What is Design Thinking? A Powerful Methodology for Projects, but NOT “Thinking About Design”!

Why do simple and effective approaches to getting things done often become obscured by jargon? For example, way back in the last century when I worked at HP we experienced big changes in the business environment. Although layoffs are common at HP these days, back then everyone I knew believed that HP had a “no layoff” policy. As offshoring became commonplace, it became clear that the lifetime employment contract was no longer viable. Executives and HR people started using terms like “career self-reliance” and “workforce resilience” — fancy phrases used to convey a pretty simple message: “You’re on your own when it comes to career development and job security.” Unsurprisingly, thousands of people were laid off over the next few years. Being laid off didn’t bother me nearly as much as seeing the reality of our situation needlessly obscured by buzzwords. I strongly believe that the terminology used in communicating the changes was unnecessarily complicated and indirect. Complex doesn’t necessarily mean complicated. I prefer to follow Einstein’s guidance to “make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Design Thinking Isn’t Merely Thinking About Design

Design thinking is an elegantly simple methodology shrouded in complicated jargon. This cryptic term was popularized by IDEO for a solutions-centric approach to creating breakthroughs. Over the past five years I’ve had the opportunity to learn and apply this powerful methodology by working closely with an expert in the field. It describes an incredibly powerful set of process and tools that are extremely useful in designing innovative products and services, and indispensable to anyone facing seemingly insurmountable challenges.

There’s a lot of interesting information on Wikipedia about design thinking, but reading it won’t really help you learn and apply this methodology unless you are already familiar with it. (Much better: Check out theDesign Thinking Bootcamp Bootleg document [PDF].) If asked, most people in my hometown of Silicon Valley, USA, could tell you that it’s something that IDEO does. But many of them would be hard pressed to offer a coherent explanation of what design thinking is without access to the internet. And, in spite of design thinking getting a lot of visibility in the past decade in the Harvard Business Review (PDF) and through the Institute of Design (d.school) at Stanford University, many technical professionals around the world haven’t heard the term or don’t know what it means.

I’ve come to understand how valuable design thinking is, and have applied this approach to project management, business leadership, and beyond. But, while it’s natural to assume that design thinking would mean “thinking about design” — and that does describe some of what goes on in this process — that’s somewhat misleading. It’s kind of like thinking a “leap year” is a whole year of leaping, or that a “jumbo shrimp” is big.

The Classic Design Thinking Diagram

First, let’s start with the classical design thinking model. Here is the diagram typically used to explain the process.

Figure 1: Steps in Design Thinking. Image source: Stanford d.school

Unfortunately, unless you are experienced in product development, the meaning of this diagram is still pretty obscure. You might know that empathize means “to experience the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another,” and still be clueless as to HOW to empathize, and who to empathize with! And ideate is likely to leave newbies equally puzzled about how the idea generation approach of design thinking differs from everyday problem-solving.

Even the definition offered by the president and CEO of IDEO, the company central to the design thinking movement, doesn’t help much. Tim Brown says, “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” Well, okay, but how do we get started actually DOING design thinking?

Design Thinking Is a Way to “Innovate on Purpose”

Many innovations are accidental, such as Teflon and Post-It notes. But businesses can’t afford to wait for happy accidents to satisfy their innovation needs. Design thinking can produce innovation predictably and repeatedly. (Of course there are dramatic differences of opinion as to the definition of innovation, and experts will likely disagree as to whether a specific product, service or solution deserves the label “innovative,” but let’s not get into that here.)

Figure 2: Design thinking as visualized by IDEO

The diagram above depicts the three key aspects of Tim Brown’s definition. I’ve found this very helpful in distinguishing innovation from invention. A particular invention may be feasible without being desirable to human beings or viable as a business. For example, a smart phone app that makes fart sounds is an invention, but not innovation, in my opinion.

And it clearly indicates that the design thinking methodology is people-centric, and not a purely rational, analytical, fact-based approach. At the center is something called “Experience Innovation,” another term that could be easily misinterpreted. In this world, innovation doesn’t describe a thing that is produced, but rather a human experience that is transformed for the better. It includes a deep understanding of the purpose (the “BIG WHY”) to be achieved as well as the human beings impacted (the “BIG WHO”).

Of course, innovation isn’t limited to the design phase of a project, and this diagram doesn’t cover what some people describe as “innovation all along the lifecycle.”

Design Thinking vs. Problem-solving

One way to understand design thinking is by defining what it is not — problem-solving. When solving a problem we typically start with the problem and look for solutions. For example, in the 1800s a person living in the countryside might have been frustrated by how long it took to get to town by riding a horse. The obvious problem-centric solution? Get a faster horse! As you can see, the focus is on the problem, which tends to result in obvious, often incremental, solutions — making something better, faster, cheaper. A design thinking approach, on the other hand, might lead to a much more innovative solution, such as inventing a bicycle or automobile, or moving closer to town, or finding ways to eliminate the need to go to town at all. This diagram is a terrific visualization of this concept. A problem or question results in an answer, but leaves more attractive solutions unexplored.

NOTE: This diagram is from the “Big Ideas Fest 2013 Action Collab Facilitator Manual” published by the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME), which is quite a mouthful. Don’t worry, while the Institute’s name is complicated, and the acronym awkward to pronounce, the manual is very clearly written, and lays out a step-by-step approach to creating an experience that incorporates key tools from the design thinking toolbox. Unfortunately I have been unable to locate this manual anywhere online, so you’ll have to contact them for a copy.

Using a design thinking approach, we are guided to exploring both the question and the possibilities in ways that lead to breakthroughs, some of which would be very difficult to discover through conventional root cause analysis and idea generation techniques.

Scrappy Design Thinking

With an overview of design thinking under our belts, I’d love to share my “Scrappy Guide to Design Thinking,” but I’m already at the end of the reasonable attention span of even an avid reader. So we’ll save that for my next column. The delay will give you time to explore some of the other helpful resources available on this important topic.

Read the next article in this series, Scrappy Design Thinking, here.

In my opinion, few of the techniques that are part of Design Thinking are entirely new. I’ve encountered them under other buzzword banners. But, like the string that gathers together the beads on a necklace, design thinking strings together these tools in a way that makes them far more useful — and beautiful — than just a pile of beads.

To be continued in the future, a place full of possibilities!

– Kimberly

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