What is Design Thinking?

Years ago, when I was just starting out at Stanford, I sat down with my academic advisor to figure out what I wanted to study. After some conversation, he strongly suggested that I consider a Product Design major, which at the time was incredibly confusing since I had never considered a career as an engineer and didn’t want to be anywhere near math or science.

Flash forward: I now use design thinking nearly every day in my sports/entertainment and consulting career, and have even worked in design thinking education for engineers and scientists (despite my original inclination to stay as far away from STEM as possible). I am not an engineer. I don’t design physical products. But I do brainstorm, problem solve, and innovate in every project I work on. And I bet you do too. That’s where design thinking comes in, and in hindsight what my advisor was picking up on – my interest in and desire to solve complex problems with creative, user-friendly solutions.

So what is design thinking?

Essentially, design thinking is a problem solving methodology that can be used to effectively identify your problem, then sort through and test solutions until you land on a final iteration. In engineering, where designers first originated these techniques, design thinking has been used by Apple in the creation of the first computer mouse, by GE to develop better MRI machines for children, and by students at Stanford to create a warming device to help save underweight newborn babies around the world. However, these same techniques can be applied to non-technical problems as well, such as coming up with a better pricing model for your product or service, driving more traffic to your blog or website, or even launching into a new career (this book is highly recommended for that). I’ve personally used design thinking to develop career workshops, craft new departmental strategies, revamp dying programs, and create innovative content for social media. Anytime you need to do creative problem solving, design thinking can help.

Simply put, here is the version of the design thinking process that I employ:

Design Thinking Process

Discover & Empathize: This is your research phase, where you’ll collect as much data as possible from as many people as possible. The most important aspect of this first step is to empathize while you’re discovering. Really listen to every piece of feedback. They will open your eyes to problems and ideas you never could have thought of on your own.

Define: Problem definition is arguably the most important part of solving a problem. Far too often do companies create solutions that aren’t actually getting at the crux of the issue. In this step, you will synthesize all of the data you collected in the discovery and empathy phase to put together your problem statement: what are you actually solving?

Ideate: Now that you have data and a problem to work with, it’s time to brainstorm! Come up with as many ideas as possible. Big, small, complicated, simple, “good,” “bad,” all ideas are welcome and should be considered.

Prototype: Once you’ve settled on an idea, you’ll make a sample of the end solution before actually creating the full realized end result. Prototyping will allow you to move more freely through iterations as you work out the kinks of the solution, saving you time and money along the way.

Test: Get your solution into the hands of your users and collect feedback. Do they like it? Is it interesting? Did you completely miss the mark? Testing can be scary, since at this point you’ve spent a lot of time and energy creating a solution, but remember – design thinking is all about getting to the best, most user-friendly solution. Don’t think of the test phase as the final hurdle to clear before you can launch, because there is a good chance you may need to go back to one of the previous steps to refine your solution even further.

Plus, don’t forget, repeat the entire cycle (or any portions of the cycle) as often as needed! While there is a framework to follow, design thinking is all about being agile and iterative. You can always go back and make changes. And in fact if you aren’t making many changes, there’s probably a good chance you’re doing something wrong.

What problems are you currently facing? How might design thinking help you create a more effective, more innovative solution?

Over the next few weeks I’ll be doing a deeper dive into each step, hopefully giving you a few tools you can use to make your own creative problem solving process even more effective.

 

 

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