What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a term that has been around for several years.  Attributed to Tim Brown, President of IDEO, it is a type of process for creating products and services that includes the following key steps:

  1. Define the problem. This is generally the most challenging step. What problem are people having?  You want to make sure you’re solving the right problem, as the solution is keyed to your articulation.
  2. Research. What are you basing your definition on? Nothing is more important than research, even if it’s desk research. Ideally, though, you will talk to people (users, customers, etc.) to unearth details on the problem.
  3. Generate ideas.  What are different ways to solve the problem? Some kind of paper or whiteboard sketching process is often employed here to generate ideas. The more ideas, the better.
  4. Prototype concepts through modeling.  Only by modeling a concept can you test it out. Show it to prospective users.
  5. Choose a direction. What is the most likely model to succeed?  Are there different costs involved in each?  The pros and cons of each model can be weighed, but sometimes there is a clear (and possibly non-intuitive) winner.
  6. Implement the solution.  Put it in action and see how it does.
  7. Learn from the process. Build on learning in the next round of design thinking you need.

Who’s Using Design Thinking?

The principles that work well in user-centered design of products can be  applied to entire systems of services (such as healthcare delivery systems or customer service).  Government agencies, nonprofits, and other groups have begun subscribing to this approach, which has worked well for corporations for many years. For example, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs now utilizes “customer journey maps” to improve the way veterans are served by the organization.

In the nonprofit world, an idea launched by IDEO and embodied in their Design Kit: The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design has been helping communities in developing areas think like designers and generate solutions to real-world problems. It’s a very interesting guide, and well worth a look, even if you’re not in that space.

An example of a project that utilized design thinking is this public welfare project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on ensuring access to safe drinking water in developing countries – initially in India, and then in Africa.

How to Use Design Thinking

Brainstorming session

On the design and development of any digital property such as websites, online services, or apps, design thinking processes should be a given. If you take the time to research the problem (including conducting interviews, surveys, observations or other user-centered research techniques) and then use that data to generate ideas, a lot of good things can (and usually will) happen.

But beyond digital design work, it may help to frame design thinking as “the new brainstorming.”  It is more than a tool for designing better websites, software products, or design products in general – it is really a tool for group problem solving.

Whether you’re running a team, a small business, a nonprofit, or a community organization, you can use design thinking to:

  • Frame an issue or problem
  • Generate ideas
  • Try out solutions
  • Improve your processes

Because design thinking relates at its core to people who will be impacted by the product (or service, or process), it is a very sound way to solve problems that impact organizations and groups of any kind.

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