What is Design Thinking and Why Should You Use it?

Every now and again, a new way of working can lead to incredible improvements. And that is what design thinking is about, unleashing creative energy, winning commitments and drastically improving processes. Not just reserved for those designing buildings, the concept can be applied to art, music science and, you guessed it, technology. The  processes within design thinking enable designers to use human-centred techniques to solve problems in innovative ways. And, you don’t have to take our word for it. Design thinking is used by some of the world’s leading brands. The likes of Apple, Google and Samsung have all rapidly adopted the approach, and it is being taught at leading universities across the globe. The question is, what is it all about, and what can it do for your business? 

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that aims to help application designers understand their users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions. To put that more simply, it’s a solution-based approach to problem-solving. 

At the core of design thinking is the need to understand the people that products or services are being designed for. After all, only by understanding the target user can you develop empathy for them. So, design thinking is all about questioning especially when it comes to assumptions and implications. This is what makes design thinking so relevant when the core problems are ill-defined or unknown. By looking at a problem differently, designers have an opportunity to reframe it, to brainstorm new ideas and to adopt a hands-on approach of prototyping and testing.

Why is Design Thinking So Important?

In the world that we live in, everything is becoming increasingly connected. And that means that user  environments and behaviours are adapting. So, it stands to reason that, to excel at application design, we need to address human needs in the context of their environment. What’s more, the design process will often involve several people, groups or departments which can make problem-solving complicated. Design thinking, however, offers an approach to organise core ideas and keep everyone on track. 

With design thinking, you can develop a holistic and empathic understanding of the problems people face. And it is something that every one of us is able to achieve. Design thinking uses skills we all have, but that can be overlooked by traditional problem-solving methods. Consider your ability to be intuitive, recognise patterns and develop ideas that are emotional as well as functional. While we, of course, need to be careful not to run any development project based on feelings or inspiration, leaning too heavily on the rational and analytical can cause just as many problems. Design thinking delivers an integrated approach to the design process that gives your team access to real insights, methods to discover innovative answers and the freedom to generate ground-breaking solutions. 

What Are the Key stages to Design Thinking?

While there are many variants of the design thinking process, they are all very similar and follow the same principles. The majority are formed around the following five stages, put forward by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford:

  1. Empathise with your users

User research is fundamental to helping you gain a true understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve. And empathy is, therefore, critical to any human-centred design process. You will need to set aside your own assumptions if you are to gain real insight into your users, their problems and what they need. 

  1. Define a problem statement

Once you’ve gathered information, you then need to analyse it and to use it to define the problems that it’s helped you to identify. Known as problem statements, the definitions developed here form the backbone of the human-centred approach and give everyone involved in the development project a clear focus. 

  1. Ideate innovative solutions

With knowledge and a clear idea of user needs and problems, you can start to generate ideas. What is vital here is that you move away from your preconceptions or previous assumptions. Ideating is all about thinking outside of the box and looking for alternative ways to view the issues at hand. This stage enables you to brainstorm and come up with innovative solutions. 

  1. Prototype your ideas

While this is where you begin to actually create something based on your ideas, it is still very much an experimental phase. It gives you an opportunity to produce prototypes or preliminary versions of the best solutions from the ideation stage. What you need to avoid is putting too much time and money into prototyping, it could be as simple as a paper version of your solution, a wireframe or a basic interactive model. 

  1. Test the results

Once you have a prototype, it’s time to find out how well it performs. Testing gives you a chance to rigorously assess your solutions against your problem statement. And, of course, testing should be done alongside your users. It is vital that they remain central to the design thinking process so that you can make further iterations, alterations and refinements that will enable the solution to truly solve the problems they are facing. 

It’s important to take into account that these stages don’t have to run consecutively. Sometimes they may run in parallel, especially when it comes to continual interaction. For   example, during testing, you might uncover another user insight that leads to further ideation. So, rather than thinking of design thinking as a step by step process, it is an overall mindset as to how each phase contributes to innovative solutions. 

How Can Design Thinking Improve Your Next Project?

Design thinking techniques can sit at every level of a business and aren’t purely reserved for designers; anyone who is linked to your project can use the methodology to drive new alternatives for your business. Ultimately, by adopting design thinking, you can match human needs with technical resources and business ability. By thinking outside the box with a design thinking mindset, you can:

  • Better understand the people who you’re designing for.
  • Discover new ways to meet user needs.
  • Reduce the inherent risk of launching a new product.
  • Generate solutions that make a real difference.
  • Learn and iterate faster.

In summary, here are the five stages of design thinking that can help you constantly question, redefine user problems and  create better solutions as a result:

  1. Empathising – understand user problems and needs.
  2. Defining – reframing user problems in human-centric ways.
  3. Ideating – removing assumptions and looking for innovative solutions.
  4. Prototyping – creating simple versions of your solutions.
  5. Testing – gaining insight as to whether your ideas work.
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About the author

Michael Ridland is the Co-CEO and Founder of Xam Consulting.

Design-led problem solving delivering digital solutions.

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