Thinking design thinking

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 ‘d.school’. If you are new to the topic, the d.school 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 d.school 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.

This type of research helps us define a problem in a richer way and once we’ve agreed a number of priority design challenges we can happily start developing concepts that help the various stakeholders visualise what could be created. It’s only at this point that you really start to understand the problem.

People can find it hard to imagine something that doesn’t exist and so base their responses to your questions on the reality of what they already know (their mental model of a situation or built environment, or the last similar product that they’ve experienced). So design thinking places great emphasis on building a future scenario to help communicate it more clearly. This is where we learn the most and encounter the eureka moment when people say “Now I see! It’s changed my viewpoint,” or “Of course it might work in theory but have you thought about…?”

So design thinking is more about problem finding than problem solving, encouraging us to use the bandwidth of many different minds. Once we feel we’ve defined a problem as well as we can we start with ideation. We use a variety of creative thinking techniques to arrive at the widest range of solutions — we want to become children again, where nothing is a bad idea and where creativity runs wild.

It is important to use a diverse group of people and creative techniques so we can tackle the challenge from every angle possible (divergent thinking) before assessing ideas and reducing theses to a manageable range that can be developed and prototyped (convergent thinking). It is important to refer back to the challenges identified in the definition phase to understand why certain ideas should be taken forward. It takes time and money to prototype and test so you need to remind yourself what you are trying to achieve.


Okay, so designers research a topic before trying to come up with a solution — so what’s unique about that? I guess it’s the next bit that sets design thinking apart from other methodologies.

Rather than trying to ‘solve your way forward’ by breaking a challenge down into smaller problems that can be overcome by hitting them with enough equations, we ‘build our way forward’ by creating solutions that help us delve deeper into the problem. This helps us gain enough information to reach the next layer of the challenge, as by modelling and prototyping we can better visualise solutions so that more can be learnt about them.

John Chris Jones, author of the 1970s book Design Methods, said: “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.”

“…forever bound to treat as real that which exists only in an imagined future…” — I see design thinking as a vision-focused methodology where we imagine what could be and create solutions to help us move towards it. We try to avoid asking questions such as: ‘Can we reduce the operating force?’, instead focusing on the end user experience by asking: ‘How can we improve the experience for people with limited dexterity?’. The different mindset helps us imagine the user interacting with our product, thereby opening up a greater variety of potential solutions.

Design thinking encourages us to ‘fail early and fail often’. We shouldn’t expect our early ideas to work as the main purpose of early models is to better understand the problem. This was the case in a recent project where we were asked to improve the experience of interactions with drug packaging. Early concepts tested were broken into the individual concept elements that we needed to learn more about — to explore how someone would open the pack, for example, how they would transfer its contents and how the size of the pack would impact on a user’s daily life.

We built simple prototypes and created storyboards to test the elements of possible solutions with real people to better understand the problem. Then we iterated, gradually combining the elements together into more complete solutions, looping back and forth until we were satisfied that not only had we thoroughly understood the problem but that we had also arrived at the best solution. We had literally built our way forward.

I’ve talked about understanding and defining, the importance of having a broad team of different mind-sets and the way we prototype and test with real people and iterate the ideas until we understand and address the problem. I guess the only thing left to suggest some further reading.

You’ll find loads of videos and articles on the web together with interesting techniques for encouraging collaboration and creating an environment that supports design thinking. I recommend watching the following:

I encourage you to watch these videos and to explore more about the topic and try out some of the techniques in your NPD programmes and enjoy a different way of approaching your challenges.

This article was taken from issue 8 of Insight magazine. Get your free copy of the latest issue here.

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