Design Thinking 101

If I were to describe Design Thinking in one succinct definition it would sound like this: “Design Thinking is about creating a solution to a problem, but not the problem you want answered, the problem you need answered.” Design thinking is all about getting to the root of an issue and creating a new solution based on empathy.

But instead of just taking my word for it I’ve provided a defection from the Interaction Design Foundation,

“Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, Design Thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It is a way of thinking and working as well as a collection of hands-on methods.”

Let’s look at Design Thinking in action with one of my favorite examples from a Ted Talk given by designer Doug Dietz. He designed an MRI machine for a hospital and while the machine was advanced and one of the best of its kind, he found that children were so terrified of the machine they couldn’t get in it without help from the anesthesiologist.

Doug was horrified by this and wanted to make a change. Using empathy Doug redesigned the MRI experience completely to make it something fun and enjoyable. Suddenly the stark white room transformed into a magical pirate ship adventure. Just like that children weren’t afraid to get an MRI anymore, all because Doug used empathetic Design Thinking.

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It’s important to note that standard Design Thinking practices go much further than empathy. The steps in Design Thinking are as followed: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test.

I’ve already mentioned empathy, placing yourself in the shoes of another and getting to the deeper root of a problem. Define is figuring out what that problem is and clarifying the details of the problem you’re trying to solve. Ideate is the fun stage, here you figure out different ways to solve the problem you just defined. In this stage I like to come up with crazy and creative solutions, this stage is about quantity of ideas not quality after all. Prototype is where you take the best idea from the ideate phase and create it, there might be a few different prototypes, but they should all express the same idea. Then move on to the final stage, test, where you put your prototype to work and see the result!

As a quick not I want to add that part of Design Thinking is that it isn’t a one-and-done process. Your test phase might not produce the results you wanted and you have to go back to the prototype phase. It’s possible that you find yourself revisiting the steps multiple times before you find that magic combination that produces the best results.

The five phases of the design thinking process


One of my favorite characteristics of Design Thinking is that it’s often referred to as “human-centered design”. At it’s core, everything about Design Thinking is created to help the human experience in some way. This quote from explains further,

“By focusing so heavily on empathy, it encourages businesses and organizations to consider the real people who use their products and services — meaning they are much more likely to hit the mark when it comes to creating meaningful user experiences. For the user, this means better, more useful products that actually improve our lives. For businesses, this means happy customers and a healthier bottom line.”

That’s something I really love about Design Thinking, that there are cases that are about making the MRI experience easier for children and cases about trying to make customer’s come back again but at the baseline it’s all about improving the human experience, regardless of motivation. Once you learn what Design Thinking is, you start to notice when it is and is not utilized, and how desperately we need it to be used more.

So now that you know what Design Thinking is and all the good it does, go forth and tackle all your problems with this method and be amazed at the results!

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