17 Design Thinking

Design thinking focuses on solving real world problems by using the same process that designers use to make products and applying this framework to new situations.  It is solution-focused and is predicated on the idea of asking good questions and taking actionable steps. The design thinking process focuses on eight core abilities:

  1. Navigate ambiguity
  2. Learn from others
  3. Synthesize information
  4. Experiment rapidly
  5. Move between concrete and abstract
  6. Build and craft intentionally
  7. Communicate deliberately
  8. Design your design work

The early stages of design thinking emphasize gaining a deep understanding of the problem, and developing empathy with the people affected by that problem to understand their perspectives and needs. In this way, this process is sometimes referred to as human-centered design.

The later stages of design thinking focus on action. Design thinking is a process that allows teams or individuals to try out numerous solutions to a problem (to “experiment rapidly” or “prototype”) to meet the needs of the client or group.  Related to this idea is the importance of failing often, but failing quickly and cheaply so that you can find a solution that works. David Kelley explains in his TED Talk on creative confidence that “a series of small successes turns fear into familiarity.”

There are 5 phases in the design thinking process. As a designer works, she moves in and out of these phases in no particular order, revisiting each phase as necessary. The first phase is about empathy. We need to know the people involved in the problem, especially the “end-users,” those most affected by the problem. We need to know about their needs and the contexts in which they live. We need to put ourselves, as much as possible, in their shoes to think about what would be helpful. The second phase involves defining the problem as one whose solution will satisfy a human-centered need. Notice that this definition of the problem has moved from the larger, complex problem that we are trying to work on to a smaller, more focused problem that expresses the needs of a particular group of people. The third phase is about ideation, where the designers (in this case, the students) generate many ideas about how to satisfy the need identified in the definition stage. The fourth phase is to build several small-scale prototypes where particular aspects of the solution to the problem are chosen for implementation. This is an experimental phase where the goal is to identify the best solution to the needs with the constraints identified in the other phases. The fifth phase involves testing the prototypes and often involves the development of more insights into the problem that can then be iteratively incorporated into redefining the problem or into new ideation and prototyping stages.

The d-school (Design School) at Stanford University has published a useful Introduction to Design Thinking Process Guide that clearly explain these 5 phases.

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Design Thinking by Cathie LeBlanc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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