The business world is full of constantly evolving ideas, and with new ideas come new terminology. Some are buzzwords that fly in and out of fashion, and some become indispensable foundations for the processes we undertake every day. You’ve likely heard people talking for a while now about “design thinking.”
Where did design thinking come from and what does it mean? How can we use design thinking to enhance our approaches to overcoming obstacles and finding solutions?
Design thinking as a term is considered to have first been put into writing by author John E. Arnold in his 1959 work “Creative Engineering.” Around that time engineers, designers, artists, and professionals from many industries started becoming aware that the processes used by designers could be applied to many or all of life’s challenges as a spectacularly effective means of arriving at innovative solutions.
Since then the term continued to be examined and fine tuned to help interested leaders understand how best to implement design thinking within their own office’s operations. However, if it’s been around that long, why are some people only recently hearing about it?
1991 was an important year for design thinking. The first symposium on design thinking was held in the Netherlands at the Delft University of Technology. Researchers came together to specifically focus on the concept of design thinking collectively, which had never been done before. (Authors Cross, Dorst, and Roozenburg published a book on the discussions held there, which can be found for free online in the Delft archives. Click here to check it out for yourself.)
The other very important design thinking event in 1991 was the formation of IDEO. This world famous design and consulting firm began as a merger between organizations owned by David Kelley, Bill Moggridge, and Mike Nuttall. IDEO’s new and powerful business team-up was focused right away on design thinking as a foundation for how their venture would operate internally. Design thinking as a framework would be imparted to their clients so that they could continue finding successful strategies even when they weren’t actively working with IDEO.
You can incorporate design thinking into your business strategy right away. In the next section we will provide the fundamental steps of design thinking and what each step means.
Design Thinking is a Paradigm Shift
So what is design thinking? While there’s no single answer, it can best be described as a mindset or a process, and can be broken down into parts. Here are 5 elements of a design thinking process.
1. Understanding with Empathy
Whoever has come to you with a problem in need of a solution is seeking help. Understand not just what they are asking for on the surface level, but the deeper needs driving the request. Learn who they are and how their project fits into their personal narrative and the lives of others involved.
2. Research and Define
Gather the information generated from the empathy step and any information from further research on the project limitations and potentials. Clearly define the need being addressed and the scope of what you intend to do about it. Be sure not to start brainstorming solutions before or during steps one and two, or you will needlessly incorporate personal biases into the data.
3. Ideation Sessions
One of the best parts of the whole project: brainstorming ideas. Go wild. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Have your team throw their most innovative ideas onto the table and see what comes out of it. Eventually you will have all the puzzle pieces you need to form a fantastic product or solution. Now is not the time to filter, as you are looking for quantity, so don’t hold back yourself or others.
Now it’s time to filter all the ideas and take your best to the next level: make prototypes. There’s many ways to prototype depending on what feedback you’re looking for, whether it be form, function, fit, or feel. Prototypes can be low resolution and made on the spot, high resolution using advanced rapid manufacturing techniques, or wireframes to demonstrate a digital interface.
Examine the various elements of your prototypes and find out what works or doesn’t work. Use the information collected here to further refine the project, or find out if you need to take a completely new direction and go back to a previous step. Ideas not panning out the way you hoped isn’t a failure, it’s a part of the process.
Applying Design Thinking Beyond Product Design
If you assume these steps can’t help you because you don’t make products, think again. Every problem, challenge, struggle, obstacle, dilemma, dispute, or issue you or your company face in life can be solved through a version of these same steps.
Let’s say you have a human resources process that isn’t playing out the way you intend.
Step 1: Talk to the people affected by this problem to get the real scoop on what’s taking the situation off course. How do they perceive the system in place currently?
Step 2: Do your own research and find out what other people have done to solve similar HR issues. Add that to the mix of what you discovered in the first step to define what the exact challenge is.
Step 3: Write down every idea you have about how to incorporate the things you learned into a solution that fits the situation best. For better results, gather a team of people you trust to provide insight on this potentially delicate situation and see what they think.
Step 4: Formulate a plan to put your solution in place.
Step 5: Test it out and see what the affected people think about it. Does it solve the original issue? If so, great, if not, back to the drawing board.
Design thinking is something many people do instinctively without even realizing they’re doing it. It may sound too simple to be groundbreaking, but taking these steps out of the realm of intuition and instead clearly defining them was revolutionary. Design thinking continues to dominate as the go-to process for finding better solutions in product design.
See what design thinking can do for your business as well.