Innovate With A Design Thinking Process

This will not be the first time you’ve heard the phrase ‘design thinking’ if you’ve been tracking the management zeitgeist. Design thinking has been hailed by some as the savior of innovation and at this point it has become such a buzzy buzzword that those who aren’t employing might be starting to feel a bit ashamed. Fear not! Team Blrt is here to help you develop a design thinking process.

Unlike other management crazes, design thinking is rather ambiguous and difficult to define. For this reason, not everybody is employing the mindset correctly.

Fortunately, developing a design thinking process requires little in the way of wholesale managerial upheaval. It’s more of a perspective shift that aims to put the eventual human users of your product or service at the center of development. It’s about giving people room to fail and avoiding unfruitful and unfocused offshoots.

And it couldn’t be easier.

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What is design thinking?

It’s difficult to nail down a concise definition of design thinking as different practitioners across diverse industries tend to have varying takes. That said, there is more common ground across these definitions than points of difference, which makes it possible to lay out a common core of design thinking principles.

First and foremost, any design thinking process is concerned with user experience. If this doesn’t necessarily go against the traditional concept of value as utility, it is certainly a different lens through which to approach the development of products and services.

Consider two cocktails made from the same ingredients and with the same technique, yet one is served in a standard pub and the other in a meticulously decorated and themed “speakeasy”. The product and utility here is the same: the customer wanted an old fashioned and ordered one. However, the experience of ordering and enjoying the drink would be different in each venue. If you’ve seen the prices in these upscale cocktail bars then you already know that business owners have discovered customers are willing to pay a premium for an enhanced experience.

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In this way design thinking puts the end – and very human – user at the center of the problem solving process. Professor Kees Dorst – the Executive Director of the Design Innovation Research Centre at the University of Technology, Sydney and author of Frame Innovation – stresses the importance of framing in any design thinking process. Rather than asking “what can be done [price a cocktail competitively] with this thing [cocktail] to get this result [somebody buys it]?” a design thinking process asks instead: “what things [cocktails] can I put through what process [atmosphere, theatre] to create value [escape from the everyday; an experience]?”

How to develop a design thinking process

Perhaps you’ve seen this image before:

How to develop a design thinking process

Clearly the designers of this gate assembly didn’t consider how people would actually use the final product. Adjustments could be made to force users to use the gate as intended – a fence, perhaps? – but that again ignores the very obvious visual evidence that these pedestrians have offered without the need for questionnaires or focus groups: they’re not interested in zigging and zagging through the gate.

A practitioner of design thinking would ask their favorite question at this point: why?

Design thinkers never take things at face value. They are the curious five-year old, always wanting to know why something is done in a certain way and why it can’t be done in some other way. Often this involves rejecting enough ideas and promising offshoots (an important component of a design thinking process is knowing when to stop) that the end result is something simple but not reductive. For many users, an iPad is simpler and easier to use than a laptop, not to mention lighter and able to go longer between charges. The introduction of the iPad solved a problem customers didn’t even know they had and it did so through simplicity and ease-of-use. It is a product (read: solution) of great design.

A design thinking process in practice

Experts agree that the aforementioned questioning of everything is the beginning of any design thinking process, whether those questions come from your own experience or empathy with your customers. Indeed, it’s not good enough to anticipate or imagine your customer’s pain points – you must  feel their pain. Had the designers of the infamous gate from the photo considered how the gate would be used it would have been easy to determine that no end user would voluntarily veer to the right after crossing the street in order to snake through the awkward assembly when they could very easily walk straight ahead and around the whole thing.

A design thinking process should strive not just to create a future (“now we have a gate”) – it should aim to develop an improved future (“our gate is conveniently placed, intuitive to use, and keeps people safe and the lawn green”).

In order to do this, a design thinking process needs to be developed with the knowledge that failure will be more common than success. In hindsight, the designers of the gate can see where they went wrong. However, hindsight wouldn’t be necessary had they modelled and prototyped their idea for the assembly. Examining a physical representation of what the final product would look like would have immediately revealed the same design flaws that the final product has shown – and without the worn-out grass!

Any great #DesignThinking process involves a lot of failure. #ideasboom Click To Tweet

A design thinking process should feature lots of models and prototypes – not just words and plans – because a model is harder to misunderstand. It’s right there… you can touch it.

Tools such as customer maps are also valuable artifacts that sometimes reveal truths that seem obvious in hindsight but are hard to detect through normal observation.

Consider a cinema and the staff member who collects your ticket and directs you to your auditorium. At first glance, this seems like an easy and rather unimportant job that doesn’t require much training, but a map of customer pathways through the cinema reveals otherwise. Not every customer speaks to a box office attendant (some preorder online) and not every customer buys snacks from the candy bar (some aren’t willing to take out the second mortgage that this purchase would require). Which staff member, then, does every single customer interact with? The person collecting the tickets. Suddenly, their job is seen to be the most important one in the building and their customer service skills had better be on point.

Once you’ve developed a prototype that you’re happy with (which, at this stage, is a prototype that’s “good enough”), test, test, and test again. Try to find ways it will fail rather than attempting to confirm it will succeed. Use it in non-traditional ways. Drop it in the toilet. Run over it with a golf cart. Make sure it works and when it does, make it a reality. Develop processes for production and support; sales and marketing. Everything from the instruction manual to the metro adverts should be aligned with the design principle at the heart of the product or service you’ve created.

If all of this sounds like it will make the difference for you and you would like to get your entire team across your design thinking process, consider hosting the virtual crash course in design thinking offered by Standford’s d.school. It’ll get your team jumpstarted on the philosophy of design thinking, hopefully ensuring early buy-in on their parts.

Don’t ditch your spreadsheets

A design thinking process is a fantastic method of problem solving that humanizes business, but it can’t solve every problem an organization might have. Design thinking can help individuals and teams navigate the foggy waters of uncertainty and complexity yet it is less useful when it comes to resource management, competitor and industry analysis, supplier relationships and revenue maximization; all of which are still core components of a business and cannot be ignored.

Innovation is the sphere in which a design thinking process earns its keep. By shifting the traditional concept of value from utility to experience, organizations can generate innovations that make meaningful improvements to the lives of their customers while still operating in an economically-sensible way and enjoying the profits of this reality.

When it comes to innovation and moving forward, your design thinking process isn’t so much the answer as it is a very powerful reset button.

Start with design thinking

If you’re beginning to see how you might be able to put design thinking to work for your own innovation process, why not reach out to those who can help you get things off the ground? Get busy designing or get busy being boring (we’re pretty sure that’s how that line goes…):

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