Design Thinking: A Beginner’s Guide

What is design thinking?

You may have read a lot of definitions for Design Thinking. People have called it an ideology, a strategy, a systemised process, or even a loose set of guidelines. But many agree on its tremendous power to unlock complex problems and deliver innovative solutions in any industries.

At its core, design thinking is creative problem solving.

One of the hallmark features of design thinking, compared to other problem-solving methods, is its heavy focus on the human users. You’re including users in every, or almost every, stage of the process. This is why it is often associated with the human centred design approach.

Essentially, design thinking embodies these key principles:

  • Utterly understand the people, or users, you are trying to solve the problem for.
  • Remove any previous assumptions you have about the issue and the users.
    Stay curious to discover the actual user needs, and then redefine the problem.
  • Design and test solutions iteratively with the users until you arrive at the optimal solution.

How did design thinking come about?

The term design thinking first surfaced around the 1950s when John Arnold used it in his book “Creative Engineering” in 1959. Prior to that, there were many attempts to establish techniques for increasing creativity in industries other than design.

This concept soon expanded to using design as a creative approach to problem solving. In the 90s, a design consultancy called IDEO started popularising the term, making its presence felt in the corporate world.

Today, big companies such as Google, IBM, Apple, and Toyota use Design Thinking to create innovative solutions.

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” — Steve Jobs.

When should you use design thinking?

It’s obvious that designing solutions for your users means you will make a bigger impact in their lives. But when should you use design thinking?

The common school of thought is that design thinking is useful when solving a complex or undefined problem — one without a straightforward answer. But you can apply it to any problem you are trying to solve.

Allow me to show you when design thinking is critical, with an example of the invention of the car.

How design thinking works
Henry Ford has been widely attributed to this quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted; they would have said faster horses.”

Contrary to popular beliefs, there is no validity to this quote’s origin. But for the sake of an example, I’m going to use this to highlight how innovative design thinking can be.

  1. In the 19th century, horse carriages and steam locomotives were the main forms of transport for people.
  2. Your company designs and builds carriages for everyday use.
  3. One of biggest problems with carriages is that people cannot get to the doctors in time during emergencies. Likewise, doctors cannot get to the patient in time when the situation is life and death.
  4. By applying Design Thinking principles, your focus will be on the people who use your carriages regularly.
  5. You must approach the issue with a blank slate, removing any assumptions about the people, problem, and solution. Therefore, you must discard misconceptions such as the carriage driver being slow, the people being slow to react, or that the solution is in the form of a faster carriage or more horses.
  6. After extensive interviews and research, your team then brainstorm ways to devise a better solution. With several companies and inventors already racing to invent the first automobile in the market, it becomes clear that this is the way forward for your company.
  7. By designing a new mode of transport and testing it with your customers iteratively, you will eventually arrive at your first automobile design.

Of course, this is an over simplified illustration that cuts decades of development and testing. Furthermore, in this example, the automobile isn’t a silver bullet solution. We also need better healthcare and more hospitals for people.

If you are designing a new product, the design thinking model will simplify and clarify the premise, and challenge all conventional assumptions you, your team members and other relevant stakeholders may bring to the discussion table. It also helps uncover ingenious solutions you’ve never thought of or may be staring at you in the face.

What are examples of Design Thinking?

I apply design thinking extensively for our clients in industries such as retail, education, and construction. Some of the biggest companies in the world embed design thinking as part of their internal strategies and processes.

  • IBM’s Design Thinking model permeates across all their products from enterprise to community services.
  • Google’s moonshot projects, which uses principles of Design Thinking, are about coming up with radical and ground-breaking solutions for critical issues. One project called Loon designs balloons that hover in the atmosphere to deliver internet to rural areas in impoverished countries such as Indonesia.
  • PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi is deeply invested in Design Thinking for its product, hiring Pepsi’s first Chief Design Officer in 2012.

What is the design thinking process?

The Design Thinking Process

There are different models to this, ranging between 5 and 9 steps, all embodying the Design Thinking principles. I’m going to outline the 6-step process I use with clients.

1. Understand
This stage is about understanding your users and the problem they are facing through interviews and research. Your mind must be clear of any preconceptions and assumptions to empathise with the users.

I have an arsenal of techniques and tools to accomplish this stage such as: Lighting Talks, User Interviews, Expert Interviews, Affinity Mapping, User Journey Map, Six Thinking Hats

2. Define
Define the premise — the user, issue, current solution, and end goal. Based on the knowledge acquired in the previous stage, you will define or reframe the premise on a blank piece of paper to get everyone on the same page.

Handy techniques: Experience Strategy Template, Design Principles, Success Metrics, Value Proposition Canvas, Business Model Canvas

3. Ideate
You and your team will generate a bunch of ideas, regardless whether they are possible or not. Refrain from judging any of the ideas shared because it will stunt creativity. This gives a breadth of solutions you can expand on to decide with your users in the next stage.

Handy techniques: Comparable Problem, Boot-up Note Taking, Crazy 8s, Solution Sketch

4. Decide
Decide with your users on the best ideas and prioritise which ideas to pursue first.

Handy techniques: Goals & Questions, Dot Voting, Decision Matrix, Heat Map Voting, Note & Vote

5. Prototype
Rapidly build a prototype based on your idea, or parts of your idea. It can be a simple mockup, a basic build, or a high-fidelity prototype for your users to test in the next stage.

Handy techniques: Storyboard, User Test Flow, Clickable Mocks, Interactive Prototype, Paper Prototype, Vision Video

6. Validate
Test your prototype with users and get comprehensive feedback on what worked and what didn’t. The lessons learnt here will loop back into previous stages, whether Define, Ideate, or Prototype. Iteration is a huge part of design thinking, which is all about refining your ideas until you reach a final build or resolution.

Handy techniques: Usability Test, Cognitive Walkthrough, Surveys, Live Experiment, Stakeholder Review, Technical Review

What is the difference between Agile and Design Thinking?

How Design Thinking marries well with Agile Development

Design thinking is a mindset or model to innovatively solve a problem.

The Agile methodology is an efficient development process that divides the work into realistic and manageable portions, or sprints. Products and services can be built quicker while constantly seeking feedback and pivoting as appropriate.

When you combine Agile and Design Thinking, you can rapidly build a solution based on the creative ideas born through design thinking.

Can you use design thinking in product management?

Design thinking fits perfectly in the product management process, whether you are a start-up building something new or a seasoned product manager in a big company. I’ve put design thinking to practice many times with my clients that I wouldn’t recommend building a product without it.

Design thinking can help you:

  • Align a vision within different teams from management to development and marketing, as well as relevant stakeholders.
  • Delve deeply into the needs of your customers due to its human centred emphasis.
  • Simplify or redefine complex or multifaceted business problems.
  • Develop a wide range of ideas for your product or service.
  • Create out-of-the-box product strategies.
  • Objectively identify projects in terms of risk profile and scope of work.
  • Prioritise projects based on what users need the most.

You have nothing to lose by applying design thinking principles in your business. At the very least, it will help you get to know your customers or users better, which is always good for business. Or you will break new grounds, smash glass ceilings, and create a tremendous and lasting impact in people’s lives.

Check out Relab Academy’s product design strategy course, based on design thinking and design sprint methodologies.

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Alvin Hermanto

Alvin Hermanto

Family first // Principal @relabstudios // Customer-obsessed digital design agency // Design sprint advocate // Melbourne // Say hello @alhermanto