What is Design Thinking?


Design thinking (DT) is a set of methods and mindsets to develop products, services, and potentially even life goals. As opposed to an accountant’s mindset or an engineer’s mindset to build a bridge, DT uses a designers mindset to approach problems where there is no clear solution (ex. a manufacturing process). David Kelley described the idea of DT around 2004 as he helped to found the Design School at Stanford University (d.school). Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO, describes DT as “Put simply, it is a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity” (HBR 2008).

What are the basic steps to design thinking?

Idealistically, DT is made up of a five part cycle - empathy, problem definition, ideation, prototyping, and testing. When a team uses DT, their first step is to leave their offices and go where the people and problems are. Often, the first step is simply observing the context of the problem with a “beginner’s mindset” attempting to put aside all assumptions about the team feels the problem is. Once you collect data via observation, immersion, or engaging with your end users you develop a point of view and a clear problem statement that helps you to focus your brainstorming. In many team settings, teams find a problem and solve that problem with the first, most probable solution that comes to mind without thinking about all of the possible solutions available to them. This method does not lead to the preferable that delights your customer and leads to behavior change for the business. After numerous ideas are generated, ideas are selected to prototype. Prototypes come in various forms and fidelities and the point of prototyping your solution is to test it quickly as possible to learn as much as you can and derisk your solution before implementing a solution that may be costly in both time and money. These steps are often timeboxed so that within a given time you can learn as much as possible and as a project/product team you are trying to go through the cycle as fast as possible. One additional point, you can enter the cycle at any point. You might build a prototype and test it to gain empathy and to understand the problem more fully.

Is there an optimal group size for design thinking?

Like most cross functional team projects, the best teams are smaller teams of 4-6 people. The biggest factor with a DT team is bringing your full self and your willingness to be vulnerable with your team.

How long does it typically take?

DT is a process like most others - lean startup, agile, etc. - that can take as long as you allow it to take. A mindset of DT is to constrain the method by timeboxing it and most often the project is beholden to budget considerations and the client contract.

Is it important to problem-solving?  Why?

We believe DT is paramount to solving the right problem because most problems are assumed and solved with many assumptions in place. As previously stated, DT helps to iteratively derisk solutions with minimal investment.

Should all issues be resolved through design thinking?

Absolutely not. However, the point of using a DT process is to derisk your idea as soon as possible and with as little investment as possible. How many times have you had a problem, went with the first solution you thought of, implemented that solution only to realize that it didn’t fully solve the real issue you were trying to solve. By using DT, the goal is to find the right problem to solve and to quickly iterate to a meaningful solution in a low cost way.

Can you give me an example of where design thinking has been especially effective?

There are numerous examples you can find about using DT to effectively solve a problem. The one story that I will share is from the d.school. In class called Designing for Extremes a team was asked to redesign a low cost baby incubators for hospitals in India. Only after a trip to Nepal did the team realize that many low-weight child births occur in rural areas and building a low cost incubator would not have helped the problem of child mortality. The team developed and iterated the Embrace bodywarmer using a DT approach to help keep the baby’s body temperature at acceptable levels. David and Tom Kelley’s book Creative Confidence and Roger Martin’s book The Design of Business also give many examples of DT in the business context.

Why do I need to be aware of/be participating in design thinking?

When using DT always remember to be open to and mindful of the process. This means two things. When you are engaging DT methods you may be doing things that do not feel normal in an everyday business context and that’s okay. And, are you in a flare mindset where you to generate ideas or are you in a focus mindset where you need to begin to narrow down the possible options. How many times have you been in a meeting where you were asked to come up with ideas and your boss or one of your team members immediately said “That won’t work”? In a DT team, we try to use IDEO’s rules of thumb for brainstorming.

How can I learn more about design thinking?

Check out the design thinking resources I’ve put in the below link. I’ve listed companies, resource websites, videos, and Twitter handles. Of the resources I’ve listed, I would watch the IDEO deep dive video, review the Stanford d.school’s website, and IDEO’s design kit.

Design Thinking Resources