What is Design Thinking? A Beginner’s Guide

What is Design Thinking? A BeginnerHover Image

Many people think that Design Thinking is about nerdy people moving around post-its on a wall. We can’t say whether being a nerd helps, but we know there’s more to it than that.

Design Thinking, put very simply, is a human-centered and collaborative approach to problem-framing and problem-solving that is creative, iterative, and practical.

So if you’ve always wanted to understand what ‘Design Thinking’ means, then you’re in the right place.

In this article, we’ll be breaking down Design Thinking and what it entails.

This is a detailed explanation of what it means, the purpose and importance, the principles surrounding it, and the phases or steps involved.

And not to worry, we’ll be using easily understandable terms, so you won’t have a hard time comprehending all the information.

So let’s get started!

What is Design Thinking?

What is Design Thinking?Hover Image

As mentioned earlier, Design Thinking is a human-centered approach to creative problem-framing and problem-solving.

It aims to obtain practical outcomes and come up with solutions that are workable, affordable, and appealing, as soon as possible.

It is a methodology that focuses on finding user-centric solutions to complicated challenges.

Although it has its roots in design, it developed from various fields; business, architecture, engineering, etc.

Design Thinking can be used in any industry. It doesn’t necessarily have to be design-related.

Design Thinking incorporates tools from the world of design into human behavior and reasoning.

It has people at the center of the entire process, i.e. it places humans first. It tries to understand their needs and develop practical solutions to address those needs.

It’s about putting yourself in your customer’s shoes and finding out what truly makes them happy.

Going deep and finding out their needs, pain points, and desires, and using these findings to provide solutions to their problems.

It is incredibly helpful when dealing with challenges that are vague or unidentified.

Design Thinking is a practical and iterative process that can be applied to solve even the most difficult challenges. It encourages user-centricity, imagination, innovation, and creative problem-solving.

More than just a process, it introduces a completely new way of thinking and provides a variety of hands-on methods to assist in implementing this approach.

The main goal of the approach is to give you the freedom to create and implement unique ideas while working dynamically. Design Thinking is an approach to solving problems in a solution-based manner.

The difference between Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design:

We still need to briefly address the fact that Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design (HCD) are not the same.

While Design Thinking has a larger scope of use, Human-Centered Design is a way to improve an existing object or process or is at least fully thought out, for the users.

Therefore, Design Thinking expands beyond the constraints of Human-Centered Design, which is typically limited to addressing difficulties with the interface and known problems. New products and services can be created with it, but it can also be used to generate ideas for solving societal problems.

Solution-Based Thinking vs Problem-Based Thinking; The Difference

As the name implies, solution-based thinking is all about finding possible solutions to solve a problem. It involves coming up with various constructive ways to address a particular problem.

Problem-based thinking, on the other hand, tends to focus on the problem or the reason why a problem emerged. And it is usually more fixed on obstacles and limitations standing in the way of business success.

This approach does not help in any way when it comes to dealing with challenging problems, which is particularly important when we need to come up with speedy solutions to the problem.

Solution-based thinkers are better at finding solutions to problems. They are skilled at spotting techniques or approaches for addressing underlying problems.

Looking past the problem and prioritizing the need to actively seek out solutions is the core of solution-based thinking.

It is an iterative method that encourages continuous experimenting until the ideal solution is found.

And to ensure that the end goal of developing a workable solution is achieved, there are certain principles of Design Thinking that need to be considered in the process.

When applying Design Thinking to solving a problem, focusing on these principles will expand your team’s creative capacity and ensure that the solution you come up with is truly a user-centric one.

Principles of Design Thinking

Design Thinking is based on a set of important principles. Four Design Thinking rules were identified by Christoph Meinel and Harry Leifer of Stanford University’s (d.school) Hasso-Plattner-Institute of Design:

The 4 rules of Design ThinkingHover Image

Here is a more detailed explanation:

1. The human rule: Every design activity has a social component. The design of your products and services should be focused on the needs of your customers. By focusing on the needs of your users throughout the design process, you can better understand their needs, thoughts, and behaviors.

2. The ambiguity rule: It is impossible to eliminate or simplify ambiguity. The ability to see things from a new perspective is a result of experimenting at the boundaries of your knowledge and expertise. What if you looked at your problem from every possible angle instead of looking for a single solution? You’d be more likely to come up with several feasible answers. It’s all about considering all of the possible solutions to a problem.

3. All design is redesign: Every form of design is redesign. While societal conditions and technology may alter and advance, fundamental human needs never change. We simply just change how these demands are met or goals are accomplished. We’re not reinventing the wheel.

4. Tangibility rule: Prototypes are a great way for designers to explain their ideas more clearly and make them tangible. To determine which ideas work and which do not, we must first gather information and then begin experiments or prototype development.

Phases of Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a five-step process, according to the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, which is also known as the d.school.

Note that these steps don’t always happen in order, and teams often execute them at the same time, out of order, and over and over again.

The 5 phases of Design ThinkingHover Image

Phase 1: Empathize

This lays the foundation for Design Thinking. In the first step of the process, you learn about the user and figure out what they want, need, and want to achieve. This is paying attention to and conversing with others to gain a deeper understanding of their thoughts, feelings, challenges, expectations, and motivations.

During this stage, the designer tries to discard their notions and learn more about the users. To develop user empathy, you conduct surveys, interviews, and observation sessions. These help to get to know your users better.

Phase 2: Define

To begin solving a problem, the Design Thinking approach moves on to the next step; defining it. When you’re done with the empathize phase, you’ll have a clearer picture of what your users are struggling with. This is done by gathering all the information collected in the ‘Empathize’ stage and trying to figure out what it all means. What challenges and obstacles are your users encountering? What patterns have you noticed? What major user issue does your team need to resolve?

It is your problem statement that outlines the precise challenge you intend to tackle. It will serve as a guide for the rest of the design process, providing you with a specific objective to work toward and allowing you to always keep the user in mind.

You will have a precise problem definition at the conclusion of the define phase. The key here is to frame the problem from the point of view of your user, and not as what the company needs. Define it as ‘what they need’, and not ‘what you need to do’.

The third stage, which involves coming up with solutions and ideas, can begin once the problem has been expressed verbally.

Phase 3: Ideate

It’s time to start thinking about solutions, now that you have a good grasp of your audience and a concise definition of the problem. This third phase is where the creative juices flow.

Ideation sessions will be held by designers in order to generate as many fresh perspectives and ideas as possible. It helps to explore different angles and think beyond unconventional methods.

Designs can employ a variety of ideation methods, such as mind-mapping, role-playing, reverse thinking, and provocation. If you focus on how many ideas you have instead of how good they are, you’re more likely to let your mind wander and come up with something new.

By the end of the brainstorming process, you’ll have a short list of possible ideas to proceed with.

Phase 4: Prototype

In this fourth stage, you try things out and make your ideas into tangible products. A prototype is a reduced version of the product that includes the possible solutions that were found in earlier stages. This step is important for testing each solution and finding any problems or limitations. It also helps to keep a user-centered approach.

The possible solutions could be adopted, modified, altered, or discarded during the prototype stage based on how well they perform in the prototype version.

Prototypes could be in different forms; from digital prototypes to more tangible, physical ones. Ensure to have a specific purpose in mind when designing your prototypes, and understand what you want the prototype to depict.

Phase 5: Test

This comes after Prototyping, and this is where you test your prototype on actual users.

A prototype’s strengths and weaknesses are revealed during the testing phase. It is important to make changes based on user feedback, before investing resources into the development of your solution.

Design Thinking doesn’t end at this point. To get the most value out of the test results, it’s best to return to earlier steps and revisit the initial problem to provide you with a fresh outlook or to generate fresh ideas you hadn’t considered earlier.

You gather feedback, and then modify your design or come up with a brand-new one using the information you get during the testing process.

Is Design Thinking a linear process?

Design Thinking is a mode of thinking, a technique for tackling problems. You can choose to carry out the phases concurrently or carry out the process in phases.

You’ll probably have to go back to some phases and repeat them (maybe more than once), and the tools you’ll use aren’t set in stone either.

According to David Kelley, the founder of IDEO and one of the forefathers who popularized Design Thinking:

Design thinking is not a cookbook where the answer falls out at the end. It’s messier than that. It’s a big mass of looping back to different places in the process. - David Kelley (founder of IDEO)

Purpose of Design Thinking

Now we know more about how Design Thinking works, let’s consider why it matters.

There are many benefits of using a Design Thinking framework.

But first and foremost, Design Thinking helps people be creative and come up with innovative ideas.

People rely mostly on what they know and what they’ve done, and over time, they develop patterns that help them figure out how to handle certain issues.

These patterns can make it hard to see things in another light, which can make it hard to solve problems.

Design Thinking helps people break out of these patterns and think about other ways to solve problems.

Some people see it as a healthy, neutral way to solve problems because it uses analytical thinking, science, intuition, and feelings.

The goal is to quickly transform concepts into real-world, verifiable products or systems.

The working method of designers helps us to learn and apply these human-centered methods to creatively solve challenges that come up in businesses.

Check out our blog post here where we talk about how all humans are born design thinkers.

Understanding our customers is at the heart of Design Thinking, which revolves around a genuine desire in getting to know them.

Design Thinking became popular in the 90s, and by the 21st century, businesses started to adopt it.

Some of the world’s biggest brands, such as Apple, IBM, SAP, and Google, have adopted the Design Thinking methodology and have been using it in their product development process for quite some time.

This in turn has had a positive impact on their business and given them a great competitive edge.

In Conclusion

Now that you understand what Design Thinking means and the processes attached to it, you might want to take things a little further.

Would you like to understand how Design Thinking can be applied in the workplace and how it can be combined with Lean and Agile Work? Check out our follow-up article for you: Design Thinking in the Workplace: Understanding how Design Thinking, Lean, and Agile Work Together.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to transition from Design Thinking to Design Doing, read this in-depth article that examines the relationship between thinking and doing as well as the importance of bridging the two.

And if you’re new to the innovation, product strategy, or product design field, and you’re still trying to figure out what all these new terms mean, you should check out the following articles and guides on our blog which are sure to help you get started: All your innovation, creativity, product, and business strategy tips in one place.

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