January 12, 2021

Understand Design Thinking in Under Five Minutes

Kevin Tuskey

Before we really dive into what Design Thinking is, let’s start with what Design Thinking is not.

  • A top-down approach
  • Creating whatever products will drive short-term profits for investors
  • Pushing the latest technology simply because it’s new
  • Using a flood of advertising to coax people into buying a product

Okay, so what is Design Thinking?

It’s a human-centric approach to solving problems that emphasizes the customer point of view. And Design Thinking isn’t just for designers and creatives. This approach gives you the tools and techniques that artists have used for generations to produce new creations. Anyone can benefit from thinking more like a designer, by starting with how people use and interact with products. Everything else about Design Thinking trickles down from there. While this might seem normal now, there was a time when this wasn’t the case.

Where did Design Thinking come from?

It all started with IDEO, Innovation Design Engineering Organization, a San Francisco-based company responsible for the first Apple computer mouse, the Palm Pilot, and even the mechanical whale used in the movie "Free Willy". Back in 2008, the president of IDEO, Tim Brown wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review, explaining the strategies his company used to consistently create products people love.

He distilled IDEO’s process of innovation down to three phases.

  1. Inspiration – Why you’re solving the problem
  2. Ideation – All the ways to attack the problem
  3. Implementation – Actually building the idea and taking it to market

For years, popular methodologies like Agile, Lean, and Kanban have focused on making the Implementation phase more efficient, but the other two phases, Inspiration and Ideation, have received much less attention.

Are you building the right things? Or the wrong things righter?

In the 1990s, IDEO was asked to redesign a toothbrush for children. The company assumed that if IDEO could simply shrink down the toothbrush design that adults used, then it would make a great toothbrush for kids. Right? Wrong!

Before starting to design what their new toothbrush would look like, IDEO asked if they could start by watching some kids brush their teeth. It seemed like an odd question, but after seeing what happened when kids brushed their teeth, IDEO found that children don’t hold toothbrushes like adults. Their hand-eye coordination and motor skills are less developed, so they have trouble just holding onto the handle. It made a mess, and kids got frustrated fumbling around with their toothbrushes.

Instead, IDEO developed a new kind of toothbrush. Their design had an ergonomic shape with a fat handle that fits snuggly into the palm of a child. This shape prevented the toothbrush from jiggling around in their hands. IDEO used bright patterns and colors to make the experience more appealing. Designers put a suction cup on the bottom of the toothbrush so they could stand upright on the sink. No more drippy mess!

IDEO’s designers used observations to drive insights that eventually led to new products. Witnessing how people use things goes a step beyond normal research. This more intimate way of experiencing what people feel when doing something is a core part of Design Thinking.

Exploration Over Efficiency

Where hierarchy, efficiency, and predictability governed processes of the past, Design Thinking makes things a little uncomfortable. There’s more chaos involved at the beginning as new options are explored, but the investment usually pays off with big iterations instead of tiny incremental changes. Design Thinking prioritizes collaboration, exploration, and risk-taking.

Outcomes are more important than output. For example, you might produce a ton of work and feel good about all the work you’ve done, but if it’s not fixing the problem, it’s pointless. The best products usually don’t just have the most bells and whistles. In fact, removing features and simplifying an experience usually results in a more effective product that people love to use.

Principles of Design Thinking

Define the Problem

Spend time exploring the problem space before jumping ahead to the design or build phase. At the beginning of a project, ask your team: What is the problem we’re trying to solve? What is the impact? Why is it important now? Who is affected? Then, work together to create a problem statement that allows you to address the problem with different solutions.

An early problem statement might start as “We don’t have a car to take us from town to the river.” That problem statement makes too many assumptions and cuts off potential solutions. A better problem statement would be, “We don’t have a way to get water.” This version doesn’t prescribe the solution, and now more solutions are possible.

Empathize with People

This is the cornerstone of Design Thinking. Know your audience, but push further and deeper past basic demographic information. Study, observe, interview, and understand your audience from their point of view. Feel what your audience feels and test things with them. You can even become your audience. We build bridges of insight through empathy. Get close to the people experiencing the problem and you will start noticing ways to make their lives better.

Diverge with Lots of Design Options

Fail often to succeed sooner. Go wide before going narrow. Fan out, make things messy, and be willing to discard ideas before converging on a selected few. This approach was reinforced to me over and over again in art school. Professors would have us generate dozens of ideas or sketches before allowing us to proceed to the next step of the process. For example, writers don’t just write. They produce, edit, discard, revise, finetune, curate, and ask for a second opinion.

At SingleStone, we’re proud of our Reverb brand and all of its success. People in the market seem to really like it. But it didn’t start this way! They don’t see the iterations that came before we settled on this mark:

Prototype to Get Early Feedback

Share your ideas, sketches, and designs with other people as early as possible to get a reaction from them. Do it uncomfortably early! Don’t spend months or years polishing a product before getting any feedback from someone. Go to people on your team, people not on your team, or complete strangers to get feedback. Ask them to tell you what part of the design is confusing or weird, and you’ll know what to fix for the next version.

The problems of 2021 are no match for Design Thinking.

There’s no better time than the start of a new year to get your team energized, thinking like your customers, and ready to solve problems. Don’t worry if you don't know how to get started — that’s what we’re here for! We’ve helped plenty of companies, large and small, adopt and promote the Design Thinking approach within their organizations.

Interested in signing your team up for a Design Thinking course? Reach out to us today.

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