Design thinking isn’t new. In fact, it’s what has been giving companies like Apple or Nike the competitive advantage for years. In today’s user-centric world though, design thinking has been gaining traction. However, most companies are struggling to get started with it.
What is design thinking?
Design thinking is a formalised framework of applying the creative design process to traditional business problems
To avoid misunderstandings: we’re not talking about ‘design' in the narrow sense of the phrase. Design thinking is not about designing screens. It is about thinking like a designer.
Designers, because of their proximity to end-users (people touch their work), have a determination on making those users succeed. They know that it takes a lot of tries to get it right. They also know that no degree of interface wonder will save a product that isn’t solving an actual need.
Design thinking is about bringing that creative mindset to the other stakeholders in a project as well. Since this way of thinking won’t come naturally to everyone within an organisation, design thinking helps pave the way. In short: 'Design thinking is a formalised framework of applying the creative design process to traditional business problems’ (definition by Norman Nielsen Group).
What makes design thinking different?
The framework is refreshingly different from traditional business innovation methods, because:
- It is human-centered. It puts your users or customers first, and you include them throughout.
- It is solution-focused. Exploring solutions is more important than exhaustively documenting the problem. Exploring different options is also beneficial over settling for one direction too quickly.
- It emphasises fast learning. You need to get a first prototype, or even an MVP (minimum viable product), into users’ hands as quickly as possible. Only then do you know if your solution works. If not, you haven’t wasted many resources, so don’t sweat it.
How does design thinking work?
Below, you can find the typical phases of the design thinking process. It’s what great (digital) products & services go through before they see the light of day.
Don’t view this as a strict procedure though. Rather, think of it as a mindset. In reality, you will be going back and forth between these phases. And most importantly: take the gist of every phase, and apply it to your everyday way of working.
- Understand real needs: Listen to your actual (future) users, their pains, potential gains and all of their jobs-to-be-done.
- Define the problem: This seems simple, but is often a daring endeavour. It’s crucial though, because “a wonderful interface solving the wrong problem will fail" (Jakob Nielsen). It’s also important to write it down in a challenge statement, to ensure alignment among your team.
- Explore the possibilities: Start ideating on solutions. It’s about diverging and exploring many options. Fight the urge to stick to your first good idea.
- Choose a solution: Pick the best idea, combine the best parts of different ideas, or think of a completely new idea.
- Prototype or build: It’s crucial to get user feedback quickly. Create a clickable prototype or a first, small version of your product, called an MVP (minimum viable product).
- Validate: Present your prototype or MVP to actual people. Fight the urge to defend your ideas. It’s ok if your idea still needs tweaking. Define objectives beforehand (do you want more engagement, more efficiency,...) and make them measurable.
Although these phases will probably feel like an intuitive flow, you will notice you won’t go through this process in one go. Like we said earlier, you’ll go back and forth as you learn. Maybe you'll learn that the execution wasn’t entirely satisfactory. Maybe the solution wasn’t the right one. You might even discover that the need you defined wasn’t the right one to begin with.
How do you introduce design thinking?
“Stop reading about it”, the title said, yet here we are, a few paragraphs further. So ... how can you introduce this mindset into your organisation? As is the case with new approaches, it’s not easy to change the course of a big ship. That’s why we advise to start small.
One way to introduce design thinking, is to embark upon one or more design sprints. A design sprint is an intensive, fast-paced 3 to 5 day program, going through all of the steps above. It was pioneered by Google Ventures. Pick a challenge that finds the sweet spot. “Selling more clothes” is too broad; “Reworking our Similar Products tab” too narrow; “Inspiring shoppers” does the trick.
Similarly, you could organise an internal (employees) or external (techies, students) hackathon. In a hackathon, participants try to come up with a working prototype in only 24 to 72 hours. It’ll cost you some pizzas, energy drinks and prizes, but you will be impressed by the volume and creativity of the outcome.
Side-project with an external partner
Another way to get started, is to work with an external partner on a particular side-project, which will then spark enthusiasm among your team. Just like when you start working agile, it’s probably not too wise to immediately enforce it upon all product teams. Rather, have one team work with experienced design thinkers. This will allow you to internalise the mindset. It will also open colleagues' eyes to the method's efficiency.
Dedicated person within your company
One last approach is to create a dedicated role within your company. Don’t see this person as the sole crusader though, or the personification of innovation. See her or him or her as a catalyser; a coach who helps interested teams get things going and spreads the word.
Reap the benefits of design thinking
By introducing design thinking in your organisation and making its principles your own, you'll reap many benefits.
- You'll become truly customer-centric by thinking needs-first.
- You'll take into account different alternatives to a particular problem.
- By seeking validation throughout, you'll release new services & products with more confidence and less chance of failure.
We live in a world where consumer attitudes and expectations are constantly shifting. Where new technologies and possibilities are plentiful. Design thinking helps businesses make the right choices. Those are the businesses that will survive, and thrive in this brave new digital-first world.
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