Everything you need to know about design thinking to help your business

Design thinking is a person-centered, iterative methodology that is used to innovate and solve problems in business. Don’t be fooled by the name - it’s not all about design! It is so-called because it focuses on approaching challenges in the way that designers tend to approach challenges. Many complex problems come up in business that need solving, often in and by project teams. How many meetings have you had where you have wondered how you will all solve a complicated challenge that has surfaced as part of a project? Or maybe, the project itself was the challenge!

Design thinking helps individuals and teams solve problems by coming at them from a different angle. It uses aspects of the designer’s toolkit to reframe how we look at problems and helps us work through ways to solve them. Design thinking organizes these processes into a framework, or a number of phases, that can be used to approach a problem and find a solution.

Why is design thinking a popular way of solving problems?

Design thinking is a way of working through problems in business that targets solutions and looks at how problems can be solved by focusing on the end user rather than just looking at the problem itself. It considers the role a product or service ultimately needs to fulfil. This helps businesses seek out and find the right product or service more quickly, based on what their customers actually need a solution to, and not just what they want to produce or think would be a good thing to offer.

Who invented design thinking?

The concept of design thinking dates back to the 1950s but did not become a mainstream concept until the early 2000s. In the 1960s Horst Rittel coined the phrase ‘wicked problems’ to refer to problems that were particularly complex to solve, and referenced the problem-solving process in design. This idea gained momentum and from the 1960s onwards Nobel Prize-winning American professor, Herbert A. Simon, offered many ideas and concepts through his work that are now often considered to be at the basis of design thinking. 

Many others also contributed to this discussion over the years. In the 1980s an experiment was done by a British professor, Bryan Lawson, to look at how two sets of post-graduate students – architects and scientists - approached the same problem. The architectural post-graduates turned out to use a solution-focused process, while the scientists approached the same thing by focusing on the problem. Designers, it seemed, had a different way of looking at problems that could be very useful on a business level.

However, it was an American design and consulting firm, IDEO, that really brought the concept of design thinking into prominence in the 1990s. Tim Brown and David Kelley of IDEO were instrumental in introducing design thinking into everyday business problem-solving. In 2004 David Kelley, who is also a Stanford University professor, founded a design thinking institute at Stanford, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. It is more-commonly known as the “d.school” and design thinking is now a school of thought that many educational establishments and businesses have adopted and adapted.

What are the five pillars or phases of design thinking?

Design thinking looks at the process of solving a problem or challenge based on moving through a five-step process. These steps will tend to be carried out in this order, but do not have to be. It is expected that there will be iteration within and between the phases. We will look at these and how the 5W1H method applies to this concept.

The five pillars of the design thinking process

1. Empathize

The starting point is knowing exactly who you are solving the problem for. It is easy to make assumptions about what people think or want. However, understanding the needs of the business or the consumer, depending on what the challenge is, and the context, is vital.

2. Define

With the benefit of the insight you have gathered in the empathy phase, you can look at all the information you have and seek clarity, focus, and definition. At this stage you should be able to work out exactly what the core problems are that you are trying to solve. This will then begin to inform your solution.

3. Ideate

This is the phase where ideas begin to be generated. Brainstorming techniques in meetings can be particularly useful as it can lead to more innovative ideas coming to the fore. The more diversity among team members and ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking there is, the more likely you are to drive innovation.

4. Prototype

Now that you have a good general idea of the basic product, service, or way forward to solve the challenge that you have identified, you can start to work with basic prototypes. These can be revised and reworked according to the results: it is an iterative process. 

Prototypes should be relatively basic and low cost: the more money that has been invested into something the less likely team members will be to scrap the idea and move on to the next. Prototypes should be quickly evaluated and swiftly adapted according to the feedback.

5. Test

Quantitative and qualitative testing can now be established. Your solutions can be tried and tested among the target market, and it is helpful to use open-ended or solution-focused questions when soliciting feedback. This allows for further innovation as feedback might bring up points or issues that had not been considered and would not necessarily come up with closed questions.

How does the 5W1H method apply to design thinking?

Five Ws and one H – who, what, where, when, why (five Ws) and how (one H). Asking these questions and finding the answers will help you through the five phases of the design thinking process. 

If we look at them in the context of the 5 phases – empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test - it becomes clear. Here are the questions that might be useful to ask yourself and your team:

  • Who: who are the users of the product you are designing or the people for whom you are solving a problem? What are their characteristics and what distinguishes them?
  • What: what do the users do and what do they need to do? How does the solution you are offering fit in with it?
  • Where: Where are the users performing these tasks, and what are the conditions around performing them?
  • When: when do the users perform these tasks, under what circumstances, and how frequently?
  • Why: why do the users perform these tasks? What is the end goal, and the other goals related to it? Don’t just think about the specific goal that the user is accomplishing. Solutions often need to a fit into a bigger picture.
  • How: how do people perform those tasks? What is specifically involved?

Asking and answering these questions is the first step to a deeper understanding of your users. If you can understand their needs and perspectives, you can work out how best to create solutions that will solve their problems or tie into their experiences. There is no point in creating a product or service that no one will be interested in because they have no need for it. Understanding what you have to offer and how it solves a problem is key.

When can design thinking be applied?

Design thinking can be used in any business, whether it is a small start-up or a large multinational company. It helps to drive growth and innovation, so it has multiple applications. It can be used wherever a problem or challenge is complex and needs to be addressed creatively and with the emphasis on the user.

A customer-centered approach to developing new products and services

Design thinking is a very popular way to approach customer-based strategies. For example, it will help when developing new products or services, or improving existing ones. It can also be very useful for improving user experience. Properly understanding what your customers want and what their challenges are is the basis to providing a product or service that will have added value. And a great customer experience is vital to creating brand loyalty.

Design thinking for business strategy

Developing and improving a business is another way in which design thinking can be applied with great success. For example, many companies had to pivot during the Covid-19 pandemic and change their business model to one that reflected the new circumstances in which we found ourselves. By thinking creatively and focusing on how they could meet the new demands and challenges that their customers were experiencing, many companies were able to drive innovation and growth at what was a very difficult time. Those that found themselves entrenched in their ways and unable to see a new direction struggled a lot more.

However, there doesn’t have to be a global economic shift for a company to find itself in trouble. Solving complex problems in business can be an everyday occurrence and the design thinking process is there to help you find new, innovative pathways that may not otherwise be immediately obvious.

Design thinking for your personal life

Don’t forget you can apply the design thinking process to your personal life as well. Maybe you are not sure what direction to take in your career or are considering a move to the other side of the country. Applying the design thinking process can help you with these personal decisions: try gathering information to get to the heart of the problem. Once you properly understand why you are unsure about your career, or what you hope a move will achieve, you can start to look at what the solution might be.

Brainstorming and looking at alternatives that might solve the issue that is at heart can help you find solutions. And once you have some options you can begin to test them in ways that can help you discover what might be right for you. Find out why that career change really is the way forward, or whether your plans for moving are based on the right reasons, for example!

Where can you find resources for implementing the design thinking process?

There are many places in which you will find resources to help you with the design thinking process to improve your work and team challenges. Design thinking templates can be useful to give structure to meetings and help teams and projects to get off the ground. Brainstorming and other ideation sessions will help your team discover new ideas and help drive innovation.

With the right tools it no longer matters whether the team is all in the same room, all based remotely, or a combination of the two. Using an online whiteboard allows all participants of a workshop or meeting to participate and collaborate. It also means that the best ideas can be easily sifted through and picked out. The session can be saved so all participants have it for future reference.

Online tools are designed to create maximum engagement. Making sure each person in your team is enthused and an active participant will also ensure that you get the best out of everyone on the team.

Use the design thinking process to create innovative solutions

Here at Klaxoon we have designed tools and resources to help you find the solutions that are unique to your business and its customers. Like the design thinking process, we believe in the focus being on the end user. Our collaborative tools have been developed with a view to creating maximum engagement and great outcomes.

Whether you are interested in design thinking templates, ideation boards, digital whiteboards, brainstorming techniques or a multitude of other helpful online tools, why not check out our resources page?

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