Design thinking process: the key to fostering innovation


Design thinking has become one of the most used buzzwords in the design community in recent years as a growing number of leading tech companies embrace the concept as part of their approach to innovating, improving product development and reinventing the user experience (UX). This shift is being fueled by the rapid pace at which technology is evolving, leading customers to constantly demand innovative products, whether they are delivered to them via a website, tablet or mobile device.

Design thinking is a human-centric approach

It’s often the case that companies will follow a specific design thinking process to develop innovative products and solutions that cater to the needs of their customers. This process is essentially a design methodology that enabled methods to come together through a series of events, steps or actions. To break it down in more simple terms, the design thinking process is regarded as a problem-solving approach that is designed to stimulate a creative process.

Companies that follow this process do so with the intention of encouraging out-of-the-box thinking, exploring business challenges, and developing solutions that address them. However, research suggests that increased focus on the design thinking has less to do with following the crowd and more to do with the fact that the concept makes business sense. The Design Management Institute’s (DMI) Design Value Index, revealed that design-driven companies outperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 by 228% between 2004 and 2014.

The study identified a number of factors that link design thinking with higher performance and found that companies were able to better understand their customer’s needs, gain valuable insights, and solve complex problems by using design thinking principles and methods. The design thinking process itself is meant to be flexible and able to create an environment that is conducive to collaboration and brainstorming with the aim of bringing ideas to fruition through a human-centric approach which examines how real users think and interact with the product.

Stages of the design thinking process

Although there is no agreement within the design community on the number or specific stages of the design thinking process (this can range from three stages to seven stages), there is a general consensus on most of the methods that are used in such situations. For the purpose of this article, we will outline the five main stages and elaborate on how each of them is used to add depth to the designers’ perspective and improve their understanding of customer needs and problems.

1. Empathize to gain valuable insights on your users

To follow the design thinking process and achieve the desired outcome, a designer must empathize with the end-user, define the problem in a human-centric way, ideate by brainstorming several ideas to address it, prototype by adopting a hands-on approach, and testing by developing a viable solution.

Although these five stages are usually followed in this order, it is important to note that the design thinking process is not set in stone, and often the case, designers will switch stages around or go through two or more stages simultaneously.

As you begin to empathize with the customer or end-user, you are automatically changing your perspective about the problem you are aiming to solve by setting aside your assumptions. This stage involves seeking expert advice about the problem area by observing, engaging with people who use your product. Keep in mind that the problems design thinkers are trying to solve are not their own. Once you gain insights into the users’ experiences and motivations, you will have a much clearer idea of what solutions will work better in the future.

2. Use the gathered data to define the problem

Once you have gathered all of the information you need about your user during the first stage, you should analyze this data by defining the main problem that is being experienced. One of the most common methods used to define product problems is empathy mapping route, which comprises of four main components namely what the user said (feedback), did (actions), thought (insights), and felt (emotions and motivations).The Interaction Design Foundation published a useful guide on this method that should be used during the define stage, as well as visual examples of these methods to help designers reach their goal of defining the main issue at hand in a simple human-centered problem statement.

3. Ideate to identify new solutions

The third stage of the design thinking process usually entails brainstorming sessions where designers and other teams are encouraged to brainstorm and generate new ideas that could potentially become solutions to the stated problem. The main objective of the ideation sessions is to get as many ideas, solutions and perspectives as possible which are then narrowed down to ones that are most practical and effective.

As the Interaction Design Foundation points out, there are a variety of techniques that can be used to develop new ideas, such as a problem to solution, derivation, symbiotic, revolutionary, accidental discovery, targeted innovation, artistic innovation, and computer-aided innovation. These approaches often combine verbal discussion and collaboration with a visual representation of what is being proposed on paper, whiteboard or screen.

4. Build a prototype based on the best ideas

Now that you have narrowed down the more practical ideas, you can create prototypes with built-in solutions that you think will improve the product and experience and achieve your objective of finding the right one. This experimental stage is all about putting design teams to look at the solution from the perspective of a user, helping them understand how real users might react when engaging with the product.

According to SAP, some of the most common prototyping methods include bodystorming, imposing constraints, prototyping for empathy, and prototyping to test. During the prototyping stage, designers get to bring their ideas to life, evaluate the practicality and usability of the products, and make a conclusion about how a sample group of users might think or feel about it.

5. Test out prototypes and get user feedback

Although you can make an educated guess about how users might interact with a product, it is crucial that you solicit user feedback on the completed prototype in the testing stage of the design thinking process. By directly asking users for their input, you can make more informed design decisions to improve the final product and make the necessary adjustments before launching or bringing it to market.

This is where usability testing and analytics come in to identify any obstacles that still exist between the users and their goals. This can be done in person with a sample group of users or in the field, virtually using online tools that track user behaviors, through informal tests, or using key performance indicators studies. The main goal of this phase is to collect user feedback following the interaction and determine if the product is satisfactory to the users and meets their needs. Tools such as Google’s Design Sprint Kit offer designers a great resource for designers that want to follow a specific process when testing out their prototypes with customers.

Great examples of design thinking process in action

Many of the world’s leading tech companies have adopted their own frameworks that designers use when following a design thinking process. IBM, for example, recently developed its own Design Thinking Model that focuses on applying design thinking to understand consumers and build empathy. In 2013, the company launched an ambitious three-year project to build a design-driven culture throughout its organization, which involved more than 10,000 employees, 750 designers, and hundreds of teams. The company also organizes “Facilitator Activation” workshops as part of its training to encourage employees to think innovatively and run similar events within their own teams.

Apple is often cited as a great example of how design thinking played a critical role in helping Steve Jobs turn the business around. Instead of focusing on the specific product capabilities and features, Apple instead focused on the holistic UX and building simple and user-friendly products. This human-centered approach to product development eventually lead Apple to become one of the most valuable and innovative companies in the world, and the company’s strategy and competitive advantage are still based on design thinking to this day.

Making the most of the design thinking process

By following the stages and methods of the design thinking process, you can gain valuable insights that will enhance your understanding of what users really want from your product, as opposed to making risky bets based on your own assumptions or perceptions. Designers who empathize with their users, define the problem, ideate, build prototypes, test out their products, and use customer feedback can significantly enhance their competitive advantage and deliver a great product that resonates with their target users.

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