Discovering the real problems
Design thinking is a human-centered innovation process that emphasizes observation, collaboration, fast learning, visualization, and rough prototyping. The objective is to solve not only the stated problem at hand, but the real problems behind the obvious. The best way to do so is to involve consumers, designers, researchers, and businesspeople in an integrative process, which can be applied to product, service, or even business design. It is also a tool to imagine future states and to bring products, services, and experiences to market. The term design thinking is generally referred to as applying a designer’s sensibility and methods to problem solving, no matter what the problem is. It is not a substitute for design management, or the art and craft of designing, but rather a methodology for innovation and discovering new solutions to just about anything.
There are several key tenets of design thinking. The first is to develop a deep understanding of the consumer based on fieldwork. Using a contextual and emphatic approach to research can be both a source of inspiration and an aid to discovering unarticulated user needs. The best way to do so is by getting out in the real world with consumers, with an open mind and collaborative point of view, and even co-design rough concepts. Observational research and ethnographic methods often involve watching, listening, discussing, and seeking to understand. The key is to start from a seeking to understand point of view—not in seeking persuasion, as has been the practice in many traditional push-product development methods. This approach can be aided by sociologists, anthropologists and professional researchers, but often it’s just designers and people interested in solving the problem getting out and working with the target audience, and being empowered to be open-minded.
Having the users involved early on also makes it possible to get user evaluations of a concept. Therefore a second important aspect of design thinking is collaboration, both with the users and by forming multidisciplinary teams. This helps to move a company toward a more radical change or innovation, rather than simply incremental improvement, and of course is a greater added value.
The third typical step is to accelerate learning through hands-on experimentalism and create quick prototypes, which are made as simple as possible in order to get usable feedback. Since design thinking is often focused more on radical than on incremental innovation, the more experimentation the better, and quick, simple prototypes can help people understand and evaluate a potential idea well before many resources are spent in development. Ideas are often mocked-up as very rough sketches of a concept for a product, service or process change. Generally the goal is to fail quickly and frequently, so that learning can occur. This is easier said than done, but as an example, failing quickly is a stated employee value at the award-winning Pixar Animation Studios, because it leads to better work, more quickly.
Prototypes can be concept sketches, really rough physical mock-ups, stories, role playing, story boards, just about anything to get the ideas communicated to the team. This involves some form of visualization of concepts, which is the fourth criterion. The objective is to make the intangible become tangible, and visualization is the best way to do that. The power of visual communications is undeniable. A picture is worth a thousand words, which makes me wonder why most business analysis is traditionally rooted in massive amounts of words supported by often-meaningless minute details. Using visual explanations provides context, which is even more helpful when the consumer is a partner in concept development.
The fifth and last aspect, which may not be on everyone’s list but which I endorse, is the importance of concurrent business analysis integrated during the process, rather than added on later or used as a funnel to eliminate ideas. Here too, failing soon is an advantage, so it can be helpful to understand business realities along the way. These may be challenged, perhaps even have to change, which is a good reason to include business model ideas at least conceptually early on in the ideation process. This is also helpful in anticipating what new business activities may be required by a conceptual new product, service, or experience offering, as well as the resources it may require and the competitive landscape in which it will appear.
In the end, the goal is to not just solve problems, but to solve the right problems. A design thinking approach can help to remove constraints and enable breakthrough ideas to see the light of day.