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How do some companies do it? Year after year they release creative and innovative products to meet needs people don’t even know they have. It’s not magic, and it’s not luck — these creations and innovations are the product of a process known as design thinking.
Design thinking isn’t new in the business world — Apple, Coca-Cola, and Nike all use some version of it to build their brands. Unfortunately, many people are not taught what it is or how to use it!
The great thing about design thinking is how diverse it can be. Because of design thinking, there are innovations taking place in nursing, school curriculums, app development, management strategies, and physical product design.
The evidence truly speaks for itself. If you want to be more creative, design thinking is a great place to start!
So, What Exactly Is Design Thinking?
Design thinking is somewhat difficult to define. One of the best ways to get a feel for the process is to watch the video clip below. This video features IDEO (one of the biggest names in design thinking) going through the full design thinking process to redesign the humble shopping cart.
Design thinking is a solution-focused process. Through this focus, it challenges existing structures and processes and strives to truly address human needs in all circumstances.
Design is considered from the very beginning of product creation. Further, design is a focus, not merely an afterthought to make an existing product more aesthetically pleasing. As well, wild ideas are encouraged and fully developed before being brought back to a more sustainable, usable version of themselves.
The 4 Principles of Design Thinking
Christoph Meinel and Larry Leifer are authors of an entire book on design thinking. In their book, they discuss four key principles to apply throughout the design thinking process:
- The Human Rule — Design is inherently social. Designers work with each other, with the work of past designers, and with input from current human users while developing their best products.
- The Ambiguity Rule — Problems are ambiguous and open to interpretation. Designers need to avoid eliminating this ambiguity in search of a simpler question to answer. Removing ambiguity limits creativity.
- The Re-Design Rule — Design thinking posits that all design is re-design. Humans are constantly looking for new ways to solve variations on old problems.
- The Tangibility Rule — The best way to communicate design ideas is through tangible ideas and products. Tangible ideas and products allow improved dialogue, understanding, and problem-solving.
Beyond these four principles, the entire design thinking process involves a specific perspective. For best results, encourage creative thinking, teamwork, empathy, curiosity, and optimism throughout the entire process.
How Do You Follow a Design Thinking Process?
Each model of design thinking may have slightly different names for the steps involved. But, in general, following a design thinking process involves going through approximately seven steps.
You won’t necessary complete these seven steps won’t necessarily, nor will you only do each step once. Design thinking is an iterative process, so the order and progression of steps will change from project to project. The principles and steps work together to get those creative juices flowing.
Step One: Empathize/Research
In most cases, designers aren’t solving their own problems. Instead, they’re solving the problems of people with unique viewpoints, values, cultures, and beliefs.
It’s of utmost importance that designers talk to the target audience while trying to understand the problem that they are solving. These people are the experts in this situation. They understand the problem, and it’s up to the designers to gather this information from them.
Listen to these people’s stories, their complaints, and the things they appreciate about how their situation is right now. A rich understanding of these unique perspectives is key for formulating a solution that meets as many of their needs as possible in a way that works best for them.
After the designers meet with the target audience, it’s important for everyone involved to come together. As information is shared, it may become clear that even more research is needed in certain areas.
Once designers feel that they have a full understanding of the situation, it’s time to move on to step two.
Step Two: Define
The next goal is to define a clear problem statement that will guide the rest of the design process.
It’s important for designers to remember that they are unable to meet the needs of every single person in a given context. Instead, focus the scope of the design by defining the problem for a single group of users — what do they need from the design?
Be careful not to create a problem statement with a solution already in mind. That can stifle creativity before it even has a chance to shine! Instead, make sure that the problem statement can be solved in multiple ways — if the designer can’t think of at least two of the top of their head, the definition needs to be reworked.
This problem statement needs to be clear and informative so that everyone on the team is aware of the project’s direction and focus. Once the team agrees, it’s finally time to start brainstorming solutions.
Step Three: Ideate
Finally, it’s time to start coming up with solutions.
Get the obvious solutions out of the way early, and then focus on being imaginative. The ideas don’t have to work, they don’t need to be practical, and they don’t need to make sense. The team should just focus on spitting them out as fast as possible.
One of the reasons that working in a team, or with input from others, is so valuable is because it is possible for people to build on each other’s ideas. Even if one suggestion is clearly impossible, there may be an element of it that another designer picks up on and uses in a final product.
It’s very important that the environment cultivated for step three is as open and supportive as possible. If an in-person ideation session is impossible, there are many online collaboration tools that may be an effective substitute.
Step Four: Prototype
It’s impossible to know whether or not an idea will work if it isn’t given a try! A prototype doesn’t need to be a perfect version of the product but should provide users with enough information so they can interact with it fully.
Even the wild ideas should be prototyped and given a chance. That being said, create prototypes quickly and without becoming attached to a single idea. If an idea fails, the designer has to be able to discard it easily.
As well, keep track of what you are testing on each prototype, and what you want the user to get out of the experience. This will be invaluable as the team refines these prototypes over subsequent steps.
Step Five: Test
This step is essentially completed in a cycle with step four and six. Now that the prototype is made, it’s time to test it out! Bring the prototype back to the user base, and ask them to put it to the test.
The more observations and insights that the user provides, the better. Carefully watch how they interact with the prototype, where mistakes occur, where unexpected things happen, or where users ask for clarification. This will help designers to creatively solve the problems that arise through the next round of prototypes.
Ask questions while the user completes their task in an attempt to fully understand their motivations, their abilities, and their struggles. Once this information is collected, it’s time to move on to the final step in the design thinking process.
Step Six: Learn
The opinions gathered in step five are interpreted and inform what happens next. Designers interpret the information received from step five’s tests, and see what step they may need to go back to in their design thinking process.
In many cases, this will just be a matter of refining the prototype. Prototypes are combined, expanded on, or discarded based on users’ insights.
In other cases, designers may have to return to the ideate phase, redefine their problem statement, or even go back to their base research in an area. Hopefully, over time, the positive observations made during the testing phase will begin to outweigh the negative, and the prototypes will become more polished, eventually becoming a final product.
It is hard to know when you are finished the design thinking process. In theory, there will always be something new to learn or a better fix for a problem.
However, once a creative solution works effectively for the users identified in the problem statement, it’s safe to say that it is ready for production.
Finding Your “A-Ha!” Idea
This article barely scratches the surface of everything there is to know about implementing design thinking in your life. So, if you want a more in-depth look at the process, IDEO offers some amazing courses through their initiative IDEOU.
Whether you use the design thinking process fully, or just embrace some of its values, it can completely change how you go about solving problems. Its focus on collaboration, supportive brainstorming, and wild ideas is revolutionary when you feel stuck on a problem.
Have you used the design thinking process? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!