What Is Design Thinking?

This post is a follow-up to some earlier posts about my recent participation at Stanford’s Design Thinking Bootcamp program. I want to reflect on what I think I know about the “design thinking” approach. I am not an expert or a scholar and I haven’t even read any books on the subject! This is my attempt to process my experiences, not to be authoritative.

As I now think about design thinking, I believe it is really three things:

  1. a specific process for generating new product and service ideas centered around “user experience” (ie, emotion)
  2. a general approach to being creative and innovative, particularly when working in a team
  3. a mindset, attitude or philosophy of psychology which addresses known cognitive biases which prevent people from accessing their natural creativity

I want to tackle these in reverse order.

The Design Thinking mindset

Everyone is and can be creative.

When I say design thinking is a mindset, I think about how much of what I’ve learned centers on the idea of putting oneself into a creative frame of mind. We seem to have both a creative mind, which is open, limitless, imaginative, fun and even a bit wacky, and a critical mind, which is narrow, realistic, fear-based, serious and deeply rooted in the known and knowable.

Design thinkers talk about the “Yes, and…” attitude, taking ideas offered by others and building upon them, rather than trying to shoot them down or explain why they’re wrong or off target. They separate the act of generating ideas from the act of evaluating ideas. They emphasize how we need to understand failure as an opportunity to learn, and to let go of control or thinking you can predict outcomes.

This is really a different way of experiencing life psychologically from what most people know. It’s not just about being positive, though the professional design thinkers I encountered were more positive on average than most people I know. It is an entirely different way to process one’s experiences and infer meaning from them.

Most of the time, most people are trying to avoid making what they perceive to be mistakes, and are looking for the quickest, cheapest way to accomplish a specific goal. But design thinking sets that aside. Mistakes are a part of learning and are to be embraced. It’s not that one purposefully makes mistakes, it’s that what a mistake is is not certain until it’s made and when it’s made, it is accepted as valuable data that shows us what doesn’t work.

And it’s not that design thinking looks for the longest, most expensive way to accomplish a specific goal, it’s an attitude that the destination is not obvious at the outset and so some serendipity is required to make the journey. When I was working on a design thinking project with a co-worker upon my return from the program, they were baffled by my line of questioning in some of the user interviews we conducted– we know what problem we’re trying to solve and how we intend to solve it, so why aren’t we asking people about that? I was taking the conversation anywhere but there, because as I understood it, the problem and what we think is the solution is just a place to start, but the true mindset we want to create is one of open consideration that we’re actually trying to arrive some place very different than the land we think we know.

A general approach to creativity

The mindset mentioned above is indeed a major component to the general creative approach design thinking represents. Without putting yourself into the right mental state, you have little hope of generating the breakthrough creative leaps the design thinking approach is known for.

A related concept is paying attention to space and materials when engaged in creative work. If you want to do different work and think different thoughts, you must physically work differently. Don’t sit at your keyboard, stand up in front of a white board. Don’t keep the ideas you’re ruminating about in your head, write them on colorful sticky notes and splatter them all over the walls so you and your compatriots can fully consider them. And don’t, by any means, think you can find all the answers in your office or traditional workspace– you absolutely must go into the field and talk to real people to find out what they think, rather than assume and guess at the thoughts, experiences and emotions of demographic strawmen.

I might have put this into the mindset area but another important principle is the “bias toward action.” This means not overthinking things and instead trying things. Come up with an idea, and then play with it, try it out on people you come across, see how they react. It rejects the idea that something must be perfectly engineered before it can be shown to other people. Seek “good enough” to get the major point across and go from there.

Design thinking certainly seems to offer tools and value for the individual designer, yet I think it emphasizes teamwork. There is an embedded belief that the individual is never as creative by himself as he is being creative in front of other people trying to do the same thing. Using that “Yes, and…” attitude, a group of people working creatively can work themselves into a motivational frenzy and the energy and random nature of exchange and +1 can take them to territory they don’t otherwise have a map to reach. The path isn’t clear and it isn’t contiguous.

One reason design thinking advocates doing and trying is that it’s a cheaper way to fail, and failure is seen as inevitable. Because humans are not omniscient and are extremely unlikely to come up with the perfect answer the first time, it is easy to predict that it will require multiple attempts at creativity and implementation to get to the final form that works as a solution (if even the problem itself isn’t transformed and reinterpreted along the way).

As a result, there is an emphasis on failing quick and often and not building a lot of cost into failure. Design thinking says that crude mockups and models of intended products or feature sets and the use of play-acting or imaginative role play is enough to try an idea out, get feedback and change. When you’re new to it, it seems a bit ridiculous, a bunch of grown adults essentially playing dress up and putting on a show for one another. Even more ridiculous is trying to get perfect strangers on the street to play along.

But this frugal approach allows you to try a lot of ideas quickly and cheaply. And if you get interesting or unusual reactions, you are gathering the exact data you would’ve wanted to get from focus groups, market surveys, etc.

An interesting aspect of all of this play is that it is highly experiential and is used as a tool to connect with people’s past experiences. That is what design thinkers are after– what is a real experience someone had in the past, and how did it make them feel, and how can they make them feel that same way with a new experience they’re trying to design into a product or service?

A specific process process for generating user experiences

So that is some of the philosophical ideas behind design thinking. What we learned was also a specific process with 5 main steps:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

The first step involves conducting live empathy interviews with “users” a euphemism for a person who might ultimately be the user of a product or service offering you are thinking about creating. Using a “probe”, which in our case was a set of flash cards with a variety of emotions and a prompt such as “Think of a time when you last X, sort these cards in the order of how strongly you felt each emotion”, the design thinker has an excuse to begin talking to strangers.

It’s easy to fool oneself into believing that the conversation is about the probe/prompt, or about the design problem itself, but it’s not. The goal of the conversation is to get people talking about themselves, sharing experiences and specific memories along with the emotional states they triggered. When those experiences are found or those emotional states are identified, certain transitions can be used to keep digging deeper, such as “You said you were feeling Y, can you tell me about another time you really felt Y?” or “You mentioned Z, can you tell me about a specific time you did Z?”

When doing empathy work, the DTBC recommended the following:

  • Engage with the probe
  • Notice surprising decisions, awkward pauses, facial expressions
  • Follow up and ask “Why?” about the things you notice
  • Seek stories and ask about another time they felt or behaved this way

By capturing strongly felt emotions and the real experiences that generated them, the design thinker is able to move to the second step in the process, which is to Define the user. This is different than what is commonly done in standard market research by studying demographic data, because demographic data is broad, general and based on averages, whereas the design thinking “user” is specific, real and quite limited in their profile. An example of a user definition might be something like this:

“We met Paul, a graphic designer living in the city who fantasizes about running his own dairy farm whenever he eats cheese, his favorite snack”

Paul here is not a demographic profile. He’s a real, quirky dude (that I made up) with a strange contradiction between where he lives and what he fantasizes about, for example. Defining the user typically follows a process called Point of View, which looks like this:

  1. We met… (user you were inspired by)
  2. We were surprised to notice… (tension, contradiction or surprise from their interview)
  3. We wonder if this means… (what did you infer?)
  4. It would be game changing to… (frame up an inspired challenge to solve without dictating what the solution is or might be)

Whether you had a specific design problem when you started, the Define step and the Point of View process can either help bring more clarity to what your problem might really look like, or it might uncover an entirely new problem you had never actually thought of solving before.

The next step is to Ideate. Ideation is the brainstorming part of the design thinking process and most calls for teamwork. You start with a simple prompt, such as “How could we X for Y so they can Z?” You then start coming up with ideas and “Yes! And…” each one as they’re created to add to it or add another idea it inspired. The goal at this stage is not to critique or rationalize ideas but to simply create as many as possible. You’re not after “one idea” you could implement, or the one that is the final solution. You don’t know what that would be, and coming up with only one simply means you have a high chance of discovering later on you’re wrong and picked the wrong horse to bet on.

One technique for coming up with greater volume of new ideas is to use constraints. The constraints could be real but are usually arbitrary and somewhat outlandish, such as “Each idea must cost $1M to implement” or “Each idea must involve technology to implement”. By focusing your creativity tightly around a special constraint you can actually be more creative within that specific domain because your mind is forced to think about the problem from a new angle.

A similar technique is to think about the emotions involved for your user and think of people or organizations or places that those emotions are strongly tied to, then to ask yourself “What would that person/organization/place create for this user?”

When you come up with a large quantity of ideas, you can then move to the next step which is to prototype one of them. As discussed earlier, prototyping is crude. First, the DTBC recommended a role play. Take your idea and set a scene, define the roles involved in playing out the scene to demo the solution selected and improvise within the role play as you try it out multiple times.

Once you’ve role played, you can actually create a crude prototype and other props to do the role play with users. You want to test one key function at a time, so your prototype includes the following information:

  • Product/service name
  • Target user (the one you defined earlier)
  • Intended impact (what does it change for the user?)
  • One key function (this is what you’ll demo/test in the field with your role play)

Materials like cardboard boxes, construction paper, glue, saran wrap, markers, pipe cleaners, PVC tubes, etc. are all sufficient quality for the purposes mentioned. What’s more, they’re cheap and just about any physically able person can design with them.

You’re now ready to take it to the field and Test. But here’s the trick! The Test is really the first step, Empathize. And the prototype is really your probe. It’s all an elaborate ploy to get people talking to you some more, but this time with a slightly more concrete circumstance and with the goal of eliciting that precious experiential and emotional feedback in connection to a real product/service you’re thinking about creating.

Over these 5 steps, which can cycle with as many iterations as necessary to find a worthwhile problem to design for and an exciting solution to create (as defined by user feedback), the innovator is going through what the DTBC refers to as “flare and focus”. In the first step, you flare out your ideas and thinking in new and unusual directions, remaining open to new possibilities and experiences you had never thought of or encountered before. When you begin defining your user, you are focusing on something specific about them you’ve noticed, something concrete that can inspire your design. When you ideate for that user’s dilemma, you’re flaring again, trying to get wildly creative with the belief that no idea is a bad idea. Then you select an actual idea you’re excited about and focus again by developing a specific prototype to demonstrate it to the user. And when you test, you flare out and open up to new reactions and possibilities and begin the cycle anew.

Throughout this flaring and focusing you want to keep your eye on your alignment assessment– how close is your “frame”, the way you’re thinking about a problem that needs solving, to your “concept”, the specific solution you have in mind for solving the problem? Your frame and your concept might both change or only one change as you iterate. You might find your frame is sound but your concept is off the mark, or that you actually have a really interesting product or service but you haven’t quite found the right user who would benefit from it.

Some hallmarks of frame and concept alignment in the form of user feedback are:

  • “Thanks! Is that all you need from me?” indicating the problem or solution do not seem relevant or inspiring to the user
  • “You know what you guys could do that’s a REALLY good idea?” indicating that the user is experiencing relevancy but doesn’t think what’s being offered would work the right way
  • “So is this available for purchase? What does it cost?” indicating that the team has a frame and concept which are closely aligned and verging upon being ready for market

Conclusion

I think there is something to Design Thinking and I am interested to learn more. I am trying to internalize some of the attitudinal or mindset ideas which I think can be helpful in many domains beyond that of creating new product or service ideas specifically. I like a lot of the general processes, tools and techniques for generating creative ideas and tackling solutions to problems from unique angles. I especially like the idea of questioning whether you have the right problem (frame) in the first place!

One application I am considering is using design thinking principles within my family. How might common family problems be resolved differently with design thinking principles employed? What kind of family life or activity could be designed with design thinking?

The concept of designing for a specific user is also challenging for me to consider. As is focusing on real, past experiences rather than future hypotheticals– design thinkers throw out as unusable any speculation about how a person WOULD behave or WOULD feel in a given anticipated situation because it isn’t certain, whereas how they did feel in a specific experience from the past is known.

I plan to read a bit more on the subject and try to rethink some of the organizational problems we face in our business from the mindset of design thinking. Despite my initial failure to complete my Post Program work, I want to use Design Thinking to find a breakthrough, game changing solution rather than find some kind of incremental progress. If our future and existence as an organization truly hangs in the balance, incrementalism can only delay the inevitable, whereas a paradigm shift could offer not only a survival strategy but a way to actually thrive.

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