Since the late 1960s, design thinking has been used as a means of solving problems. Originally used in the design and architecture fields as a way to formally design creative answers to challenging design issues, the approach to problem-solving and solution development was co-opted by businesses in the early 1990’s.
Unlike scientific thinking, which focuses on identifying all of the aspects of a particular problem to reach a single solution, design thinking instead looks at the problem from a number of perspectives, identifies an ideal solution, and then focuses on finding pathways to that solution. In short, design thinking takes the typical analytical processes of problem solving and adds a dash of creativity, to develop more innovative products.
The process of design thinking isn’t necessarily new, then, but it’s beginning to gain a great deal more traction within the technology field. Businesses of all sizes, from startups to established multi-billion dollar corporations are implementing design thinking protocols to improve both existing products and develop new and exciting ones. So the question then becomes not one of whether your company should engage in this form of problem solving and product development, but how exactly you should go about doing so.
The Basics of Design Thinking
In most cases, design thinking is broken down to a few defined steps. Depending on who you ask, they may use different terminology to describe these tasks, but the effect is the same.
Step 1: Define the Problem
In design thinking, defining the problem isn’t simply a matter of saying, “We need to figure out how to get X to do Y.” It’s a far more involved, and emotional, process. The idea of empathy plays an important role at this stage, in the sense that it’s important to bring all of the stakeholders together (designers, users, marketers, etc.) and get their unique perspectives on the problem and what they need from a solution.
Essentially, you aren’t exploring answers at this point, but determining exactly which problem you are trying to solve. This is an important distinction that usually requires examining the problem from multiple perspectives, but also one that helps your team think more creatively.
Step 2: Identify Potential Solutions
Once you have a grasp of the actual problem, then you can begin thinking about solutions. What does the ideal state look like? What do the end users want from a solution? Answering these questions will set you on a path to developing solutions, which may be entirely different than what you expected.
Step 3: Create Potential Solutions and Get Feedback
Once you’ve identified potential solutions, it’s time to create prototypes. Often, this is where designers begin, skipping over the definition and identification phases, jumping right into a potential solution without understanding what users actually want. While going through the first two steps will allow you to develop more creative solution, remember that you are simply in the prototyping phase and that your ideas will continue to need more refinement.
At this stage, you’re testing your ideas to see if they will work, using tools like common microchip architecture and microprocessor development boards, to quickly bring your ideas to life and determine whether they will work, and refining as you go. The key here is to think big and act fast; one of the major issues with prototyping is that designers tend to over design in this phase, devoting too much time and too many resources that distract from the actual purpose of the test. Failure is to be expected — and welcomed — in this phase, since failure gets you closer to the answer.
Step 4: Deliver the Final Solution
After the prototyping and testing phase, a clear winner will emerge, and your idea will eventually solidify into a workable solution. At this point, it’s time to execute, and bring your new product to market.
Working through the design thinking process can add some time to the product development process, but the end result is often more creative and better suited to customer needs than products developed using other methods. It often requires a change in company culture to allow for more risk, an acceptance of failure, and a tolerance for working with some ambiguity.
However, it’s also important to realize that design thinking also has some limitations, and should not be used as an overriding principle for the operation of the company, but only as a tool for encouraging innovation and more creative visions of the future — one where the new products are better designed and better meet customer needs.