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (d.school), design thinking yields innovation by combining three essential components:
- Technical feasibility
- Economic viability
- Human desirability
In this regard, and as stated by the folks at IDEO, design thinking:
- Can help you identify needs that have still not been catered for – thus presentig new opportunities
- Reduces the risk asscociated with launching new ideas since it promotes the idea of fail early and often (through prototyping)
- Generates innovative solutions – rather than adding more to existing ones
- Helps organisations learn faster
The 5 Stages Of The Design Thinking Process
You can apply the design thinking method to solve complex problems by taking the five stages approach as proposed by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (d.school). What is interesting about this approach is that it first starts with employing divergent styles of thinking to explore as many possibilities as possible, but then it encourages convergent styles of thinking to isolate potential solution streams. That being said, these five stages are not always sequential and can occur in parallel and repeat iteratively. Therefore, the best way to see them are as phases that contribute to an innovative project.
The five stages of the design thinking process are the following:
- Stage 1 – Empathise: The objective of this stage is to gain an empathetic understanding of your users, their needs and what they really care about. To achieve this, you need to put aside any personal assumptions that you might have about your users or the problem you are tackling. You should observe, engage (for example through interviews) and empathise with people to understand their experiences, what they value and what motivates them. Additionally, it is recommended that you get a feel of the physical environment within which the problem lies. These techniques will help you empathise – an essential aspect of the human-centred approach that is design thinking. This stage will inevitably yield a considerable amount of information – which you will then need to use for the 2nd stage. Your challenge will be to synthesise all this information within the context of your design.
- Stage 2 – Define (the Problem): In this stage, you should analyse, sort out and sequence the information you have gathered in the first stage in such a way that lets you define better the problem you are tackling. If you have conducted interviews in the first stage, you can analyse the answers and highlight any key phrases that relate to the problem. Thus, this stage will bring clarity and focus to your work because you will know what the real problem is. Ideally, it would be best if you wrote this down in the form of a problem statement. What is interesting is that up till now, you have shaped the definition of the problem solely as seen from the users’ perspectives and without any constraints of existing solutions.
- Stage 3 – Ideate: Using the problem statement from stage 2, you can start generating several logical ideas that seek to resolve the problem. These ideas are typically rough ideas – ones that are the result of brainstorming. Still, they should be valid approaches that can potentially solve the problem being tackled. The important thing here is to “think outside the box” and generate several ideas so that there are some options to choose from for prototyping in the next stage. You can sketch these ideas and show them to the users to refine them and at the same time filter those ideas that are worth investigating further.
- Stage 4 – Prototype: During this stage, you will work with your team to generate several inexpensive prototypes to be able to investigate and explore the potential solutions proposed so far. The aim of the prototype stage is also to have something to share and will act as a basis of communication with your team members and other stakeholders including users. It is essential to remember that you are not trying to identify the correct solution here. Instead, you are exploring from a number of potentially good approaches to addressing the problem. Therefore, you should not waste much time thinking about how to prototype or building a prototype. You should pick up some materials and start. Each solution is prototyped, investigated and accepted, improved, re-examined or rejected. Not spending too much time and not building complex, costly prototypes will thus make it easier for you to let go and move to another one. At the end of this stage, you will have a good idea of which solutions are most likely to address the problem and what their constraints are.
- Stage 5 – Test: The best solutions from the prototyping stage are tested in the context of the real product using designers, evaluators and real users. Testing is carried out to evaluate each prototype and assess the degree to which it addresses the problem that is being tackled. This is an iterative process since the results from these tests can sometimes be used to refine the problem, the proposed prototypes and the solutions. This leads to further alterations and refinements of the prototypes being tested, and hence moving back to previous stages. Testing also provides an opportunity to understand and empathise more the users since you are observing and engaging them. This is also a stage that will help you personally to refine the way you have framed the problem and address any remaining pre-conceptions that you might still have. The result of this stage is a prototype that solves the problem, and hence one that can be used as a model to build the real solution.
Where Can I Learn More About Design Thinking?
While I have tried to cover the most important areas in design thinking, this article is by no means exhaustive. There are of course several resources on the subject. From my experience, however, I would recommend the Interaction Design Foundation’s course entitled “Design Thinking: The Beginner’s Guide“. The course is extremely detailed and covers all aspects of design thinking.
Another course that I would recommend from the IDF is “Become a UX Designer from Scratch“. This is a more comprehensive course that covers various aspects of what it entails to become a UX designer, including, of course, design thinking. I have personally undertaken this course, and it covers all of the material presented in this article and much more.
UsabilityGeek is an approved educational partner of the Interaction Design Foundation (IDF) – the world’s largest UX design learning community. If you are interested in the above courses or would like to undertake any of the courses being offered by the IDF, they are currently offering 3 FREE months of UX Design Courses for all UsabilityGeek readers!
(Lead image: Depositphotos)