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Design thinking is an iterative, non-linear design methodology that is particularly useful in solving complex or poorly defined problems to build a solid business model

Understanding design thinking

Many informed individuals consider design thinking to be the holy grail of innovation and by extension, the cure for company stagnation.

In fact, design thinking has been credited with turning Airbnb from an ailing start-up into a billion-dollar business. Apple, Uber, and the countless new companies they inspired also owe much of their success to innovation. Despite its obvious association with success, however, innovation remains a somewhat esoteric concept.

The origins of design thinking can be traced back to the work of John E. Arnold in 1959. Arnold, a Stanford University engineering professor, taught engineers to approach problems as creatively as designers do. However, design thinking did not enter the world of business until 2005 when Stanford began teaching it as a means of technical and social innovation.

Today, design thinking is both an ideology and a process that endeavors to solve complex problems in a user-centric fashion. Generated solutions must be:

  • Technically feasible – is the solution able to be turned into functional products and processes in the near future?
  • Economically viable – can the organization afford to implement the solution as part of a sustainable business model?
  • Desirable for the user – does the solution meet a real human need? Is it for the people?

The five stages of the design thinking process

The design thinking process outlines five steps that help the team adopt a designer’s mindset and approach a problem from the user’s perspective.

The five steps of the design thinking process include:

  1. Empathize – in the first step, it is important to observe and engage with the target audience. Who are the end-users and what are the challenges they face? What expectations and needs must be met? Empathy is built by conducting interviews, surveys, and observation sessions.
  2. Define – based on the information gathered in the first step, define a clear problem statement that details the specific problem to be addressed. A good problem statement is human-centric and prioritizes user needs above all else. The statement also guides the rest of the process and helps the business keep the user in mind at all times.
  3. Ideate – with the problem made clear, brainstorm ways to address unmet needs by identifying novel solutions and approaching the problem from a different perspective. Ideation should be done quickly using any number of different brainstorming frameworks. Here, the idea is to generate as many ideas as possible with less regard for how feasible the idea may be in reality. The team should then collaboratively discuss and evaluate each idea ready for the next step.
  4. Prototype – the team should then create tangible products or prototypes of the concept ideas they want to test. A tangible product is something that can be tested by users and is crucial in maintaining a user-centric approach. Prototypes are basic representations of the intended solution and can take the form of simple paper models or more complex digital products.
  5. Test – the prototype must then be tested and improved via user feedback. Though this is the final step in design thinking, it is an iterative process where the problem is often redefined multiple times to develop a deeper understanding and empathy for the customer. The team should then revisit the problem statement and ensure the solution is meeting user needs or addressing frustrations.

Key takeaways:

  • Design thinking is an iterative, non-linear design methodology that is particularly useful in solving complex or poorly defined problems.
  • Design thinking is an ideology and a process that endeavors to solve complex problems in a user-centric fashion. Solutions must be technically feasible, economically viable, and desirable from the point of view of the user.
  • Design thinking occurs via five steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. Teams should cycle through the fifth step until they arrive at a solution that addresses the original problem statement
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