Design thinking has been around since 1969 and is still going strong – here’s the full walk through the process to get your creative juices flowing.
Unsurprisingly, people have been using this methodology since it was first introduced in order to come up with meaningful solutions to problems, and to push the boundaries of innovation.
The most valuable products, regardless of their industry of sector, tend to solve problems for people. It’s a basic concept taught in most business schools: people are willing to pay money to have their problems fixed for them. From the UX side of design, you can create a tool that helps people live their lives to the fullest, with as little stress as possible.
The design thinking methodology is a means to that end. It’s natural that UX designers set out to solve people’s problems, whatever those may be – but solving problems can be challenging. After all, how do we even identify problems in people’s everyday lives? This can be more difficult than anticipated, especially so in the 21st century when we already have solutions for almost everything.
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What is design thinking?
Design thinking is a framework that UX designers can use in order to tackle big, complicated or even largely unknown problems in product development. Consider the design thinking process a framework for people who want to create solutions.
The Design Thinking framework was popularised by the Stanford Design School. Based on the Scientific Method, David Kelly, Co-founder of IDEO and founder of Stanford Design School, introduced empathy to the Scientific Method and Design Thinking was born! It was created as a way to make the creative process repeatable. And used as a system to approach difficult problems in order to create suitable outcomes.
Design thinking combines the problem solving routes of design with a hyper focus on users. Truly empathising with what else the user is doing, where they are using a product, what their motivations are and what they are trying to achieve by using a product.
Design Thinking, the Scientific Method and Agile
Like the Scientific Method and agile, it’s more than a methodology or framework. It’s a way of thinking, of approaching in a certain way to solving complex challenges, guided by some principals.
The Scientific Method, Agile and Design Thinking could be considered more like mindsets. They’re all approaches that focus on action and human (or natural) centred experiences that guide the team to the correct outcome. They’re all non linear, and can’t be completed by one specific approach. But are iterative, regularly testing and learning are used to guide the team and the design of the outcome. So you could think of Design Thinking of being an extension of the Scientific Method.
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.
The first step isn’t to look at the market, the features your product will have or anything related to the product itself. The first thing you want to do is to focus on the user. The goal with this stage is to understand the user’s needs, wants, and hates.
What motivates them? What workarounds do they have daily? You want to gather a lot of knowledge about how users live their lives, and how you can help them enjoy life even more. This is where some knowledge of psychology comes in real handy. Some companies reach out to experts in human behaviour while other, smaller companies, simply settle for observing and trying to see things from the POV of the user.
You can achieve this by engaging with users – you can hold interviews, but try to make them casual and resemble more a conversation than a formal interview. A very important note regarding this stage in the design thinking process is that the designer needs to resist the temptation to form assumptions regarding users. This is more difficult than some realise, as it’s human nature to assume things about people. You need to take care, as assumptions can lead your product away from a real solution and into the realm of useless pretty products users don’t hate, but don’t need either.
Never assume you know enough.
Don’t think that after talking to the user once or twice you now understand their struggles and desires – it’s hardly ever that easy! Watch out for those assumptions that don’t rest on a solid basis of evidence like your product depends on it, because it does.
This stage in the design thinking process takes aim at the real problem your design will set out to solve. Now is the time to take everything you know about the user and identify the problems, the potential to make user’s lives better.
You want to define the issue based on your user research, without losing sight of the human side of your product. Ideally, you would define the problem in question in a problem statement. Don’t make your company the center of it – remember to keep the user in the spotlight at all times. As opposed to making your statement “we need to…” aim for “users need….”.
You will, most likely, come back to this stage in the design thinking process once you start elaborating on your ideas and carry out some testing. Even the best and most experienced designer learns something new with prototyping and testing!
You shouldn’t resist changes to the problem statement. It’s better to keep coming back to this and make sure you have it right, as opposed to assume it’s perfect – only to find out once the product is released that you got something wrong. This is the core function of your product, it’s the reason why people will get it in the first place. You get the problem wrong, and your product will suffer the consequences.
This is the part of the design thinking process most designers love: dreaming up possible solutions! At this point, you’ve done your research and have a clear understanding of who the product is for, what it’s meant to do for its users and why that matters to the users. Now, you and your team can start dreaming up ways that your design could check all the right boxes.
You’ll use your problem statement as a starting point and build from there. There are a wide variety of techniques for idea generation out there – most design thinking processes include brainstorming or the worst possible idea so people can get creative about their solutions.
At this stage, you want to get as many ideas down as possible. It’s ok if not all of those are feasible or realistic, you just want everybody on the team to let their ideas flow without judgement. You’ll separate the ideas according to their feasibility or awesomeness later on!
When it comes to ideas that chase innovation, we are usually confronted with the same trade off. The more innovative a product is, the more risk is involved on betting on that innovative product. How far you are willing to go into the risk pool of innovation is up to you and your team – but this dilemma is worth remembering when analysing the ideas you gathered in this stage of the design thinking process.
It’s recommended you hold the decision between ideas until you reach testing and have feedback from users.
At the end of this stage, you’ll have a short list of ideas you can pursue. These ideas will evolve to become your prototypes and, hopefully, your final product! Once you know which ideas you want to pursue, start developing each one until the divide between them becomes clearer – you don’t have to decide on one idea straight away.
Time to get the winning ideas down into something tangible. UX designers will be familiar with the trade off: the more time and detail you allocate to the prototype, the more expensive that prototype is. In this case, the design thinking process calls for several prototypes, turning all the surviving ideas from the previous stage into low-fidelity prototypes.
Later on, you’ll find yourself adding more detail, more visuals and more interaction to the winning prototype. It’s important, however, to hold off on investing too much on the initial prototypes as most of them will be discarded when you’ve defined a winner.
Prototyping is crucial, because they make sure that there are no doubts over the main characteristics of the design. Using a professional prototyping tool is a necessity if you want to have a realistic idea of the finished product, as well as have the opportunity to add as much detail to the prototype as you see fit.
Remember that a prototype can be a functional replica of the product, made with a professional prototyping tool, or a wall of post-its. Both are valid ways of building on your ideas, of using the tangible to think on your design. The key is to identify one variable between different prototypes so you can clearly see the impact of each variable in the finished prototype.
Don’t stress if your prototype fails. It’s always preferable to have a prototype fail rather than the actual product. You want to have errors in judgement and potential problems in design stand out early, before you invest large sums of money into the development of the erroneous design.
As you would expect from a model that has been around for a long time, the design thinking process varies according to industry, sector or just plain preference. Sometimes, you’ll find that testing is added to the prototyping stage.
We here at Cove Solutions don’t recommend throwing both prototyping and testing into the same step – mainly because testing can require quite a lot of planning and preparation in its own right.
The Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford had some great advice for designers: prototype as if you know you’re right, test as if you knew you were wrong. Testing your prototype isn’t just about telling users to do tasks or asking yes or no questions. It requires planning and some level of expertise if you hope to get reliable feedback from users.
An important part at the testing stage of the design thinking process is validation. You want to have real users validade the key reasoning that underlines the design. This is the moment to double check that you have formulated the right problem, and that your solution actually contributes to the user.
Give the user your product and don’t explain or elaborate on it. Leaving users in the dark will provide for legitimate reactions, as people explore and use the product for the very first time. You want to ask open-ended questions that force users to elaborate on their feelings, as opposed to simple yes or no questions.
Testing is your opportunity to spot trouble with your prototype or areas for improvement – don’t be afraid to take it back to the prototyping stage or the beginning of the design thinking process. You’ll likely learn new insights that might change the way you look at your product, or at some features of the design.
It’s always preferable to put this insight to good use, and reiterate on your work. The more you learn from testing and the more you reiterate on the design, the higher the quality of the final product.
Design Thinking should not be seen as a concrete and inflexible approach to design; the component stages identified in this blog serve as a guide to the activities that you would typically carry out. In order to gain the purest and most informative insights for your particular project, these stages might be switched, conducted concurrently and repeated several times in order to expand the solution space, and zero in on the best possible solutions.
As you will note, one of the main benefits of the five-stage model is the way in which knowledge acquired at the later stages can feedback to earlier stages. Information is continually used both to inform the understanding of the problem and solution spaces, and to redefine the problem(s). This creates a perpetual loop, in which the designers continue to gain new insights, develop new ways of viewing the product and its possible uses, and develop a far more profound understanding of the users and the problems they face.