Thinking design thinking

01 Jun 2015 5min read

The origin of ‘design thinking’ — a methodology used to tackle complex challenges and help develop innovative products, systems and services — goes back over 40 years, although it came to prominence in the early 90s when it evolved and was adopted by numerous practitioners, academics and consultants. Creative organisations, like us, employ it as a common methodology but how is it different from other ways of thinking?

In essence, ‘design thinking’ is ‘thinking like a designer’ — tackling problems as a designer would, by constantly questioning, prototyping and evolving. The best description of design thinking that I have found comes from the Stanford University Institute of Design, otherwise known as ‘’. If you are new to the topic, the released a webinar which is a good place to start (see the end of the article for further information).

In this article I’m going to share my experiences of design thinking and use some examples of how we’ve used the methodology to solve the complex people-centric challenges we face in medical device development. I’m also going to refer to some of the key points that Stanford make in the above mentioned webinar.

So why and when is it useful to think like a designer? According to lecturer Dr Mark Schar: “Design thinking is particularly useful as a process that spans domains of thinking, experience or expertise — it works best at the edges and helps people frame problems and helps find solutions as a result of that.”

We often face problems that require the coming together of different minds in order to find a solution. Complex problems often evolve as you learn more about them, or mutate due to our fast changing environment and the solutions and technology that we develop. When these problems involve people they are often called ‘wicked’ problems.

Design thinking puts a greater emphasis on understanding and framing a problem before rushing into ‘ideation’ (concept generation) and encourages us to learn through trial and error by building and testing prototypes.

It encourages us not to be precious of our early ideas but to use these ideas to further explore the problem and better understand its requirements.

The process described in Figure 1 probably meshes fairly well with most of your NPD programmes, but you’ll have noticed that two out of the five process phases come before ideation. Design thinking encourages a thorough
understanding and definition of a problem before rushing into finding solutions, and with a specific focus on understanding the needs of the people who will be affected by it.

For example, in a recent project we were given a clear brief to design a best-in-class product encompassing new features which would place it ahead of the competition. A great deal of money had been spent on market research, a specification had been drawn up and apart from the fact that timescales were tight, everything seemed straightforward — until we started talking to people.

We interviewed a cross section of the stakeholders who would be involved in manufacturing, marketing, selling, servicing, installing and using the product. It soon became clear that there was a much bigger and different challenge than was first proposed. The original specification had been developed to meet the needs of the people marketing the product — and had created many new challenges for those manufacturing and servicing it; the needs of those installing the product hadn’t been addressed and the experience for end users was still far from optimal from either a usability or cost perspective, detracting from what was, on the surface, a sound commercial solution. We needed to rethink the proposition to unlock its commercial potential, which involved a lot of emphasis on understanding and observing the different stakeholders.

Designers…are forever bound to treat as real that which exists only in an imagined future and have to specify ways in which the foreseen thing can be made to exist. – John Chris Jones

Undertaking design research with real people — shadowing them in their environment and undertaking some quick and dirty technical tests in our workshops helped us to uncover a whole range of new challenges. We visualised these using storyboards, candid photographs and proof-of-principle rigs to encourage our client to take a fresh look at what was actually needed to achieve commercial success.

It’s important to note that the people involved in this research and discovery process weren’t just designers but also engineers and human factors specialists, and a cross section of stakeholders from our client’s organisation including customers and end users. This range helped us to see the problem from different angles and to talk the language of the various stakeholders involved. The more mind-sets you can throw at a problem at the outset the better chance you’ve got of understanding it.

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