Design Thinking is a methodology or process to help us produce solutions to problems that are difficult for stakeholders to articulate, visualise or the problem domain itself is not fully known or explored yet. There may not be a single right solution and we may need to model a number of potential scenarios or designs as part of our process of discovery. The process is highly iterative and collaborative. We don’t pump all our resources into modelling a single possible solution, rather we sketch a number high-level possibilities. The process itself helps us understand the problem and the stakeholders get a chance to trial and mix combinations of possibilities, hopefully weeding out what doesn’t work.  Through a collaborative approach that puts the designer face to face or even in the shoes of the stakeholder, we begin to get a better understanding of the problem in the context of the users (those stakeholders who face the problem on the front line). Often the problem (and the ultimate effective solution) will take more than a cold functional understanding of the problem. We purposefully build in a constant feedback and testing loop into the cycle. As we get a better understanding of the problem and how we are going to address it we build tests for certain behaviours we want the finished solution to exhibit.

Designers have been using Design Thinking for decades. Often the projects their clients bring to them are vague; design a logo, lighting for a new building, a new garden, a marketing campaign etc.  The designer must go through a collaborative, iterative and empirical process of discovery and creativity before ever committing to beginning a definitive solution. Often the problem can seem overwhelming, vague or impossible but with a positive can-do approach based on open-mindedness, discovery and collaboration, excellent solutions can be achieved.

The Design Thinking process is non-linear, with many loopbacks, but follows these basic steps.


Emphasize: get an unbiased view of the problem by listening to users, experts and any other relevant stakeholder. The hard part is to leave your bias and see the problem from the stakeholder’s view. Remember, not all stakeholders will have the same view and our problem may be complicated trying to accommodate conflicting views.  Airbnb had many competitors listing private property rentals online. What Airbnb did better was understand the concerns and desires of stakeholders – Landlords and Renters. By designing solutions that addressed these divergent fears and desires Airbnb created the world’s biggest short stay property rental marketplace.

Define: The emphasize stage should give us a better understanding of the problem. We now begin the define the problem (not the solution). We call this problem engineering and the trick is that our mindset stays firmly in defining the problem and not start crafting a solution. Often this is where engineers run ahead and start talking about a solution. A good understanding of half the problem is almost useless. We need a comprehensive understanding of the whole problem before we should commit to a solution in detail. The world has many failed or half-built projects that rushed to a solution before the whole problem was identified or defined.

Ideate: If the Emphasize and Define stages have been properly addressed the ideas of possible solutions will begin to materialise amongst the team. Good practice is to allow the team time and resources to think freely about possible ideas. Some of the best ideas have been the craziest, when people have been allowed to think laterally or outside the box. Techniques like Post-it note exercise, 6 hat thinking, mis-use case, scenarios and many others from the world of creative thinking are useful here.

Prototype: People love prototypes. I have seen senior executives flick straight to the screenshots of a new system in the appendix before reading any of the detail text on presentation of a proposal for a new system. The idea here is to use a lightweight prototype approach to reduce risk. Spec something up quick, then circulate it to as many stakeholders as possible. Considerations you missed with come back to you immediately. A prototype can be a lightweight as a paper drawing to a fully functional test entity. Be prepared for ridicule and debate, this is powerful input. Be prepared to have to go through a number of prototyping rounds.

Test: We will have built up a checklist of higher level behaviours or tests we have discovered on our journey so far. Our ultimate solution will have to address these. We may even challenge those initial behaviours that stakeholders requested. Are they really needed? Testing drives quality and may even unearth new feature or functions that are required or may even push us back in the process to challenge some of the aspects of our earlier discovery.

Remember, Design Thinking is non-linear so we need to approach managing the project from a non-linear standpoint allowing ample time for all these non-linear steps and loopback points. We need to approach problems with an unbiased, empathetic and empirical approach.

Share This