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Design Thinking

Many people are complaining about a lack of innovation and fresh ideas. One possible solution for this is the Design Thinking Method. It is based on the idea of a common language and a holistic approach to thinking about products and services. The main ingredients are empathy for the user and know-how from different disciplines.

The pressure on companies is growing exponentially. The only things that matter nowadays are a return on investment and reaching the business goals, and there is one thing that gets neglected in all this – the customer. This is where Design Thinking comes into play, a way of approximating the best possible solution for a customer or user by performing iterations of a specific solution-finding process. This process aims at culling knowledge and creating a promising and tested product or service.

What is Design Thinking?

Quite honestly, Design Thinking is not really about design. The name has its roots in its country of origin, The United States of America. Thanks to the design and innovation firm IDEO, Design Thinking has been a household name since 1991. One of its most significant supporters is Hasso Platter, founder of SAP, who has promoted research on and implementation of Design Thinking by way of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, also called d.school.

This method is not about the look of things and processes but about their function and impact. An example is a sales conversation or the features of a new product.

Design Thinking is an open process with an undetermined result. In a loose sequence of phases comprising various disciplines the success probability for the development of solutions in complex environments is increased.

The first part of the Design Thinking process focuses on the needs of the user which are elicited by understanding, observing and analyzing.

A change of perspective

The second part of the process is about analyzing the problem and collectively looking for ways to fulfill these needs.

A creative solution-finding process then leads to the idea deemed to be the basis for a prototype. User feedback to this prototype becomes the basis for the next course of action.
In case of problems or if aspects have been missed or lost sight of, returning to the previous phase is always possible.

The assignment is to find a user-oriented solution for the problem, even if it is necessary to completely discard the first solution.

Setting up the Design Challenge

Let’s go back to the start. How does the Design Thinking process look like in real life? Before you begin you need to put together an interdisciplinary team consisting of people from different departments, each of them bringing their specific experience and knowledge to the table. The first task for them is to formulate the actual question to be solved.

Designing this question is the challenge, and it should be no more than a guiding line that under no circumstances limits possible solutions. Challenge results such as How must an app look like so that a customer buys our product? are far too narrow. Maybe the customer is not interested in an app or the app makes no sense because the target audience is over 60 years old.

In contrast, a question like How can we offer our customers a better shopping experience? is much more open. Here, an app may be the solution, but there is no focus on it, widening the range of options.
The design challenge has defined direction and setting; it is about the customer feeling well, secure and understood. The term experience underlines the fact that the customer is to experience something new. It also indicates that the focus should be on situations that create a desire to be engaged with the product or service.

Let us create the experience step by step:

1) Understanding

The first phase focuses on an exchange of knowledge between the team members. Due to the varying nature of experiences and knowledge within the team, this phase is meant as an opportunity to learn from the other team members. Knowledge gaps become visible; these will be bridged in the next steps by observing the actual customer.

2) Observing

This phase is all about empathy. The team observes the customer, elicits his or her needs through interviews and puts themselves into his or her shoes by making further observations. In our example the team could be visiting the supermarket, explore behavior of or interview people concerned. All this aims at finding out why the customer shops the way he or she does.

3) Defining a viewpoint

All these impressions need to be gathered, sorted, condensed, analyzed and prioritized. The Eureka moments, new information and new insights are shared with and worked on by the team. A visual approach is the best approach to this, with as little text as possible. Photos and items help to make stories, insights and experiences tangible for all. The result of this phase is the Point of view, a definition of the customer, of the needs and insights from previous phases.

The answer is verbalized following the structure How can we help <customer> to achieve <goal> while at the same time considering his/her <need>.

4) Ideation

Phase four brings us back to more familiar territory. A variety of creative brainstorming techniques are used to produce a vast number of ideas. Mastering this requires adhering to a few rules.

  • Critique is unwanted. Unusual and edgy ideas are welcome. The wheel does not need to be reinvented; existing ideas may well be expanded or rethought and retouched.
  • Should the creative process slow down at some point questions such as What would Superman do? may help.

Ideas produced in this phase are then clustered into themes, e.g. divided into the most helpful ideas, the ideas that are quickly realizable, the most radical ideas etc.

5) Prototyping

The approaches are now made tangible for the user. Prototypes help the user to decide which idea he or she likes best; they also help to make the entire idea or individual aspects of it visible (and tangible). A basically unlimited range of ways to do this exist; building worlds from Lego bricks, producing a movie etc. The only thing important in this is that spoken language is reduced to a minimum. Instead, the team members are to tinker, paint, try, test, draw and much more, producing a prototype that is instantly recognizable as one, i.e. one that looks unfinished. This prompts the customer to give honest feedback which refers to functionalities, not looks. Also, an improvised prototype is easier to discard!

6) Testing

Now it is the customer’s turn. The prototype is presented to him or her briefly. The task is to test the prototype thoroughly and to try, try, try it out! And what does the team do? Accept feedback not as critique but as help, and implement it.

Iteration in Design Thinking

The feedback gives the team the option to return to any previous phase and generate even better solutions. In case the prototype is discarded entirely the repository of ideas will provide more ideas. The Design Thinking process may be gone through multiple times, and the benefit is a desirable, realizable and economically feasible solution.

Implementing Design Thinking

Knowledge from a Design Thinking process becomes the basis for products, software, services and processes. The process of producing, programming or implementing them is in the limits of implementation specialists.

Conclusion

Design Thinking is more than just another way to find a solution for a problem; it is an attitude. It is about awareness, a change of perspectives and confidence in one’s own abilities.
It is a set of techniques for disruptive innovation in products, services and organizations. The best way to find out how to uncover new solutions with this method is to try it.

 

 

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Ingrid Gerstbach is a corporate consultant focusing on Design Thinking and Innovation Management. She supports companies with a need for change.

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