Design thinking is an iterative process that aims to understand users, challenge commonly held assumptions and conventions, and find innovative solutions to complex problems.
Design thinking not only provides a way to develop and define which measures need to be taken, it also ensures that nothing is overlooked as you move forward. Through repetition and by constantly questioning the effectiveness of your solutions with each cycle, the flaws that might be lurking in the conceptualization process can be brought forward, examined, and solved sequentially.
Within the development cycle, design thinking can be invaluable in providing a model to guide some of the most abstract and challenging steps. That is, it’s relatively straightforward to go through a to-do list and check items off. It can be much more difficult to plot a way forward when there’s no to-do list at all—or when you’re not even sure about the nature of the problem you’re trying to solve.
What Is the Design Thinking Process?
Design thinking can be used to describe Designers’ approach to looking at practical problems and how they can be addressed through design. In the world of development, “design thinking” typically refers to a more structured methodology with clearly delineated steps.
This method is an important cornerstone of user experience design and usually includes five main steps.
What Are the Five Steps of the Design Process?
The design thinking process typically involves five phases that Designers move through, though not always in that exact order:
Based on the results of your testing, you may need to go back to the prototyping stage—or the ideation phase, or even the define phase. Design thinking isn’t about leading you from A to B. Each step reveals the errors or assumptions you made in the step before, so it’s more of a series of loops than a straight line, and requires repetition to work out all the kinks. It’s also worth mentioning that these steps don’t necessarily need to be completed in this order; the process may begin with a rough prototype, for example, and so benefit from testing even before the “define” stage is initiated.
The designs created during this process don’t always pan out—and that’s often the point. With each failure, a new set of lessons is gained, meaning you can repeat the process more than once until you get the results you want.
In fact, revisiting previous steps is fundamental to the process. So, rather than thinking of these five phases as a strict timeline, think of them as five different activities you can switch back and forth between as often as you need, depending on what the problem you’re trying to solve calls for.
Let’s take a closer look at the five steps of the design process:
This phase is all about researching your end users’ needs through an empathetic lens. You want to put yourself in a client or customer’s shoes, looking at the problem at hand through their worldview, not your own.
“Who are the future users of a digital product you are creating, what makes the target audience distinctive, what are their habits, what is their online behavior like, where are the pain points, and what are the users’ needs that have to be fulfilled? Answering these questions may help you make a good start,” says Nađa Božović a Community Manager for PopArt Studio. Done right, this early research phase helps set the foundation for a product offering that hits the mark when it comes to what users are looking for.
Once you’ve dug into what your target users need, it’s time to compile and analyze those observations to figure out the true nature of the problem you’re trying to solve.
As Božović notes, this is the time to start thinking about the steps users will need to make to successfully use your digital product, whether it’s a piece of software, website, app, or online store. “That could include mapping your users’ journey and defining all the problems they may stumble upon along the way of interacting with your site.”
With lots of insight into your users’ needs analyzed and your goal clearly defined, it’s time to start brainstorming concepts—and challenging your own assumptions.
“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,” writes Rebecca Costa, a Usability Writer at Justinmind. “Now, you and your team can start dreaming up ways that your design could check all the right boxes.” And don’t be afraid to think outside those boxes; the sky’s the limit in this phase, so don’t shy away from wildly innovative or atypical ideas. Worry about feasibility later—first, get those creative juices flowing.
This is the phase where you’ll want to zero in on which of your solutions are actually feasible, and which will produce the best results. Then, get to building them. That means sketching out ideas for, say, your app offering, then building digital wireframe prototypes. Understand that, at this stage, feasibility is a concern, but the main focus is still on design features, not the underlying architecture or operability of them.
As Costa writes, “Prototyping is crucial because it ensures that you’ll have no doubts over the main characteristics of the design.”
Trying your ideas out to see if they work isn’t the final phase of the cycle, unfortunately, since you’ll likely wind up jumping back to earlier steps in the process, but it’s certainly a crucial one. Testing isn’t just about proving it works; it’s also a way to gain new information that will help you further refine the design and ensure it really meets user needs the way it’s intended, and creates an ideal experience. You’re assessing both the basics (does this website or app work properly, or does it have any bugs or glitches?) and the deeper experiential aspect of how people feel while using it.
“If you are fortunate (and skillful) enough, you might create a flawless design on the first try,” Božović writes. “More likely, though, there will be some errors to fix. And that is completely fine, as one of the core principles of the design thinking process is to tolerate failure.” In other words, you’ll likely have to pick yourself up, dust your design off, and start the process all over again until you develop a product that hits the mark.
And with that, the process moves onto its true final step: implementation. If everything has gone to plan, you should be able to begin building your product with a crystal clear sense of what it’s going to do and how, and exactly which benefits it will deliver to the people who use it.
How Design Thinking Creates Great Leaders
“The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you’re trying to design for,” David Kelly, the Founder of IDEO, has said. “Leadership is exactly the same thing – building empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help.” Empathy is the key.
If you’ve adopted the design thinking approach, you’re going to try to understand the needs of your colleagues, employees, and superiors. And when you’re in the habit of caring about their needs, they are more likely to care about yours, creating a reciprocal relationship that fosters loyalty and a winning company culture.
The Parsons School of Design found that 71 percent of organizations that practice design thinking noticed an improvement in their work culture on a team level. And according to the 2017 Businessolver Workplace Empathy Monitor:
- 92 percent of employees would be more likely to stay with a company if the organization empathized with their needs.
- 60 percent would be willing to take less pay if their employer showed empathy, and 78 percent would leave an employer for equal pay if the other company was empathetic.
- 77 percent of employees would be willing to work longer hours for an empathetic employer. This is slightly problematic, though, as:
- 85 percent of employees believe that empathy is undervalued by their employer.
- 51 percent feel that organizations and companies as a whole are not empathetic.
These numbers point to the impact that first step in the design thinking process can have on the management front, especially when that empathy is used to define and tackle problems facing your team and colleagues.
Put simply, it shows you care, which can go a long way when it comes to leadership.
“People want to know that their bosses truly care about them,” Executive Coach Mikael Meir once said. “It’s the most unexpected, and in fact, the most powerful trait of a great leader.”
Design Thinking Encourages Experimentation (and Creativity)
“There is one main rule in design thinking: less talking, more doing,” Design Thinking Lead Analeen Vanhodt, told Board of Innovation. “Design thinking goes against the culture of big, long, static meetings, it is a very actionable process in which we team up with a few experts and start DOING!”
Process is the key word here. Not every idea will have legs, and that’s OK — experimentation is a necessary component. By adopting this approach, leaders can help foster an environment that treats creativity as an ongoing process; a continuous pursuit that promotes failure as an opportunity for learning.
“Design thinking is always linked to an improved future,” political scientist Herbert Simon wrote in the Sciences of the Artificial. “Unlike critical thinking, which is a process of analysis and is associated with the ‘breaking down’ of ideas, design thinking is a creative process based around the ‘building up’ of ideas.”
You might not find the solution to your problem today, but by adopting the design thinking mindset, you and your team can build up to that solution with time (and continued effort).
As that wise philosopher Dr. Seuss once wrote, “Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try.”
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