Design Thinking: A Process and a Mindset
There’s a good chance you’ve heard of design thinking. It has become something of a buzzword in academia and business, to the extent where it risks being poorly understood and applied. This reduces its effectiveness and could eventually lead to a backlash against it. But what does it really mean? Why is it important? And how can it be applied to help your organization?
What is design thinking?
Design thinking is essentially a methodology, or framework, for solving complex problems. It is fundamentally human-centric and solution-focused, encouraging individuals and organizations to find creative ways to solve specific problems.
The basic principles of design thinking - still used today - were first articulated by Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon in 1969. At its very core, Simon argued that design was about “changing existing circumstances into preferred ones”. Design thinking, therefore, is simply a creative process through which this improvement can be achieved. It involves gaining a deep understanding of end users and using this to generate ideas and design products that can solve problems in the most efficient manner possible.
The Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (d.school), a leading institution in the field, developed a five-stage model for the design thinking process that remains the most common approach today. The five stages are as follows:
Empathize: You first need to understand the people you’re trying to solve problems for. Conducting research through interviews and surveys can help you learn more about the user: what their experiences are and how they feel about them. Its importance lies in allowing designers to set aside their own assumptions and prejudices and engage with what users really need.
Define: Once you have gained an insight into who the users are, you can condense the information gathered into a clearly-defined problem that needs to be solved. Problem statements - the concise descriptions of design problems - act as important anchors as you navigate the design process in search of a user-centric solution. Ideally, they should be broad enough to encourage creative freedom yet provide boundaries that ensure you can find a specific and relevant solution.
Ideate: This is the brain-storming phase, when designers can generate all sorts of ideas to solve the particular problem that’s previously been defined. The key goal here is to encourage free thinking and creativity - it’s a time to let the imagination run wild, making use of a number of techniques that can help people think ‘outside the box’ and come up with a wide range of innovative ideas to be developed and tested.
Prototype: This next step involves building basic, stripped-down models of products to investigate whether they can implement the best ideas generated during the ideation phase. Low-cost prototypes can be tested within the design team and by other stakeholders to determine whether they are effective, and then either rejected, accepted or returned for further improvements. The goal is to get a better idea of how users would engage with a new product, as well as finding out what its strengths and limitations may be (in relation to solving the defined problems).
Test: The final stage is taking more complete product models out in the field to see how they perform. Products will undergo rigorous testing by designers but should also be taken to end-users to see how they respond. Receiving honest feedback from these users can help designers make the final adjustments necessary to deliver a product that provides both a solution to specific problems and a positive overall user experience.
While it may appear linear at first, the process is more flexible in reality, with design teams able to work on different stages at the same time. Moreover, the results from experimenting with prototypes and testing complete products can be looped back into the ‘previous stages’ to better define problems and come up with new ideas. The stages should therefore be viewed as the ‘building blocks’ of a project rather than sequential steps.
How to apply design thinking to software development and UX design
One (simplistic) way to consider design thinking is like an instructional manual for finding innovative solutions to problems and, hopefully, making things better. Taking this a step further, it can be viewed as a mindset in itself; an approach to tackling complex challenges in search of the optimal outcome.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see how design thinking can be applied to almost anything: building a new product/service, tackling a social problem, achieving personal life goals. In tech, design thinking fits nicely with the work of software developers and UX designers, who are typically seeking to solve IT problems, satisfy client needs and create better user experiences.
The great global trend towards digitization and automation - accelerated by the Covid-19 crisis - means that business, governments and individuals are coming up against tech problems that weren’t even imaginable until recently. Adopting a design thinking mindset can help developers and designers tackle some of these novel issues in a way that focuses on what’s most important for users. Though it can never guarantee success, a process that allows devs and designers to better understand, conceptualize and even predict user problems opens a pathway to the discovery of creative and disruptive solutions. And in such a competitive online environment, this could be what makes your organization stand out from the crowd.
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