I have been a full-time practitioner of design thinking for six years and a dabbler for over nine. As a seasoned service designer and founder of two design-led companies, my approach to practicing design thinking is more nuanced than that of the average practitioner. Therefore, I want to finally share my point-of-view on the topic formally, and provide a working definition for those who might be interested in learning about it.
Let’s start with the basics. Design thinking was first popularized by the consulting firm IDEO in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Its roots, however, date back much further. The work of David Kelley and his colleagues at IDEO fueled a new category of design practice, which has since spawned a whole range of new disciplines (experience design, service design, etc.) and major acquisitions (Adaptive Path, Doblin, DesignIt, Fjord, etc.).
Some years ago, the 1999 ABC Nightline video “IDEO Shopping Cart” was my introduction to design thinking. It depicts how an IDEO team applied a design thinking methodology to reimagine the shopping cart. Years later, that video is still a great primer on the topic. It shows some of the steps involved in a design thinking project, helps explain the composition of a design thinking “team,” and highlights the core principles of design thinking in action. The video also illustrates the iterative and user-centered nature of design thinking.
While the IDEO video is great at explaining what design thinking is, at a high level, it does not fully unpack its impact on business. This last point is the biggest criticism of design thinking, and it has also been my focus ever since I started my first company, Trestles. Below, I will unpack the essence of design thinking by outlining its core principles, explaining its methodology, and finally speaking a bit to its “stickiness” and business impact.
The Core Principles of Design Thinking
Design Thinking Is User Centered
Design thinking starts with the user and builds from there. The “user” can be a customer, an employee, or even a shareholder, depending on the type of challenge being explored. There is more than one user at play in almost all design thinking projects, and it is often unclear who will use the solutions the project yields. As a result, practitioners typically refer to users as “stakeholders” in the beginning of a project.
A rich user context will yield a truly user-centered solution, but it requires the design thinking practitioner to spend time immersing herself in her user’s world.
You would be surprised how very different user-centered thinking is from the “if we build it, they will come” thinking that predominated the business world for much of the 20th century. Design thinking, like anthropology, supposes that you cannot devise the right solution until you really understand the problem. Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski famously described, in his book Argonauts of the Western Pacific, “the imponderabilia of everyday life.” He argued that the values, norms, and behaviors that make people do what they do simply cannot be understood from the outside.
A rich user context will yield a truly user-centered solution, but it requires the design thinking practitioner to spend time immersing herself in her user’s world. She must cultivate empathy for users’ unmet needs, everyday tasks, and even their clever workarounds that make navigating the world just a bit easier.
Design Thinking Involves Constant Learning by Making
Design thinkers learn by making inexpensive prototypes and sketches, rather than simply talking about a problem or challenge. This approach empowers a project team to explore the many facets of a problem and its stakeholders. Prototypes can reveal unforeseen challenges and opportunities with the proposed solution and its rollout. Prototypes can also allow a team to refine their thinking about what the real problem is and who its real stakeholders are. The learn-by-making process consistently leads to the discovery of new user groups, new problem statements, and ultimately brand new solutions.
These protocols encourage design thinking teams to get out from behind desks and computers to make their work visible. Teams practicing this methodology flourish in open office environments that allow practitioners to create working walls for sharing sketches, diagrams, and post-it charts. They also benefit from leaving the office, returning “to the field,” and employing simple materials to flesh out the details of a solution with the user (e.g., paper, cardboard, Legos, and foamcore).
Collaboration is the Backbone of a Design Thinking Project
Finally, design thinking requires multi-disciplinary collaboration. This way of working is not compatible with a lone genius striving to actualize a new idea in his workshop and honing it into finished form before unveiling it to the world. That may be design, but it is not design thinking. Instead, design thinking is about unlikely teams coming together to solve a problem that no one person could solve on his or her own. It involves a constant cycle of soliciting, distilling, and interpreting feedback from one’s peers, stakeholders, and the project’s owner.
As I alluded to before, an open concept workspace can facilitate this way of working. Walls invite secrecy and isolation – the opposite of a design thinking approach. Getting out of the office is also a great tactic to encourage design thinking teams to collaborate in new and different ways. One of my favorite modes of collaboration as a design thinking practitioner is to host workshops and co-creation sessions in a neutral “third place,” like a library or co-working space. Typically, the workshop involves eight to twelve attendees, including the project owner, a cross-section of members from my client’s team, two or more users, and at least one employee who may be responsible for operationalizing a potential solution.
When I am facilitating a work session, I encourage my “bosses” and “strong communicators” to take a step back and make sure everyone has an opportunity to share their perspective. To fuel deep and authentic collaboration, I invite my teams to practice a policy of “deferring judgment” and saying “tell me more” when they don’t agree with a point-of-view or solution shared by another team member. We use Post-it notes to capture our thoughts and create diagrams, paper prototypes, and sketches to convey our ideas. These protocols help each of us to “see” what the others are thinking, and take all perspectives into account.
The Design Thinking Methodology
With the above principles in mind, I would now like to share the “recipe” element of design thinking: the methodology. However, before I offer a basic outline, it is worth saying that design thinking is as much about a nimble work style as it is about a standard process. Frameworks and methodologies can only take you so far. The key to fully leverage a methodology is to deeply understand it before deploying so you can adapt on-the-fly.
Traditionally, a design thinking methodology involves four to six steps. I have highlighted those steps in the diagram below and then described each one in detail.
Design Thinking Methodology
- Frame the opportunity or challenge, and activate stakeholders through small-group collaborative worksessions. I have found that it is critical at this phase to activate executive support and setup a schedule for regular executive check-ins throughout a project.
- Explore the problem through some form of research that promotes empathy with the prospective or existing user. On certain projects, this research phase will be very intensive; on others it will be very quick.
- Design rough “prototype” solutions that address users’ problems and help you uncover flaws in your thinking.
- Test your prototypes with real people, and then iterate by creating additional prototypes that refine your thinking and your potential solution.
- Implement the solutions that stick by commercializing them or folding them into a “business as usual” function.
Business Impact: The Art of Applying Design Thinking
Again, a methodology can only take you so far. I believe that design thinking is as much art as it is science. The art of great design thinking work is all about how the principles and methodology are applied. The quality of a design thinking project has a lot to do with the team involved and the adaptations they make based upon instincts and politics.
The art of great design thinking work is all about how the principles and methodology are applied.
As a practitioner, I have found that “by the book” design thinking methods rarely deliver the results that a client is really seeking. The impact of a project depends on more than new ideas, and requires that the implementation makes solutions “sticky.” Even when organizations hire a design thinking guru to “promote new thinking” and “new ways of working,” they are still craving a demonstrable return on investment.
A few years into running my own design firm, I created a flexible framework to guide design thinking projects that invites modification to suit my client’s context. I explain this framework before and during a project kick-off, and I use it regularly as a tool for check-in meetings with my clients. This framework ensures that my client and I think early and often about potential challenges and roadblocks. It also offers a North Star to keep work on-track and accountable to deadlines. In addition, it focuses heavily on the implementation step, which I have found lacking in many design thinking projects. For those who might be interested, I will share more about this unique and flexible framework in an upcoming post. To whet your appetites in the meantime, this flexible framework is a big part of a new-to-the-world concept I am unveiling in summer 2018. To join the mailing list and be the first to know when we go live, sign up here.
I share this caveat about the art of application as a caution, because too many leaders have viewed design thinking as a secret elixir or cure-all for organizational problems. Although I am a true believer in the value of design thinking, and I apply the general methodology in my day-to-day work, I would not have had the success I have without adapting the approach to suit the context of each client I engage. As such, for teams in the midst of the beautiful but messy process of applying and scaling a design thinking mindset to the way they work, I highly recommend the following companion resources:
- Org Design for Design Organizations: penned by one of the founders of Adaptive Path, Peter Merholz this book unpacks how to craft successful design functions
- The Fifteen Commitments of Conscious Leadership: this book changed the way I showed up as a design leader, and has fueled a more authentic way of engaging teams and clients.
- Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations: this book shifted the way I design client work sessions. It helped me learn how to get clear on the focus, and activities for each session and prevented me from trying to pack too much into a single session, and instead deliver several high-impact sessions that each left a client (or team) panting for more. How many practitioners are guilty of trying to “build understanding” by sharing design research insights and “shape choices” by starting to frame design opportunities based on those insights in the same session? Once you read this book, you’ll learn why its a big no no, and why it dilutes your potential impact as a practitioner.
- “How to Design Smart Business Experiments,” by Thomas Davenport: a great primer on the topic of “test and learn experiments,” large-scale initiatives to apply design thinking principles in consumer facing settings.