What is design thinking and what’s important when you apply it?

Though design thinking has its origins in the (somewhat more) creative industry, the ‘design’ in design thinking, is not a noun but a verb. ‘Design’ is not the product, but the designing of a solution brought to the user in the form of a product, process or any other result of the design thinking method.

The official definitions of Design Thinking

The official definitions are below, highlighted with keywords that sparked my interest. Important to remember is that the next steps in the design thinking method might be filled in quite differently depending on the company or project you’re working for.

“Design thinking utilizes elements from the designer’s toolkit like empathy and experimentation to arrive at innovative solutions. By using design thinking, you make decisions based on what future customers really want instead of relying only on historical data or making risky bets based on instinct instead of evidence.”IDEO, the company where Design Thinking originated

Another, more general interpretation of Design Thinking is:

“Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, Design Thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It is a way of thinking and working as well as a collection of hands-on methods.”Interaction Design

Elements of Design Thinking

Design Thinking revolves around 5 steps: Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. The structure, ease of sharing and adaptability to the problem at hand that this method allows, has certainly contributed to the popularity of Design Thinking.

Though there’s a reason for the order of these steps, it’s good to know that in practice, these steps take place iteratively and sometimes simultaneously. When during testing it becomes clear some elements are not meeting user satisfaction demands, you might go back to the ideation phase. Also, the prototype is a basic solution that still requires adjustments and therefore includes understanding the user in a more sophisticated way than before.

Design Thinking: Empathise

Design Thinking EmpathiseEmpathising is about understanding the user. Though this understanding will become more refined during the full process, the first phase is about charting the user, their needs, their motivation, their user context, etc. But it also might include drawing out very concrete elements of a typical user’s life: what does their morning ritual look like? Do they have breakfast? Do they hit the snooze button or not?

“Users might literally tell you something else than what really motivates them”

For example: people that are motivated to go running or swimming before work, might literally tell you that they don’t have time or enough self-discipline in the evening. Once they hit the couch, they know they won’t be able to lift themselves. But if you make full use of the empathise phase, you might come to the understanding that they derive pride from being in the ‘elite club’ of top performers who have the self-discipline to get up at 6 to work out. Or they feel that they ‘reclaim their lives’ by getting up for themselves and their activities, instead of getting up to be on time for work.

If you were working on an alarm clock that shouts out motivational reminders, you might have to reprogram it to shout “Elite results come from elite discipline”, instead of “You won’t do it tonight”. If you were designing an activity program to make employees exercise before school time so PE isn’t an educational activity only, your whole end solution might be off if you didn’t have the insight above.

Design Thinking: Define

Design Thinking DefineDefining the problem is the next step. When you understand you user, it’s easier to frame the problem more clearly. It’s about interpreting what you (as a group) have learned. You put together all the research and analyse the patterns, searching for possible pain points or opportunities. Pain points or opportunities can be found by looking gaps (something is missing), wishes (if only I could.. ) or annoyances. Feelings described by the target audiences are good indicator. When they react strongly in their answers, it’s an issue that is important to them. The outcome of the define stage is an actionable outcome.

For example, if missing a morning exercise results in being grumpy all day and not enjoying their evening, it’s clearly important to their morning ritual. Also, avoiding Tuesdays as a workout day because someone else runs the same lap on Tuesday but 15 minutes earlier, might confirm a loss of fun of working out in the ‘early elitist’ workout group, since someone else is apparently more disciplined.

If the motivation of working out in the morning is ‘reclaiming their own live’, the person might not mind the guy who works out 15 minutes earlier on Tuesday. But they might start to experience trouble when asked to start working an hour early since there would be not enough time to exercise before their job.

Design Thinking: Ideate

Design Thinking - IdeateThis is the phase that most people who don’t consider themselves creative, might imagine is the ‘creative phase’. The one where you brainstorm, have strange suggestions, saying ‘no’ isn’t allowed, colourful pencils and post-it come out, people have a laugh. The stuff that ends up in documentaries about IDEO, Apple and other design firms. That’s not what ideate is about.

“‘The best’ should be defined by a mix of satisfying the user needs, goals of the company initiating the project and feasibility demands: time, money, people and other restrictions.”

Ideation is about generating ideas surrounding the problem statement you’ve developed. But it is also about making a choice from that range of ideas. And the ideas that are being generated are not random: they are (and should be!) already heavily influenced by the previous two phases. Within that context, as many ideas as possible are brought up by team members, after which a selection is made that only leaves the best ideas. ‘The best’ should be defined by a mix of satisfying the user needs, goals of the company initiating the project and feasibility demands: time, money, people and other restrictions.

For example: if a government decides it wants its citizens to all have a BMI between 18-25 in the next 2 years, a 10-year program of psychological change of behaviour is not in line with the goal. Increasing the tax on bad food by 200% and making fruit and vegetables free might be a better idea. Unless the budget doesn’t allow for that, in which case handing out diet pills at every supermarket might be more feasible.

Obviously, these examples are a bit extreme, but they underline the idea that the ideate phase is just as much as making well-founded decisions as it is about generating ideas.

Design Thinking: Prototype

Design Thinking - PrototypePrototyping is about experimenting with the chosen idea. A first mock-up is developed, whether on paper or out of cheap, easy to use building materials. If you’re developing a user flow in an IT system, this might be where you let user paste the post-its to the wall in the order they prefer, thus mapping out their preferred flow. You then make some mock-ups on screen and see if the user flow still works.

It’s important to know what you want to test in this phase. Considering the IT system, you might want to test user flow, but you also might want to test the amount of fun people derive from using the system. The level of self-explanatory capacity of the system, or maybe only spot major road blocks that stop users from using the system. Make sure you capture as much feedback as possible, that it’s easy to readjust your prototype quickly and that you can test it again as soon as possible.

Design Thinking: Test

Design Thinking - PrototypeFinally, the testing phase. This is where you take all the learnings from the previous phase, redesign your product and start developing an MVP. This is where the Test-stage gets interesting. A Minimal Viable Product should reflect the minimum requirements that make a product ‘viable’, capable of ‘surviving the real world’ and the related factors that impact chances of survival.

“MVPs are too often defined on a functionality level instead of a viability level”

That includes user adoption, which often strongly relates to change in behaviour, ease of use, learning curve etc. Those qualities in turn often depend on characteristics such as use of colour, interface design, consistency of language and semantics, feedback loops from the system, tone of voice, assistance when required, etc.

In practice, a lot of companies consider their MVP as a ‘minimal functional product’: does respond when I click a button? Can it in one way or the other, produce the right output? Of course, there is some usability logic applied, but most of the other qualities (learning curve) or characteristics (feedback loops) are seen as adornments or extra’s, since ‘they are what makes the system looks pretty’.

And as it turns out, the very dedicated, loyal and friendly colleagues or customers you’ve persuaded to be in your testing group, actually do figure out how to perform the actions you’ve identified for them. After 10 minutes, they’re signed up and ready to go. Except that signing up for a new sports-app these days, might have to take a maximum of 30 seconds. So, that won’t work for the big masses and the product fails, leaving the team that worked so hard on it, wondering why.

Another case might be a SaaS product, where signing up requires a lot of company and market specific information, such as the building materials market. How much projects did you company run last year? For a total amount of how many m2? For each of these building materials, please fill in what amount was used? For the woodworking section, what amount of wood was certified? By what certifier?

A signup process like that obviously takes more than 30 seconds. But you still should set a benchmark somehow. Usually by setting expectations and measuring them. If the average time for the fasted 50% is 15 minutes, then make sure system is so easy to use the other 50% of the users can also sign up within 15 minutes.

That might sound like you’re already building a pretty advanced version of your product, but that’s not necessarily the case. The point here is: make sure what boxes should be ticked by your MVP, and that’s not just functionality.

Further tips for design thinking

  • The steps above are iterative. That means they might have to be repeated in order to generate better outcomes. It also means the phases are not as clear-cut as described but that they can run simultaneously;
  • Don’t think of design thinking as having fun with post-its to create cool, suave or pretty products. Take it seriously and be critical of the process when you apply it to your own context;
  • Be analytical, demanding and clear of the outcomes. If you feel your team doesn’t fully understand the user yet, dive back in. If the problem statement might create trouble later down the road, redo the exercise. Take your time to dive in deep and learn as much as you can;
  • Don’t think of your MVP in terms of functionality only. This is one of the most common mistakes in design practices in general! Define what will make your solution ‘viable’ and test that!

And most importantly: design thinking is about designing solutions, not designing products or services, those are merely the vehicles that bring a solution. Good luck!