There is a great demand for design thinking around the world. It is a process that can be repeated in different scenarios since it involves seeking to understand users, take into account their challenges, and also redefine the problems they face in order to come up with alternative solutions and strategies that may not be obvious with a basic understanding.

Not only is design thinking a thought process, it also includes practical methods to bring about solutions to problems.

The idea behind design thinking is to get a deeper understanding of the users of whatever products or services one is designing. In addition, empathy for the end user is created along the way. Thinking this way enables one to ask the right questions.

This means that one questions the problem, the assumptions, and even the implications. Design thinking is particularly helpful when tackling unknown or ill-defined problems by making sure that they are reframed in a way that is more Human-centric.

This creates a myriad of ideas during brainstorming sessions, and ensures that a hands-on style is adopted when it comes to creating and testing a prototype. It is important to know that design thinking calls for ongoing experimentation. This means that one is continually sketching, prototyping and then testing a variety of different ideas and concepts.


Phases Of Design Thinking

Even though one will find variants of the process of design thinking, the phases, modes, or stages remain very similar. The model here below was put forward by Stanford University’s Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design. This school spearheaded the teaching and application of design thinking. The phases are as follows:

  1. Empathizing with service and product users
  2. Defining the users problem, needs and one’s insights
  3. Coming up with ideas by first challenging current assumptions and coming up with innovative solutions
  4. Prototyping, which calls for solution creation
  5. Testing the said solutions

It is important to note that the stages do not necessarily follow in that order. In fact, they may occur parallel to each other or may repeat in an iterative manner. This means that the phases are not to be understood in a hierarchal manner, but as overall phases contributing to the entire project.


Why Are Ingrained Thinking Patterns Problematic?

The thinking patterns of humans are modeled on knowledge that is easily accessible as well as repetitive activities. This means that one applies the same knowledge and actions in situations that are familiar or similar.

However, this familiarity and habits make it potentially difficult for a person to access and develop a new way of seeing problems, understanding them, and solving them. It is these thinking patterns that are commonly called schemas.

They are information sets and relationships between thoughts, actions and things that tend to be initiated and stimulated in one’s mind when he or she comes across particular environmental stimuli.

Each schema carries within it a ton of information. Whenever the stimuli in the environment matches up with this schema, the usual thought pattern comes to mind even when all one has is a few characteristics or a tenuous link in the environment.

This automatic reactions are therefore able to obstruct the formation of an impression that is more fitting, thus preventing one from seeing the problem differently, or in a manner that allows the creation of a new strategy to solve the problem.

Solving problems innovatively has been referred to as out-of-the-box thinking.


Solving The Problem Differently: A Fresh Mind Vs. An Encumbered Mind

Thinking out of the box does not come naturally. The more natural thing to do is to pull up our old schema and use it to try and solve the current problem. The following story emphasizes this challenge.

A truck driver on his way to make a delivery decided to drive under a bridge that was too low. Unfortunately, the truck got stuck and became lodged such that he could neither drive forward nor reverse to get back out. Soon there was a major traffic snarl-up and an army of firefighters, engineers, truck drivers and emergency personnel gathered at the scene to come up with a way of dislodging the truck.

As they stood around discussing various ways of dislodging it, some though it would be better to take the truck apart and then tow it, while others thought chipping at the bridge was the solution.

They were all educated experts in their field and spoke from their personal expertise. A boy who was among the bystanders suddenly brought the intense debate to a screeching halt by nonchalantly saying, “How about flattening the tires by letting out the air?”

What an idea!! They all agreed that it was worth a try. Once the air had been let out of the tires, the driver simply drove slowly out from underneath the bridge without further damage being done to the bridge or the truck.

Relying on an old schema can leave one struggling for a solution when a more obvious one is available. The old schema acts as a self-imposed constraint.


Why Tell A Story?

Telling a story creates inspiration for ideas, solutions, and opportunities. They are important because they tend to be framed around the happenings in the lives of real people. Additionally, they are told as accounts of events that are specific and not general.

A story will give concrete details and in addition, will help one to imagine the best solution for the problem presented.


Out Of The Box Thinking

Out of the box thinking is when one is working on coming up with different and new ways to think up a solution. These new thought patterns do not generally abide by their usual or dominant thinking patterns.

Design has at its heart a desire and intention of improving one’s services or products by analyzing and gaining an understanding of how users work with their services or products.

One must also investigate under which conditions their services and products are used. Design thinking also includes the challenging of previously held assumptions, and the asking of significant questions. From there the process of generating solutions begins.

Design thinking therefore gives one the ability to look deeper into the current situation. It enables the carrying out of the right research, prototyping, and testing of services and products. This results in the improvement of service, design, or product.


Using Design Thinking As A Tool

When it comes to companies, the design process is not relegated to one department or group of people. It involves different departments, which makes the development, categorization, and organization of ideas and solutions even more difficult. In order to keep such a design project right on track, the core ideas must be organized through a design thinking approach.

In his book Change by Design, Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, an innovation and Design Company, clearly demonstrates that this type of thinking is based on putting together an empathic and holistic view and understanding of the various problems faced by people, and that this thinking involves taking into account subjective or ambiguous concepts that include needs, emotions, things that drive behavior, and motivations.

Of course this is in contrast to other approaches that are purely scientific.

Quantitative research is an example of an approach to problem solving that distances itself from such things as emotions and needs.

With design thinking, one crosses analytical and rational research with a user-centered, more holistic perspective to come up with innovative solutions.


Design Thinking: The Place Of Rationale And Science

Since design thinking includes the use of science and rationale, one can expect that there will be a need to analyze how users are interacting with services and products, as well as a need to investigate the conditions under which the services and products are used or operate in.

Research will be centered on user needs and will take the following into consideration:

  1. Experience from projects carried out in the past will be pooled.
  2. Conditions that are specific to the service or product will be considered. These are both future and present conditions.
  3. The parameters of the current problem will be tested.
  4. The practicability of the solutions being offered will also be tested.

Whereas a purely scientific approach looks majorly at known qualities and characteristics of the said problem that is being tested with the aim of providing a solution, design thinking will also take into account ambiguous elements as well.

These are parameters that may not have been known up to this point and can actually help to uncover different problem solving strategies.

This process often yields several different potential solutions to the problem. Selecting the solution to apply will be based on rational thinking. Best practice demands that one analyze the solutions and falsify them in order to ensure that he or she arrives at the very best available option.

This should be done for every identified obstacle or problem at every phase of the process of design.


Having A Holistic Understanding Of Humans In Order To Come Up With Creative Solutions And Ideas

With its feet on the solid ground of rationale and science, design thinking sticks its head in the sky by trying to generate an empathic and holistic understanding of the various problems faced by people.

The idea is to empathize with them.

This involves not just known qualities as in science, but ambiguous concepts that are not tangible or quantifiable such as motivations, behavior drivers, needs and emotions. By so doing, the solutions and ideas generated by design thinking are by nature more interested in and sensitive to context.

That is, the context within which their services and products are used, as well as the challenges that may be faced by the user when he or she is interacting with the said product.

Design thinking employs creativity in its methodology that is used to create solutions to the various problems tackled, and methods used to gain insight into the thoughts, actions and practices of people who use the said services and products.


Design Thinking: A Non-Linear Process

Design thinking is non-linear and repetitive. Using this process, a design team tasked with finding a solution to a particular problem can continually be working the process as they use the results they get to review how things are going, question initial assumptions and improve them, modify their understanding and come up with new results.

These results, which mark the final stage of the primary work process, go a long way in informing the teams understanding of the issue they are dealing with currently.

They also help the design team determine the true parameters of the said problem, enable them to go ahead and redefine what the problem is, and also give new insight so that the team can be able to work on alternate solutions which may have been unavailable to them with the understanding they had in the past.


Is Design Thinking For Everyone?

According to Tim Brown, the techniques taught in design thinking can be used in every business at every level. This is not something that is for designers only. It works for leaders, freelancers, creative employees and anyone else who seeks to ensure that every level of their organization is infused with design thinking.

Whether a company provides services or sells products, design thinking can help them drive new solutions not just for business, but for the society as a whole.

The goal is to match the needs of the people with what is technologically possible as well as economically viable, in order to create products that people can enjoy. It is a different approach to solving problems.

It was crystalized in the design field and combines a perspective that is user-centered with analytical research and rationale in order to come up with innovative solutions in the marketplace. Design thinking is for everybody and not just a select few.


The Take Home Message

The whole idea behind design thinking is to bring an approach specific to problem solving to the whole idea of design.

This will involve looking at the various known aspects of whichever problem one is dealing with, and then making sure to also identify non-tangible or ambiguous factors that are also a contributing factor to the conditions that cause the problem.

This approach is in contrast to the scientific approach that only considers the known aspects, the concrete evidence which is then tested and used as a base for the provision of a solution.

This process is iterative or repetitive, which simply means that the knowledge currently at hand is always being questioned so that the problem is redefined from time to time, in order to ensure that further solutions and strategies are constantly being created. This process ensures that there is constant improvement to the product or service being provided.

Any solutions that at any one time may not be apparent can also be identified with time as more and more understanding is gained.

This type of thinking has been referred to as out-of-the-box thinking. The idea is that designers are moving out of their usual way of thinking, their current schemas, and developing new thinking patterns that are not in tandem with the more common or dominant methods of problem solving.

This is what most creatives, such as artists, do. This approach is infiltrating the business world with excellent results where problem solving is concerned.

So what is the heart of this type of thinking? Design thinking is really intended to bring improvement to products and services by analyzing how those who purchase them interact with them. It also includes investigating under which conditions they are operated or used.

Whereas the scientific approach scratches the surface of the known, design thinking goes beyond what is known to the needs of the user, the emotions and the like in order to actually uncover different ways of making sure that users have a better experience with the service or the product.

The process of design thinking has been tried and found to be effective. It can be applied to a variety of new opportunities and challenges and people with a non-design background can use it just as well as those in the field of design.

Hopefully, more and more people will begin to understand the term and apply the process in order to become more innovative and see better results in the workplace.

It is a simple but potent process: Empathize, define the problem, ideate, prototype, and test.

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