Design thinking is a human-centered, user-centric way of approaching product design, innovation and problem-solving.
It begins with empathy — truly understanding a user’s wants, needs, pain points, and potential wins. From there, the design process evolves iteratively in stages; using prototype testing and user research to continuously learn, hone and improve product solutions.
Because the design thinking process is iterative and non-linear, it is sometimes referred to and illustrated as the design thinking cycle.
Global design company, IDEO, is one of the best-known champions of design thinking.
Yet whilst IDEO is a fantastic source of design thinking know-how, IDEO cannot be credited with inventing the Design Thinking framework. In fact, the actual roots of design thinking are a little hard to trace.
Some say that it started in 1960s America when MIT’s Buckminister Fuller created a systematic approach to evaluating the design and solving problems. At the same time in Scandinavia, designers began to ‘design-by-doing’ — using mock-ups and acted scenarios to cooperatively design with prospective end users.
Fast forward three decades and the emergence of service design required designers to tackle complex modern problems and create human-centered solutions. In 1992, Richard Buchanan published ‘Wicked Problems in Design Thinking’, an article that defined design thinking as a means of solving complex (‘wicked’) issues end-to-end with holistic, joined-up, divergent thinking.
The design thinking framework that we know today is likely an amalgamation of years of development — in this sense, it’s a product of the design thinking process itself!
Design thinking is used in organizations and industries across the world. You can even earn a degree in design thinking from Stanford University’s Institute of Design!
As such, the exact framework or approach may vary from application to application. Generally speaking, though, the design thinking framework progresses through five stages.
Remember: just because the following are listed sequentially, does not mean the process runs linearly. Indeed, design thinking is an iterative way of working — you may reach stage 4 and realize through prototyping that you must return to the Ideation phase. Similarly, only through user testing can you ascertain whether the problem you are solving is a genuine pain point for users. If not, you may need to return to stage 1 and better empathize with your ideal user.
In order for your design to be user-centric, it needs to be built with the end-consumer in mind.
This means truly understanding who they are, what they want and need (and why), how that will benefit them in their everyday lives, how they’ll feel when they are using it, and so on.
As a designer or product owner, you may think that you know your user inside-out.
But do you really?
The only way to be sure is to first list out all your assumptions, then use meaningful research to test the validity of the assumptions you have made.
This research may mean observing users — exploring the current coping mechanisms they have for meeting the need you are trying to deliver. You can also use creative thinking tools, such as empathy maps, to capture insight surrounding user thoughts, feelings and behavior.
You should not set out to define the problem you want to solve until you know enough about your user to empathize with them.
The empathize stage can be a little overwhelming. You may have an interview or observation notes, empathy maps, customer journey maps, and Post-It notes stuck all over the walls. So now is the time to distill all that information down and define the human problem you want to solve.
Crucially, this problem should be framed around the user — not your organization.
To help with this, you can use a point of view template. This brings together three elements: user, need and insight you have gleaned from your research.
For example, ‘Newbie knitters (user) need a way of tracking rows/stitches (need) so they can fully relax and unwind whilst knitting (insight)’.
Once you have defined your problem to solve, you can begin to explore ‘How Might We…’ statements. To begin with, you simply want to explore all possible options — to spark ideation and innovative, blue-sky thinking.
How might we redesign knitting needles so they can monitor which row a user is on?
How might we digitally automate the stitch counting process, so knitters don’t have to do it themselves?
At this stage, you want to get obvious — or downright impossible! — solutions out the way first. Ideally, you’d end this phase with a number of possible ideas and opportunities to prototype and take into testing.
Occasionally what seems like a winning idea, in theory, fails to deliver in practice.
And the prototyping stage is exactly the time to find this out — better to learn now, using low-tech mock-ups, than when you actually launch to market
At this time, the prototypes are circulated around the design and development team (and to other stakeholders if you wish). The mission is to discount any no-goers, based on ergonomics, functionality, practicality or cost to build, and progress ideas with real potential into the fifth and final stage...
How you choose to test your ideas will depend on what you are building and for who.
What is important, however, is to carry out user research in controlled conditions, free of bias or assumption, and to remember that the value of testing is to make your product the best that it can be.
Sometimes you will get to this final stage and realize you need to return to the drawing board. And that’s okay.
For a product or service to be commercially successful, it needs to be picked up and used by customers. Design thinking makes this much more likely, by putting the end-user at the very core of the ideation process.
In many cases, solutions which have been developed using the design thinking framework have more commercial potential than those which have not — they are based on a stronger understanding of a user problem, offer an empathetic solution, and have been tested, fine-tuned and eventually taken to market with valuable user feedback.