You’ve probably heard about design thinking and wondered if there’s something to it or if it was just some new fad.
I thought I’d take a shot at explaining design thinking as a way to approach work rather than a brand new methodology and show how it’s something that you can incorporate into your current approach.
What is design thinking?
I like to think of design thinking as an approach to solving problems that is human centered, cross functional, iterative, creative, and practical. That statement may seem a bit broad, so let’s take a look at each characteristic in more depth.
Characteristics of design thinking
Design thinking requires you to build empathy with the people for whom you’re creating products and services. You want to build a deep understanding of your organization’s customers and their needs.
This focus on your customers and their needs forces you to start with understanding the problem you’re trying to solve, not immediately defining a solution.
Although the approach is called “design thinking” it doesn’t involve just designers. It’s called design thinking because it resembles an approach to problem solving that many good designers use. (Although you could argue that there are plenty of people in other fields that use similar approaches as well.)
When you empathize with your customers, define the problem you’re trying to solve, and come up with possible solutions, you want a cross functional group of people doing it. This gives you a wide range of perspectives, skills, and experiences which leads to unique and creative insights.
People with different perspectives view constraints in a different way, or don’t view them as constraints at all because they look at the world through a different lense. If your team is free to question assumptions and to question whether constraints are really constraints, you’ll be able to generate several simple, yet unique solutions to problems.
Design thinking is well suited for complex problems where you have a great deal of uncertainty because it is inherently iterative in nature. The design thinking approach encourages you to learn about your customers, identify a significant number of solutions to the identified problem, and then to start testing those solutions. As you test each solution, you uncover more information and learn things which you then apply to either refining your existing solutions or potentially creating new ones.
The iterative nature of design thinking also means that it’s not a rigid series of steps but rather a collection of modes of working that you cycle through on a regular basis.
The creative nature of design thinking comes from its use of a wide range of perspectives to identify a large number of solutions from which you can pick. Design thinking also encourages you to question whether you understand the root problem, question what assumptions you’re making, and question whether the things you think are constraints are really constraints. Creativity occurs during the divergent thinking you use to identify possible solutions.
Design thinking is practical because it encourages you to experiment and test to select from the various ideas your team generates. Your team becomes practical as you start using the results of your experiments and tests to converge from many ideas down to the one that seems the best solution.
Design thinking modes
There are a variety of descriptions of how to do design thinking, some of which try to boil it down to a process consisting of a series of steps. Because of the iterative nature of design thinking, this description doesn’t seem to best describe the nature of the approach.
In his 2008 article for HBR, Tim Brown described design thinking “metaphorically as a system of spaces rather than a predefined series of steps.” Those spaces are:
…“inspiration,” for the circumstances (be they a problem, an opportunity, or both) that motivate the search for solutions; “ideation,” for the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas that may lead to solutions; and “implementation,” for the charting of a path to market. Projects will loop back through these spaces – particularly the first two – more than once as ideas are refined and new directions taken.
A bit more concrete way of looking at the activities is from Stanford’s d.school where they describe the five modes of design thinking: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test. The following explanations are paraphrased from the Stanford d.School’s description of design thinking.
Build a deep understanding of your customers, the needs they have, and the problems they face, particularly the problem that you aim to solve. One aspect of focusing on your customers’ problems is questioning your assumptions about the world and relying on what you find out about your customers.
Some ways you can empathize include:
- Observe your customers and their behaviors in their environment
- Engage with your customers through interviews
- Immerse yourself in your user’s environment to truly get a feel for what they experience.
Steve Blank’s admonition to “get out of the building” is a call to empathize with your customers and users.
Synthesize what you found out from your customers to establish a clear, shared understanding of the problem. Form a problem statement that guides your efforts to find a solution to their problem. This problem statement provides a sense of focus and guard rails for ongoing decision making.
Identify potential solutions based on your problem statement and then focus on the identified solutions which have the best chance of solving the problem. You’ll find that you iterate between divergent approaches to generate multiple solutions and convergent approaches to explore a few solutions further.
Use divergent thinking to come up with multiple possible solutions to the problem you’re trying to solve. Use the the wide range of perspectives you have in your cross functional team to look beyond obvious solutions and uncover novel and unique solutions.
Use convergent thinking to evaluate the potential solutions and select the ones that warrant further investigation.
Create prototypes to make your ideas real in order to experience and interact with them. Prototypes can be sketches, models, or even simple versions of your intended solution.
Your prototypes should be simple enough that you can quickly create and learn from them, but involved enough that you can get some value out of interacting with it.
Prototyping serves a variety of purposes including:
- Develop a deeper understanding of your customers, users, and their context
- Explore multiple ideas in parallel
- Test and refine your solutions
- Inspire new solutions by providing ideas to build upon
Take your prototypes and as much as possible put them in the actual context of your customers and users. Use those prototypes to elicit feedback, continue to learn about your customers and users, refine your solutions, and refine your understanding of the problem.
A key perspective to keep in mind: “Prototype as if you know you’re right; test as if you know you’re wrong.”
Why use design thinking?
Design thinking is a relevant concept for product development because it encourages modes of work that lead to some significant competitive advantages.
Your work is guided by the needs and problems of your organization’s customers, instead of starting with a solution in search of a problem. It’s a common belief in many different circles that organizations who focus on their customers needs and solve their problems are more successful than those that follow a build it and they will come philosophy.
The iterative nature of design thinking takes into account the inherent uncertainty of complex endeavors like product development. You may have some idea of what problems your users face, but you probably don’t know which solution will help them out the most without building something that you can test and get feedback on.
Because you don’t know starting out what solution is going to be the best, it’s helpful to follow an approach that allows you to try many different solutions and quickly figure out which ones will work and which ones won’t. The concepts and techniques associated with design thinking give you a way to do just that.
How product people can adopt design thinking
When people talk about design thinking they often assume that they’re talking about adopting a new methodology that requires special training and a consulting engagement.
That’s not necessarily the case.
You want a product development approach that is:
- Guided by a deep understanding of your customers and users, their needs, their environment and their problems
- A team effort including people with different perspectives
- Iterative in nature so your learn and adjust throughout the entire process
- Not constrained by a preconceived solution, but rather explores multiple possible solution to come up with the right one.
If your approach has those characteristics, you may already be applying design thinking without realizing it. That’s perfectly fine, and I’d suggest it’s a situation you want to be in. It means you’re focused on the outcome you produce without being obsessed with the method you use to get there.
If your current approach doesn’t quite meet all of those characteristics, it’s never too late to start adopting those behaviors. You don’t have to declare that you’re suddenly going to start using design thinking, you just need to look at changing your approach to be more human-centric, cross functional, iterative, creative, and practical.
To help with that here are a collection of resources, from KBPMedia and other sources that provide more information on techniques you can use to apply design thinking as a product owner, business analyst, or product manager.
Resources from KBP.Media
Here are links to techniques or other posts from KBP.media that relate to one of the five design thinking modes described above.
Interviews are definitely one good way to empathize with your customers, assuming you do them the right way. This posts explores how the concept of jobs to be done can help you structure your interviews in order to get a good understanding of your customers and their problems.
Socratic questioning uses a dialog with your customers to get past their surface suggestions and uncover their true need. The ability to use questions to guide your discussions can lead to a deeper understanding of your customers and users.
User modeling is a technique used to establish a commonly agreed-upon list of user roles for a product. This list of user roles and their descriptions provides helpful context for user stories and other backlog items. This technique aids your efforts to empathize with your users and customers through identifying the different types of users you need to be concerned with.
A persona defines a typical user of a product. Personas can help you synthesize the information you collect as a result of your efforts to understand your users better.
When you develop products, you have to interact with customers, users, and stakeholders. To be effective, you need to account for their different perspectives and act accordingly as you build your understanding of all three groups.
The problem statement is a structured set of statements that helps you and your team define the problem you’re trying to solve.
Impact mapping helps you structure your conversations to identify potential options, discuss assumptions, align with organizational objectives and deliver only the things that lead directly to delivering outcomes.
A story map helps you guide your conversation to identify how you might realize the particular solution that you identified during your ideation activities.
Collaborative modeling refers to the use of well-known requirements analysis and modeling techniques in a collaborative fashion to build and maintain a shared understanding of the problem space and the potential solution.
Five resources to help you get customer feedback about your product and make sure you put it to good use.
How I used usability testing at a conference to better understand how people use Agile Alliance’s website and some lessons I learned as a result.
Disrupting Business with Design Thinking – Redvespa
This resource from Redvespa, based in New Zealand describes design as a mindset, not a role. It describes design thinking techniques the whole business can apply and written with business analysts in mind.
Design Thinking Bootleg – Stanford d.School
The Design Thinking Bootleg is a constantly evolving collection of tools and methods to help you start applying design thinking in your work. The techniques listed in this resources come primarily from the design community.