How to use design thinking to solve business challenges.
A short video introducing what Design Thinking is
Human Centered Design
A methodology is a set of tools, approaches and mindsets used for particular types of challenges.
These methodologies above differ from one another mostly in the specific kinds of challenges that they are meant to address.
The vocabulary is not important. What’s important is the understanding of the challenge you are trying to solve and adopting the right tools and methods to begin to work towards a solution.
From that perspective. Design Thinking or Human Centered Design is possibly the broadest methodology of those listed because of they wide array of problems they can tackle.
With all of that said …
What makes design thinking different?
Why is it effective?
Why do countless organizations turn to it to tackle some of the most wicked problems and challenges?
It’s no accident that Design Thinking has the word ‘design’ in it. It comes from design, which was historically rooted in the design of physical objects, spaces, and environments. Just as design is highly about ‘making,’ so too is design thinking rooted in making.
This history gives design thinking a focus on a few particular things:
1. The physical form and function of objects and spaces.
2. A focus on systems and environments.
Additionally, design is inextricably linked to people. Objects and spaces made for human use take human needs into account.
This hyper focus on the people at the heart of any challenge – give designers two more important tools.
1. A focus on empathy – to deeply understand the emotions and needs of the humans we are designing for.
2. An ability to move people – deep insights into humans gives designers an understanding of their behaviors and mental models.
Some principles for design emerge.
1. Who are you designing for?
2. What do they need to do?
3. Why do they need to do it?
4. How are they doing it now?
5. Where are they?
6. What’s getting in their way?
But we need to unpack design first as well.
The word design carries a lot of associations. And very often, these tend to be related to visuals and aesthetics. We often associate design with how something looks, and we think of designers primarily as visual people. And while design thinking is indeed a highly visual process – the visuals are just a means to an end. They are in no way a requirement.
Craft and Ornamentation
It is true – design does have a history in craft. For the longest time, designers were craftsmen, and aesthetics played a vital role. Largely, this was due to the nature of commission work. Artisans and designers rarely created work simply for their own gains, and instead they were hired to create objects for their patrons and clients. Even in those situations, the visual nature of the work and the focus on aesthetics was a large part of the requirements of the task.
These are some works of William Morris – A British Textile designer working in the 1800’s and associated with the arts and crafts movement.
Form follows function
Modern design diverges
At the turn of the 20th century, design had already begun changing. A lot of these changes were the result of the industrial revolution and the advent of the machine age. Designers were increasingly working on more and more industrial projects and we began to arrive at different definitions of design. Primarily that a designed object’s primary focus is on it’s function. Any changes to the form, should only serve to improve the function of the object.
Design, Business, and Marketing
As the 19th century progressed, design also changed with it. And in the process we returned back to form as a vital and necessary focus of design.
After the Great Depression, commerce essentially disappeared. People weren’t buying anything. Design was the primary solution. By targeting the natural human desire to be different, designers redesigned objects to make them desirable. People started buying things not because they needed them, but because they were cool. Through design, the economy was jump-started.
A problematic legacy
This movement called Streamline Moderne or Streamlining was largely inspired by aerodynamic design. Although the visual changes to objects were largely made to entice people to buy, for many objects they also served a more functional purpose. Movement and speed. For other objects, they served an emotional purpose – aspiring to movement, speed, progress, and change.
And still, it is largely during this time period where design, business, and marketing merged and created the modern form of consumerism that is responsible for many of the challenges we face today.
So what is design?
First form follows function, then form is function?
First design is about the visuals, then it’s about the functions, and then we’re back to the visuals again?
How should we understand the design in design thinking?
And what exactly are the skills required?
Herbert A. Simon, winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Economics, the A.M. Turing Award and the National Medal of Science and many other awards for his work in cognitive psychology and computer science.
“Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”
In simpler terms – that just means designing is the act of going from point a to point b.
Point A and Point B can be anything you want.
A situation you are unhappy about becoming a situation you are happy about.
Something undesirable becoming something desirable.
Something bad becoming something good.
This could be about the design of objects. In this case we have the OXO Peeler. OXO commissioned the design consultancy Smart Design to help them design a peeler that could be used by individuals with arthritis.
Through a deep understanding of the emotional and physical challenges of these individuals, the design ultimately served to create a product loved by all consumers, not just those with arthritis.
This could be the creation of services and new forms of ownership and economy. In this case moving away from individual ownership of vehicles to shared consumption and membership in a service.
This could be about new forms of government and civic engagement. On one side we have the voting process in the United States, rife with complications and fraud, and on the other side we have new models of interaction such as those possible in Latvia and Estonia – more accessible, democratic, and backed by the latest and securest technologies.
Or this could be about human behaviors and habits. On one side there is me as a smoker, and on the other side there is me as a non smoker. Design can be used to help nudge and guide people towards new behaviors or lifestyles.
Design Thinking is not a silver bullet.
Design thinking is a powerful methodology. However, it by no means guarantees results. Learning design thinking won’t magically make you a superstar. You won’t immediately have the best products, or the best ideas.
In that sense, no methodology can deliver results. Even with the lean startup – countless businesses fail everyday. Even with systems thinking, we still have complicated societal problems that we don’t know how to make headway in.
What you will have however, is a way of reducing risk.
By practicing design thinking, you will have a better process. One that delivers better results more often over time.
So what does the process actually look like?
It’s a loop focused on learning.
1. Ask a question
3. Learn something
4. Prototype again
4. Learn some more
5. Find you asked the wrong question.
6. Ask a better question.
Depending on where you look in the internet, you’ll see different visualizations of the design process. In some places it’s a 3 step process, in other places it’s a 5 step process, and elsewhere it might be a 12 step process. The language used will also be different. Even though they are all different, they’re all correct. Whichever model you choose doesn’t matter, because in their essence they are all the same.
There’s no perfection in design thinking. There’s only what’s best for today.
First you start by learning about the problem space. Then you narrow down and define the particular aspects of the problem you are looking to solve. Moving forward you ideate and begin to generate possible approaches for solving the problem. You then look for patterns and attractive elements of all of your ideas and refine them further to arrive at something you can prototype. Then you test your prototype with people to receive feedback and learn more. You repeat the process as many times as is feasible and necessary.
Case studies & examples
Who are you designing for?
One principle of design thinking is that there are many ways to address a problem.
What determines one solution over the other is the person at the center of it.
Is it a tourist? Do they want to look around and see the sites?
Is it an elderly individual who absolutely needs a seat, or wheelchair access?
Each might need a different path.
Even when a solution seems to tick all the boxes – there’s still friction. A deep understanding of humans you are designing for can help uncover the hidden and invisible barriers that keep people from making decisions.
This can be seen in the story of how a dining room table clued the designers in to what was really holding people back from downsizing and moving.
Design for micro-moments
Often when people think about design, they think about big massive changes. But sometimes it’s the smallest things that can have the biggest impact.
By deeply understanding parents and the emotional and physical needs around childcare, Continuum Innovation was able to make Pampers into the No.1 diaper brand in the US.
Curiosity leads to insight
Being curious can often lead you to powerful discoveries that lead to long lasting benefits and changes.
By being curious and asking if managers really mattered and following a deep research backed process exploring their own teams and managers, Google was able to uncover fundamental truths that led to new principles for making happier and more effective teams.
Design for onboarding
Design thinking isn’t always consumer facing. It’s applicable to a wide array of challenges.
In this video you see the outcome of a service design process at Coca-Cola that was aimed at creating a more human centered approach to HR.
Who practices design thinking?
Design thinking isn’t practiced alone.
There isn’t anyone who goes around saying they are a design thinker. Rather design thinking is an approach to problem solving that practitioners of many different disciplines use.
One of the things I like about this video above, although it’s dated, is the makeup of the team, the emphasis on the environment, and the process. Notice that the team is made up of various people from different disciplines. There was a linguist, a sociologist, a biologist, as well as designers. The design thinking process works much better with an interdisciplinary team.
The other thing to notice is the lack of hierarchy or “Bosses,” as well as the different rules they have posted all around the space. These are meant to create a safe environment. Creativity requires putting yourself out there. It requires a certain amount of bravery and confidence. The safer you can make the space, the likelier you are to bring out the best ideas of all the participants present. After all, you don’t know who has the insight that will ultimately lead to the best solution possible.
Create safe spaces.
Explore early, commit late.
Lastly, I’d like to point your attention to the fact that they worked in multiple teams all tackling the same problem. Every team went out to do their own research and gain proximity to the problem space. They then shared what they learned with the other teams and then proceeded to pursue independent ideas. They didn’t commit to a single idea, instead choosing to explore different options, before bringing them all together using the best of all of them.
Resisting falling in love with a single idea early on in the process is also an important part of practicing design thinking.
Why isn’t design thinking practiced alone?
As we noticed in the JTBD dining room table example above, it’s possible to have a fantastic product that seems to meet all the customers needs and still have it not work. Often the difference between success and failure is the depth of your understanding of the problem space, the people, and the forces involved.
Design thinking is by its nature systemic. It takes a wide view of the problem space and places a strong focus on getting a deep understanding of the stakeholders involved. But humans have blind spots and biases. We all have our own experiences. These give us expertise in some domains, but they also limit us from other perspectives, ideas, and approaches.
Work in teams and across disciplines for a more complete view of the problem space.
But teamwork isn’t easy and communication is hard.
Designers are map makers and finders.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – is a simple mental model that helps some people determine how they should treat other people.
Myths, fables, parables, and fairytales are all also maps. They are shortcuts and abstractions aimed at teaching something complex through storytelling. By hearing, seeing, or listening to the story, we arrive at the destination the author wants us to see.
A major part of the design thinking process is uncovering the existing maps and models of the people and the problem space, and also creating new maps of alternative futures in which the problem is solved.
Designers use maps to not only communicate effectively with those we are designing for, but also internally to communicate with our teams and colleagues.
Designers create maps at all stages of design. In the Learn and Define phases, maps are used to understand and articulate what we are seeing. Moving forward in the design process, maps are used as prototypes to gather feedback internally or externally. The same map can be used as a way of explaining what we are seeing, and as a way to describe a new future. In that sense, all prototypes are also maps.
Prototypes are models of an alternative future that designers use to show customers and stakeholders an idea or possibility.
Maps are used at all parts of the design process.
Example maps and prototypes
Stakeholder analysis map
A tool that comes from Systems Thinking, the stakeholder analysis is a great map to do at various stages of the design process.
At the very beginning, it can be used to uncover the teams implicit beliefs and biases and act as a foundation for determining future research opportunities.
Revisited over time, the team has the benefit of updating their map with their findings to arrive at a closer and closer map of the real relationships of the stakeholders involved.
By understanding who has a stake in the problem space, design teams have a higher likelihood of choosing the right partners and designing solutions that will have impact.
Another tool from Systems Thinking, the Iceberg model helps design teams to move past initial events to unconvering the deeper beliefs and structures that create them.
Very often we hear what customers want, or we see what customers are doing – but design teams need to be careful of listening to that exclusively. Every desire and every action is rooted in deeper needs. Design teams need to ask themselves – why are people asking for these things? What problems are they trying to solve? Why do those problems exist? Why do they believe that this is what will help them?
The classic example is of Henry Ford who was quoted as having said – “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.”
An internal facing map that is used to align teams around User Jobs or Actions and plan out releases.
At the very top we have the user experience and the different actions that customers want or need to perform. Moving down we start to map out features that are intended to help users accomplish those goals.
Over time, this allows a team to easily see what parts of the user experience are being neglected and where focus should be applied.
A tool that came from the movie and comics industry. A storyboard can have words or it can be purely visual, but the main idea is to tell a story using key frames.
Used to illustrate the current experience, the storyboard can highlight current struggles that people experience in a problem space.
Used to illustrate an alternative future, the storyboard can be used to gather feedback from customers on the viability of a design intervention or it can be used to align internal stakeholders on a shared vision of what the team is building and designing.
This is an example of a storyboard that I and my team created when working at MediSolutions. We were exploring different opportunities to create better patient experiences through the use of digital technologies.
We used this storyboard to gather feedback from doctors, their medical staff, and patients to determine the viability of the service and if it solved an important enough problem.
A tool used for visualizing a user journey and aligning it to the visible and invisible actions that a company needs to perform to deliver a service.
The service blueprint has at least 3 main sections.
1. The user journey and experience – actions a user takes in using a service as well as the mental and emotional experience.
2. The front stage – actions and interactions that are visible to the user during the journey.
3. The backstage – actions and interactions that the user never sees but that are critical to delivering the service.
The service blueprint is a powerful tool for visualizing and discovering areas of the customer journey that are not being handled properly and that could be improved.
User Journey Map
Highly related to and often used interchangeably with a service blueprint, the user journey map focuses on describing the full end-to-end customer experience. Less emphasis is placed on understanding the backstage interactions that allow a service to be delivered.
This journey map is describing the experience of Sofia, a 6 year old girl who needs to get an MRI done. Doug Dietz from GE healthcare during a visit to the hospital came across Sofia and realized how painful the experience was for young children. Mapping the customer journey, they were able to identify multiple points in the process where they could deliver a better experience.
From Map to Reality
By mapping out the child’s journey during the hospital experience and emphasizing on what the child was thinking and feeling, they were able to identify the main need of feeling safe. They introduced different fun activities and games to the process and completely redesigned the room and MRI machine exterior to allow kids to come into the experience with joy and a sense of safety and adventure.
Not only did this create better and safer experiences for children, but it also reduced hospital costs associated with sedating kids to be still during scans, and ultimately allowed the hospital to see more kids in a single day leading to more efficient, less costly, and better health care.
Often when you are designing, you will be imagining entirely new futures. Designers often want to understand how people might feel about these new experiences without having to actually create them. A scenario is essentially an illustration of a what if statement.
This Scenario illustration here is a project I worked on exploring social innovation in Manhattans Lower East Side neighborhood. The illustration is exploring the question of – What if the whole neighborhood could function as a senior center? What would that look like? Is it feasible? Is it possible?
Having explored the question through a scenario and using image and storytelling to begin to describe what a neighborhood as a senior center might look like, the next step was getting feedback from the local community residents.
By partnering with a local community center, the design team organized a public participatory gallery show where they invited the local community to come and share in the creative process and provide feedback to the team on the future visions.
Scenarios can be videos too.
Depending on your team’s capabilities and budget, your scenario illustrations can also be truer to life.
In this video illustration, The Connected Places Catapult uses video to explore the question of – What if our cities had entirely different and augmented cycling experiences?
What’s interesting about this video is that it presents a future augmented with technology that would be very expensive to create. And yet, with some video work they are able to visualize this future and start exploring these possibilities with cities, startups, and citizens.
Scenarios can be text as well.
At different stages of your design and research process, you’ll also benefit from using maps and prototypes of differing fidelity.
In the exploration and the discovery phase, you’ll want to aim for low fidelity. What’s important is learning about the space and if you have understood the needs correctly. Later on in the process, you’ll need higher fidelity prototypes because the illusion of reality will be much more important.
In this scenario, only words were used to explore – what if we had this book on field research, what would be most interesting to you? Readers were invited to highlight and comment on the sections that they thought were most relevant. This helped the author know which parts of the book he needed to work on most.
Wizard of OZ Scenarios
Sometimes you’ll want to test out a business idea with a scenario that requires the illusion of full reality.
What if this really existed – would people actually pay for it?
One tool that is commonly used is the Wizard of OZ MVP. In this tool, you simulate a fully working business or service that happens automatically, but in reality, you have people doing everything behind the scenes. Customers believe things are happening automatically and thus act as they would in real life.
The classic example is the online shoe retailer Zappos. When it was first started, they had no inventory and walked around photographing shoes from local stores. When they received orders, they would run and buy the shoes and ship everything. Once they reached $2000 worth of orders a week, they realized that their idea was validated and they proceeded to actually develop the business.
One thing that is at the heart of all of many mapping methods is story telling. Much of a design teams work is telling stories. Whether these are stories to describe the current situation or whether these are stories that are describing new and alternative futures, they are still stories.
From that perspective, it’s not important what map you choose to make or even if you make a map at all. Sometimes all you need to do is tell the story really well. You can do this through words, through videos, through storyboards and imagery, or even through role playing exercises.
These videos are from the Global GovJam 2014 in Fukuoka, Japan. The videos don’t have any words and are made with a simple camera and minimal tools. But the story that is being told is an evocative one and we viewers immediately begin to fill in the blanks with our own past experiences.
Videos like this are especially useful as an exploratory research method because they can be used as prompts to start conversations and uncover people’s mental models and beliefs.
An important part of the design process is problem framing. In the beginning when design teams are out doing research, they are often working in teams targeting different areas of exploration. Effectively sharing what the teams are learning to one another is an important part of the process as it allows teams to better understand the space and also gives an opportunity for stakeholders to stay involved in the process. Often teams will create artifacts that share what has been discovered about the problem space. Spending time on this allows for a more solid foundation in the later design phases and ensures everyone on the team is on the same page.
Earlier I showed the scenario illustration reimagining the neighborhood as a senior center. This was the problem framing video that we created before beginning to work on new future visions.
Another Problem Framing video with no words. Other than some music and putting together different clips, this video is entirely possible to create in very little time using freely available tools on the Apple iPhone.
Although nothing is being said in this video, the viewer can easily understand the problem that is being described.
Using a video like this before a joint team brainstorming session is especially powerful as it primes the teams mind to have a very clear view of the problem and allows for easier communication and more powerful ideas.
Sometimes you’ll want to prototype app or service ideas. At some stage of the process you’ll definitely want to have high fidelity prototypes and actually have things committed to code or even designed digitally. But at the very early stages, you are just exploring a story.
What if this kind of app existed?
For that kind of storytelling and exploration, paper, pen, and voice are usually enough to start a conversation and begin to uncover needs and opportunities within the problem space.
People are very good at imagining and we are naturally gifted at filling in the blanks and telling stories. When shown something rough like this prototype, people will talk to you about the idea, the problem, the vision. When shown something that looks finished and real, people will often tell you they don’t think those colors are good and that maybe your font size is too large.
At every stage, you need to think what questions you want answers to and pick the appropriate tool.
Source: Global Govjam
And that’s design thinking in a nutshell.
Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or want to connect for other reasons.
“Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”