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31 Things you may not have known about “Design Thinking”

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Or may have forgotten.

“The proper study of mankind is the science of design, not only as the professional component of a technical education but as a core discipline for every liberally educated man.” -Herbert Simon

#1. There is no single design process

The design process is described as multiple stages with each comprising of different activities to complete the said stage and there is no single standard process for all, every company and designer have their own versions of the process.

Despite the existence of multiple processes, the general process and stages resemble the following,

  • Understand the problem: To get an initial understanding of the problem. Observe, interview, and listen to the users.
  • Define the problem: Interpreting and defining the problem to be solved.
  • Ideate: Generating as many ideas as possible through brainstorming
  • Prototype,: Build prototypes and share them with other people (narrow down the solution space again, experimental phase)
  • Test: Testing the possible solutions, implement, and refine or re-designing.

#2. Design thinking is a combination of traditional problem solving and a creative design process.

Traditional problem-solving takes a methodical and a scientific form. The process starts from a problem, defining the steps to be taken and tools or methodology to reach a solution.

Design thinking is a creative strategy to produce creative future results and/or creative resolutions to problems, it should be thought of as a solution-focused thinking strategy.

It is often described as a creative, subjective, and emotional alternative to the analytical logic characterizing many large organizations (Brown, 2008), or as a combination of analytical and creative modes of reasoning (Dunne & Martin, 2006; Liedtka, 2015).

#3. Design thinking is an evolution of problem-solving.

The basis of design thinking stems from general problem-solving.

From solving problems to design thinking, Liedtka (2013)

It was found that design thinking was, in fact, also a problem-solving process, not just an innovation process ( Liedtka, 2013)

An example would be when, Toyota employed design thinking to analyze one of its West Coast customer-contact centers from the ground up, engaging a cross-functional team of frontline call reps, software engineers, business leaders, and change agents in a redesign process that transformed the service center experience for both customers and associates.

#4. You solve problems from the time you wake up to the time you sleep.

We encounter problems every day, but when we solve the same problems, they become routine and we are unaware that we are even solving them, for example, My office is 30 mins away, I need to reach there, what should I do? Drive a car, take a train or bus to the destination, unless the car has a punctured tire, then you need to figure out how to reach the office.

#5. The term “designing thinking”

The specific term “design thinking” was coined in the 1990’s by David Kelley and Tim Brown of IDEO, with Roger Martin, and encapsulated methods and ideas that have been brewing for years into a single unified concept.

#6. Engineering Design thinking is now known as Design thinking.

Design thinking is human-centered, open-ended problem-based approach to transforming the way teaching and learning is conducted in engineering education. The way engineers approach and solve a problem has its basis for design thinking.

Schematic of the design thinking paradigm as an engineering design process

#7. Design Thinking’s history started long before the 2000s.

The term “Design Thinking” dates back to the 1987 book by Peter Rowe; “Design Thinking.” He describes that engineers and architects approach a problem differs significantly.

In the early 90s, cognitive scientist Don Norman joined the team at Apple as their User Experience Architect, making him the first person to have UX in his job title. He came up with the term “user experience design” because he wanted to “cover all aspects of the person’s experience with a system, including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual.” Since then, each of these areas has expanded into specializations of their own.

#8. Wicked design thinking

Design Thinking is especially useful when it comes to solving “wicked problems”.

Characteristics of wicked problems

The term “wicked problem” was coined by design theorist Horst Rittel in 1972 to describe particularly tricky problems that were highly ambiguous in nature. With wicked problems, there are many unknown factors, there is no definitive solution. The problem or solution may be connected to another wicked problem, therefore it was an ongoing process that requires design thinking. Poverty, hunger, and climate change are some modern wicked problems.

#9. Design thinking isn’t limited to one digital design

The subject matter of design is universal in scope because design thinking may be applied to any area of human experience.

It can be used in –

  1. Symbolic and visual communications — This includes the traditional work of graphic design, such as typography and advertising, book and magazine production, and scientific illustration, photography, film, television, and computer display.
  2. Material — This includes traditional concern for the form and visual appearance of everyday products-clothing, domestic objects, tools, instruments, machinery, and vehicles.
  3. Activities and organized services — includes the traditional management concern for logistics, combining physical resources, instrumentalities, and human beings’ inefficient sequences and schedules to reach specified objectives.
  4. Complex systems or environments — living, working, playing, and learning. This includes the traditional concerns of systems engineering, architecture, and urban planning or the functional analysis of the parts of complex wholes and their subsequent integration in hierarchies.

#10. It isn’t limited to only designers.

Design thinking has its origins in the training and the professional practice of designers, but these are principles that can be practiced by everyone and extended to every field of activity. (Brown, 2013)

In businesses process of design can bring innovative thinking to problem-solving within the corporate environment. It can also be used in healthcare, by teaching design thinking techniques to nurses, doctors, and administrators, we can inspire its practitioners to contribute new ideas.

#11. Understanding the problem is the first step.

No matter the design, the reason why it is important to understand and research the problem, is essential because we are able to design from user-centric

The earliest stages of design thinking are about understanding the emotional value you bring. The design thinking approach forces you to stay in the question and not define exactly what the problem is. We all have a tendency to jump to solution mode far too quickly, so the design thinking approach forces you really to live in this unclear, sometimes very muddy place. This ends up producing a much better understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve. (Liedtke,2013)

#12. Design thinking requires two different kinds of thinking

Traditional problem solving involves coming up with one solution but design thinking, first makes us diverge, by trying to generate a diverse assortment of possible alternative solutions to a problem. Then makes us engage in convergent thinking to narrow down the multiple possibilities to find the single best solution.

#13. Design thinking can be taught and learned, it’s not a personality trait

According to Liedtka & Ogilvie (2011), the whole point of design thinking is to learn a new, systematic approach to problem-solving. Just as we think about creativity, even design thinking can be taught and improved upon through practice.

#14. The Design Process is not linear

A design process is never linear and it consists of multiple failures and iterations (Brown, 2018).

First, the designer tries to associate the problem with similar cases from the past. If this approach will not provide any solution, the next step is to generate new ideas using knowledge and creativity as a form of experimental thinking. Evaluation of these ideas using a decision matrix will lead to one solution that will be further analyzed and tested. If successful, it will be implemented. If not successful, the problem needs to be reformulated, and the process repeats. This is an iterative process, i.e. a loop method.

It is the process of continuously redesigning a business using insight derived from customer intimacy.

#15. Research is a very important tool for design thinking

Learning design thinking doesn’t just mean learning a new set of tools. It also means learning to collect and analyze large quantities of data, learning to think what might be instead of is, learning to manage the feeling of uncertainty, and collaborating with many new parties (Liedtka & Oglivie, 2011). The type of research you can do falls into three buckets, generative research, evaluative research, and validating research.

#16. “Fail early and often”

This common phrase that designers should expect to fail early and often (Brown, 2009) was another perspective of design thinking.

When failure occurs early in the process, such as a rejected prototype can produce critical insights toward an effective solution. This view is contradictory to the traditional way of theorizing and waiting to test.

#17. Companies are making Design thinking their core problem-solving approach

Companies as diverse as Airbnb, Braun, and PepsiCo are embracing Design Thinking and making it the core strategy. IBM for example has hired 1,600 designers for 44 design studios dotted around the globe, and it is training tens of thousands of employees in DT to establish a deep innovation capability (O’Keefe, 2017)

#18. Human-centered thinking

Design thinking adds the human-centered element to our problem-solving. When we are trying to solve problems by keeping the people in mind and we use research-based on direct observation and even interviews, we capture unexpected insights and innovation congruent with what consumers want.

#19. Considerable business value

It helps getting successful products to market faster ultimately saves the business money.

IBM’s design thinking practices of one health and human services organization helped slash their number of defects by well over 50% through effective use of design and design thinking. This more efficient workflow is resulting in a calculated ROI of more than 300%.

#20. Useful for complex problems

Since complex problems are never completely well known, the ability to work with ambiguity and multiple, concurrent streams of ideas is a crucial quality in attempting to design a solution.

Design thinking helps in making intuitive leaps through synthesis and abductive thinking. It allows for constraints to be tested through deconstruction and allows for ambiguity to be embraced and explored through multiplicity and critique.

Consumers often don’t know what problem they have that needs solving or they can’t verbalize it. Only after careful observation, one can identify problems based on what they see from real consumer behavior rather than simply working off of their ideas of the consumer. This helps to define ambiguous problems and find solutions.

#21. It is referred to as out of the box thinking

The method encourages “outside the box thinking” (“wild ideas”); it defies the obvious and embraces a more experimental approach.

Wild ideas are encouraged in the earlier process stages, to lead to creative solutions. It is used so that designers can attempt to develop new ways of thinking that do not abide by constraints or more common problem-solving methods.

#22. Characteristics of design thinkers

According to most d.schools there are specific characteristics that are more useful in design thinking,

Empathy- Imagine the world from multiple perspectives — those of colleagues, clients, end-users, and customers. To be better empaths, it is essential to listen and observe the behavior of others, to notice and get insight.

Integrative thinking — It is important not only to be analytical but intuitive to be able to come up with novel solutions.

Optimism- Unless you believe there can be a solution, you might give up when it becomes hard to find solutions when challenges arise.

Experimentalism- Significant innovations don’t come from incremental tweaks. Design thinkers pose questions and explore constraints in creative ways that proceed in entirely new directions.

Collaboration- The increasing complexity of products, services, and experiences has made it essential to have a team with variant backgrounds, to help see the problem from multiple perspectives.

#23. Useful to counter certain biases

The process helps by making us think of multiple solutions to a problem and so “functional fixedness” which prevents us from solving new problems by using old tools in novel ways is tackled. Becoming free of functional fixedness is what first allowed people to use a reshaped coat hanger to get into a locked car. It is also what first allowed thieves to pick simple spring door locks with a credit card.

#24. Practical in nature

To help designers utilize liberal arts and technology theory, to help integrate multiple areas of knowledge to find innovative solutions, we approach design thinking for insight. Since the approach focuses on visualization and action, it becomes easier to understand a physical solution than just a theoretical model.

#25. Implementation

The first US companies started implementing Design Thinking in the early 2000s, and the concept caught the interest of German investor Hasso Plattner who, in 2006, funded the creation of two schools of DT (the d.schools), one at the Potsdam University, Germany, and one at Stanford University, US. As both schools have successfully offered executive Design Thinking training to large organizations, the study focused on these countries to find early implementors

#26. Group thinking

Design Thinking often involves huge teams of stakeholders that want to be included in the whole design and development process.

Diversity of perspectives, talents, and experiences has been regarded as a great source of injecting some new thinking. Diversity ensures creative ideas are produced by melding heterogeneous views, skills, and knowledge (Cousins, 2018; Somech & Drach-Zahavy, 2013). Design thinking’s collaborative methodology and tools help teams to actively leverage their differences in positive ways.

The decision-making is egalitarian in that each member’s opinion is solicited and used (Carlgren et al., 2016).

#27. No need for fancy and technical prototype

When IDEO went to Apple to show their mouse, it wasn’t some fancy device but rather a prototype taped up.

Low-resolution prototypes that are quick and cheap to make (think minutes and cents) but can elicit useful feedback from users and colleagues lies in accordance with the principle to fail quickly and cheaply. Committing as few resources as possible to each idea means less time and money invested upfront. Also, bringing multiple prototypes to the field to test gives users a basis for comparison and helps reveal certain needs.

#28. The process emphasis on mindsets and actions

In order to be innovative, Design Thinking recognizes both cognitions and actions as important to the innovation process. Cognitions include receptivity, optimism, and creative confidence (Kelly & Kelly, 2013; Zheng, 2018), while actions include rapid prototyping, journey mapping, and assumption surfacing (Carlgren et al., 2016; Liedtka, 2015)

#29. Challenges with the implementation of Design Thinking in organizations

If the leadership is unwelcoming of the risk, ambiguity, and change of style, it becomes harder to implement. It can be questioned by managers asking for metrics.

Walters (2011) has claimed that due to the ambiguous nature of design thinking it is in conflict with organizational cultures.

According to the interviewee, using DT becomes the last priority while conducting everyday business since it is resource-intensive, increasing the workload.(Lisa et al,2016)

The approach of “fail often and early” is perceived to be difficult in industry and companies that are risk-averse like healthcare.

#30. The problem with ‘design thinking’

Many designers have come out against this thinking, design thinking is not only about a process but about changing the thought process and increasing the creativity of solutions that one may come up with.

The promotion of ‘design thinking has been used by big global firms to increase their business. In the wider design world though, I would go so far as to say that the over-promotion of ‘design thinking’ has led to a deterioration of the quality of design on offer. — Yasushi Kusume

In ‘The Design Thinking Movement is Absurd’ Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech wrote, “In the end, design thinking isn’t about design. It’s not about the liberal arts. It’s not about innovation in any meaningful sense. It’s certainly not about “social innovation” if that means significant social change. It’s about commercialization.”

#31. Why is there a need to empathize

Observing what people do and how they interact with their environment gives you clues about what they think and feel.

You may think you know the problem but only through observation can we figure what the consumers really need.

IKEA sends designers to people’s homes to see how they interact and understand their needs. This will allow you to infer the intangible meaning of those experiences in order to uncover insights. These insights give you direction to create innovative solutions. The best solutions come out of the best insights into human behavior

The Good Kitchen, a social-service agency that provides meals to the elderly and infirmed. The problem at first seemed to be a poorly designed meal menu. Then Design Thinking revealed a myriad of issues all stemming from the nature of the service itself. Consequently, the service was overhauled, resulting in increased satisfaction from clients and staff. (Liedtka, 2014)


31 Things you may not have known about “Design Thinking” was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.