Have you ever wondered which problem is the most important to solve? Do you focus on the smaller problem at hand, or the bigger problem that lies beneath? The answer is yes, to both.
That’s what design thinkers do. They solve the issues before them, while taking a bite out of the bigger issues too, with an eye towards the end game of solving whatever obstacles prevent the desired outcome.
Design thinking is a problem-solving methodology engaging deep empathy of the user, problem framing, user collaboration and co-creation, rapid rough prototyping, objective analysis, and visual, scenario or storytelling synthesis in order to make decisions. Here’s what design thinkers think about:
- They think about problem solving
First and foremost, design thinkers strive to solve problems. Say you are tasked with creating an app for online shopping, because your company wants more sales and thinks the answer is a new mobile app. But in doing contextual inquiry, you discover that your product installation process is way confusing, so your products get bad reviews. You may not really need that new app yet, rather you may need to fix the installation process first, then make the app more applicable.
Design thinking is a more strategic approach to problem solving. If the definition of design is solving a problem, then the definition of strategic design is solving the right problem. Design thinkers do both.
- They think about others
The essence of design thinking is not the designer, product manager, engineer or marketer – it’s the end user. Design thinkers treat users as partners and co-creators, and seek to understand, not to persuade. In Wired to Care, Dev Patnik, CEO of Jump Associates, states “Companies prosper when they tap into a power that every one of us already has – the ability to reach outside of ourselves and connect with other people”.
- They think about context
If you’re focused on understanding others, than contextual inquiry will be your best tool. Get out, walk a mile in your customers shoes, and experience what they experience first hand. In doing so you will discover unmet needs and surface the pain points – first, seek to understand.
Contextual inquiry will also open the door to identifying problems across the entire customer journey. Particularly for services, design thinkers explore the whole customer experience, or journey, and create service design blueprints and expose what users feel to be their high points and low points of their experience. Then, fix the low points.
- They think about front stage and back stage
Since the holistic customer experience is the accumulation of touch points, design thinkers are border crossers. They seek to understand problems at the “front stage” – the top level touch points, and at the “back stage” – the processes and systems that lie beneath. Since these problems cross company departments and functions, engaging a cross-functional team on user inquiry can help diffuse company silos and resistance to change. But be careful, design thinkers can get caught in department cross-fires!
- They think about the future
Not content with status quo, design thinkers are creators, future makers – not the know-it-all type, but humble explorers. They keep asking, “What could be”, regardless of constraints or context. According to Eric Quint, Chief Design Officer, 3M, “We have a role much beyond making things. We think about the future and imagine what that could encompass. The job of design is to stretch, to be a stretch agent.”
Design thinkers not only seek to create better situations for people, they believe it’s possible to succeed. The personality profile of design thinkers includes traits like optimism, experimentation, collaboration, synergy and creativity. Design thinkers thrive on imagining new concepts, having conversations, communicating with visuals, scenarios and story telling, and creating a better future.
- They think about design
Creating a concept is the first step, but everything, yes everything, eventually has to be designed, albeit a product, service, process or experience. Design thinkers are about how to design all this. While many design thinkers are trained as visual, UX or product designers, many others are trained as anthropologists, researchers, engineers or marketers, or any background for that matter. Regardless of background, one thing is in common; they like to create the ideas, scenarios and solution concepts. There is no set degree or credential required to be a design thinker, thank goodness!
- They think about open innovation
Likewise, design thinkers don’t limit ideas to a single department, but rather engage very broadly. Methods such as open innovation and design-led innovation are paramount to design thinking. The best innovation methods involve many people, and design thinkers leverage the creativity of all people, inside and outside the company. Embracing your creative intelligence is at the core, as Bruce Nussbaum argues, to use creative intelligence to “harness their power to create, connect and inspire”.
- They think about the company, the organization
Design thinking is applicable in any organization – for profit or non-profit; public or private; government, education, healthcare or hospitality; for products, services, processes or experiences; small or large. That’s the beauty of design thinking.
What’s more, design thinking is a way to build cultures of innovation, from the bottom up. In True Alignment, Leadership expert Edgar Papke suggests that it is possible to manage and change corporate culture; I’d like to suggest that design thinkers can be the change agents.
In my opinion, design thinking is the most effective methodology for problem solving out there. It crosses the barrier from company to user, from constraints to solutions, from quantitative to qualitative. Unfortunately, design thinking is only being taught at a handful of educational institutions globally. But fortunately, there are thousands of creative, smart, open-minded, forward thinking individuals out there that are embracing design thinking like a fire storm!
Note: I published an excerpt of this on Fast Company Design, Six key ways design thinkers approach problems.