Trying to understand Design Thinking

Warning: Relatively long post, thanks to a cancelled meeting from 7AM which got me on my laptop hours earlier than usual. Jump to here to skip a lot of references.

Mention “Design Thinking” to me and what comes into mind are post-its, and the 5-phase process or cycles of Empathize-Define-Ideate-Prototype-Test. But what I’d really like to understand is what sets it apart from any other problem solving approach. Apparently, I’m not the only one because I found this in Quora: “How does design thinking differ from other approaches to problem solving or innovation?” I’ll get to that later.

Starting with definitions and differentiation

“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.”
—Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO

Googled top results

Here are today’s top 5 results when I Googled “Design Thinking” and what they essentially had to say about it. The first one’s actually an ad so I’ll skip that.

Result #1: What is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular? Written just 1 month ago. The take away from that article (literally, because the heading is “The Take Away”): “Design Thinking is essentially a problem-solving approach specific to design, which involves assessing known aspects of a problem and identifying the more ambiguous or peripheral factors that contribute to the conditions of a problem. This contrasts with a more scientific approach where the concrete and known aspects are tested in order to arrive at a solution. Design Thinking is an iterative process in which knowledge is constantly being questioned and acquired so it can help us redefine a problem in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. Design Thinking is often referred to as ‘outside the box thinking’, as designers are attempting to develop new ways of thinking that do not abide by the dominant or more common problem-solving methods – just like artists do. At the heart of Design Thinking is the intention to improve products by analyzing how users interact with them and investigating the conditions in which they operate. Design Thinking offers us a means of digging that bit deeper to uncover ways of improving user experiences.”

Result #2: 5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process. Written 2 weeks ago. It’s more focused on the 5 stages as you would expect from the title. But in the take away, it did say: “In essence, the Design Thinking process is iterative, flexible and focused on collaboration between designers and users, with an emphasis on bringing ideas to life based on how real users think, feel and behave.”

Result #3: Design Thinking. Doesn’t really count since it seems to just aggregate items tagged as falling under the topic.

Result #4: What is Design Thinking? from IDEO U. “Design thinking is a process for creative problem solving. …Design thinking has a human-centered core. It encourages organizations to focus on the people they’re creating for, which leads to better products, services, and internal processes. When you sit down to create a solution for a business need, the first question should always be what’s the human need behind it?”

Result #5: Design Thinking from good ol’ Wikipedia. “Design thinking refers to the cognitive, strategic and practical processes by which design concepts (proposals for new products, buildings, machines, etc.) are developed. Many of the key concepts and aspects of design thinking have been identified through studies, across different design domains, of design cognition and design activity in both laboratory and natural contexts.”

Going back to Quora

Let me just try to go over the 5 available answers to the question “How does design thinking differ from other approaches to problem solving or innovation?“, and summarize them below.

  • Emphasis on “Empathy” for the people for whom you are designing for and its focus on human values at every stage of the process
  • Contrast against traditional innovation process which uses a linear funnel “Toll-gate” approach for problem solving; whereas Design Thinking is “an iterative and fluid approach that uses prototyping for continuous user feedback and engagement”
  • It’s reinventing the wheel but it comes with the major advantage that it “re engages the client with the designer as a proper process of design communication”
  • Respondent list down some attributes like “user-centric, human-centric” but then adds “process oriented”.
  • Human centered, using elements such as “experimentation and empathy to come up with inventive solutions while incorporating the people’s needs, the prospects of technology, and what is required for the success of a business”

Hmm… It’s still just problem solving

Idk. It still feels like problem solving to me. On the aspect of being human-centered or user-centered, you can’t really do away with that because a problem is a problem to someone. You can’t take that someone out of the picture when you’re trying to understand the problem, more so when you’re trying to solve it. On the emphasis on empathy, it feels like that’s a given essential when you’re trying to understand the problem space. You need to understand why, how and to what extent is it being a problem to someone.

On the aspect of being iterative and on using prototyping, it still doesn’t feel like a differentiation. After defining a problem and coming up with ideas on how to solve it, it just doesn’t make sense to jump on the first idea or run all ideas. It throws me back to grade school when they were teaching us the scientific method wherein you hypothesize, then test (which could go either way), repeat, until you come up with a conclusion based from your test results.

So does it add value?

I wouldn’t discount it as not having value. There’s way too much content out there to say it’s not valuable. And more importantly, it’s still problem solving and problem solving that’s able to bring forth solutions is valuable.

Maybe what really differentiates are Design Sprints?

Oh, no, another term. Now what are Design Sprints? It’s highly popularized by the book Sprint by Jake Knapp (which is still in my reading backlog). But a quick google search on the difference between Design Thinking and Design Sprint gave this very useful point.

‘One of the things companies are struggling with when it comes to integrating Design Thinking is that it’s more of a philosophy than a true “out of the box” method. This is precisely the value of Design Sprint.’

The value-add I perceive are:

  • Design Sprints put a time box or defines a more concrete recipe on the Design Thinking process.
  • It engages the customers — so it’s not just the designers or developers brainstorming on the problem space and solution space.
  • It allows for quick feedback — for some points, you can validate right there and then because you have customers in the room with you. No need to send out an email, and wait for a response only to realize a need for a follow up email later on.
  • It really sets the stage for a collaborative design process. With the framework, it’s clear who will be involved, what will be needed during the time box, what outputs to expect within the time box. As opposed to more traditional approaches, you don’t have to second guess whether you can talk to the customer or course it through some stringent RFI (request for information) process. It’s a given that customer stakeholders and the design team will directly interact.

Now as to how it’ll seamlessly integrate with Agile Scrum, maybe that’s for another cancelled 7AM meeting. 🙂

2 thoughts on “Trying to understand Design Thinking

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