What is Design Thinking – And What’s The Big Deal About It?

Ezequiel Mancilla August 23, 2022
- 11 min read

Design thinking has been making waves lately in IT management. Companies have shifted to human-centered and problem-solving techniques. For that, design thinking is ideal for taking on the challenge. Also, technology and computing power have set the stage for a battle of innovation in all fields of business. 

Thus, design thinking arrives as a way of surveying problems from a creative perspective, an instrument to better articulate the needs of humans in a corporate context, and a fertile ground for exciting ideas. 

Design thinking is also not exclusive to the world of design processes or IT, but we can see that in art, science and music. Education has impacted it: the University of Standford, Imperial College, and other higher education institutions have started teaching this methodology in design thinking workshops

But what exactly is design thinking? What are its principles, and how can one apply them in an IT professional business setting? Let's take a look.

What is design thinking?

In simple terms, design thinking is a process aimed toward a deep understanding of users, a redefinition of problems, and finding innovative solutions while challenging pre-existing assumptions. One could say that this is what “thinking outside of the box” is all about, and partially it would be true. The overarching goal behind design thinking is to become aware of alternative strategies that might not seem so evident at first glance. 

Beyond being a process, design thinking is the cornerstone of creative thinking in business, and its streamlined methods have proven to be good thanks to its hands-on approach and flexibility. 

Design thinking helps those involved develop their empathy and ability to act on observable evidence and question methods in search of new ways of tackling issues. With thorough experimentation, trials, and prototypes, design thinking’s non-linear methodology easily adapts to any scenario, which is part of the reason it is applied to both the personal and professional spheres. 

Design thinking principles

The principles of design thinking could be narrowed down to 5 distinct concepts:

1. User-centricity and empathy

One of the pillars of design thinking is putting people in the driver’s seat. Technology is seen as a tool that aids in the process of innovation rather than the focal point behind decision-making. Solutions should all be framed around what is intuitive for users. Skipping in their shoes and building empathy for a company’s target audience is key when implementing a robust design thinking strategy. This also means using feedback and surveys intelligently, so empathy plus data-driven decisions equal success in these contexts. 

2. Collaboration

The whole idea behind design thinking revolves around gathering a wide array of ideas and perspectives as it promotes innovation and creative solutions. This fits into businesses through a multidisciplinary view of collaboration among teams that wouldn’t usually work as a unit. Even if teams are segmented according to their area of expertise, the idea of articulating these moving parts more holistically is what the concept of collaboration is all about. 

3. Ideation

When it comes to design thinking, you essentially want to pitch as many ideas and possible solutions as you can. It is a solution-based framework, so ideation is at the core of design thinking and permeates every step in the design thinking methodology. Participants are encouraged to brainstorm constantly, throw things at a wall and see what ideas stick. It does sound wild, but if the ideation space is conceived as a zone free of judgment, it can foster ideas that hadn’t been explored or ways of questioning pre-existing methods in a way that breeds innovation.

4. Experimentation and iteration

As it has been made clear, design thinking is an iterative process, and coming up with ideas is only part of the equation. Participants should be ready to repeat steps over and over again to lay every flaw or potential shortcoming bare in front of other teams. Fine-tuning and experimenting with different approaches help others better navigate the aforementioned non-linear processes and realize when it’s time to back to the drawing board.

5. Action above all

Theorizing in the realm of design thinking is essential, of course. However, since it’s such a hands-on methodology, direct implementation rather than discussing possible solutions will always be preferable. That’s why participants should strive to create tangible prototypes that can be tested in real-world scenarios. Reaching the root of an issue or encountering an unorthodox solution to a long-running problem becomes more accessible if tackled with a focus on insight biased towards action. 

Top benefits of design thinking

Design thinking is powerful because it can improve nearly every aspect of a company’s framework. Some are obvious, such as product design or customer service, but other elements might seem more challenging to pinpoint. Let us look at some of the benefits of the design thinking approach.

Design thinking encourages people to question how things are done at a fundamental level. This means that the best ideas that come from implementing design thinking challenge people’s deeply ingrained thinking patterns.  

Another benefit is that design thinking is inherently less risky. The last thing companies want to do is take bets when trying to find out what customers need. We are talking about an entire company throwing darts at a target based on conjectures. Design thinking forces creative minds to run through the user experience from their side and use data from surveys and customer feedback to build prototypes. 

It bears repeating that the design thinking process is iterative, and all those iterations help companies narrow options down to the essentials. This reduces the risk of failure. If employees can explore opportunities in the testing ground, they and stakeholders will feel more comfortable rolling out changes or launching products and services. 

The benefits of design thinking all boil down to saving money and time in the long run. Suppose you could apply this methodology to all aspects of a business. It’s only time for companies to find that specific element that needs tweaking to impact their market. 

The 5 stages of the design thinking process

The process of design thinking could be simplified as a non-linear 5-step iterative method that goes as follows:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

Let’s look at one of them in detail, and see how and why they work.

1. Empathize

Empathy is the core concept behind design thinking as a whole, and just as its name implies, participants are expected to engage with and observe their target audience. Note that the target audience doesn’t necessarily mean the customer, as design thinking can be used externally and internally in a company. 

This step is so important because it helps paint a clear picture of who the end-users are and what types of challenges they could expect. Next, participants can learn their needs and expectations and work towards meeting them.

To build empathy with users and employees, companies should conduct services, observation sessions, and group and one-on-one interviews and thus put themselves in other people’s shoes: the basic tenet of empathy. 

2. Define

After understanding the needs and motivations of customers and employees, the following step is to clearly define the problem in a way that challenges preconceived notions. This is usually done through what is called a problem statement. Think of it as a phrase that will act as a Northstar for future prototypes and tests.

Remember, you don’t need to choose a problem statement and defend it to the bitter end. Iteration and failure are encouraged, so companies should feel comfortable changing how they define their problems if the way they’ve delineated them doesn’t yield positive results.

This step is crucial because problem statements identify specific challenges businesses will address. These statements will guide the entire design process and provide a clear observable goal to work towards. 

The definition stage should always have a human-centered direction. Users’ needs should always be on top of the business. It’s not that companies are being negligent, but instead, they understand that it’s only by framing issues through the scope of those affected by said issues that an effective solution can be found.

Businesses should try and strike a balance between being broad enough to foster creativity and different angles from which to tackle issues but being specific and focused sufficient to provide clear direction and guidance.

3. Ideate

The ideation phase is where all creative forces merge, and all the great ideas start bouncing around in the design room. Now that a clear problem statement has been defined, participants are encouraged to develop as many ideas as possible.

Every time the ideation process comes up during design thinking implementation, it’s good to remember that quantity and quality are welcome. Focusing on quantity ensures that every single angle could be the spark that leads to even more creative ideas. Think of this as a domino effect where even the craziest and potentially silly approach to a problem can lead to those highly coveted “eureka moments.” 

To carry out this ideation process, dedicated ideation sessions should be held. Additionally, ideation techniques include brainstorming, bodystorming, reverse engineering, and extrapolating against the issue. 

4. Prototype

Prototypes could be defined as “scaled-down” versions of products or concepts that companies want to test. After narrowing ideas down to a couple that stuck, it’s time to turn them into prototypes.

Because design thinking is user-centric at its core, the prototyping stage allows companies to use tangible results to know how concepts or products would work when tested on a larger scale. Failing quickly is encouraged, especially in this stage.

The sunken investment cost is a no-go. Something that doesn’t work should be evident from the drawing board. Otherwise, failure or success shall be determined by what happens during the testing stage.

There’s a myriad of ways to create prototypes, these range from the good old basic pen and paper models that describe implementation through diagrams and charts to interactive and digital prototypes that can make use of technological advancements and user data to visualize better the outcome of putting a prototype to the test.

Remember, companies should always strive to know exactly what their prototypes represent. It should be an iteration subject to change, and if it doesn’t work, it’s back to the drawing board with little to no attachment to the failed prototype, except to learn where it could have been improved. 

5. Test

The last step in design thinking is taking prototypes for a spin. This step is essential precisely because it’s the one that enables companies to see where a prototype works well and where it needs a few more adjustments.

User feedback can also greatly aid in this process. Instead of wasting resources such as time and money on implementing solutions, finding out if they have a noticeable impact on users should always be on everyone’s mind.

Businesses can run testing sessions to observe target users as they test and interact with the prototype. It’s important to note that gathering verbal feedback is a must apart from observation. Like in the empathizing stage, all voices should be heard to extract what users get from experience. 

Creative minds and designers can always go back to any other steps and make changes so that the testing yields different results. Iteration and non-linearity are core tenets of the design thinking methodology, and companies must always keep this in the back of their minds at every step. 

Design thinking examples

Let’s look at some examples of design thinking techniques in action. For this demonstration, we will look at a single issue and different examples of how the stages of design thinking can be implemented. 

Let’s imagine you are faced with an issue with employee retention. According to the design thinking methodology, one should start by empathizing. As a company, you should ask every employee to complete an anonymous survey, hold user interviews and let them tell you how they feel about retention within the company.

How would you frame the issue? One could define it as “We need to keep employees happy and healthy to boost retention.” However, a better, more user-centric way of framing the situation would be “Employees need to maintain a healthy and happy lifestyle while working in the company.” We have taken the same issue, and by looking at it from a more user-focused lens, the solution makes itself more apparent.

Next, there’s the ideation phase, where we would hold ideation sessions with managers and stakeholders. Here, brainstorming and idea pitching should be encouraged at all times. Come up with as many ideas as possible, and think of how the company can make employees feel happier about staying in the company.

Let’s say that during the ideation phase, the idea of guided meditations was brought to the table. To try and prototype this idea, you set up a dedicated meditation area in the office with candles, mats, and calming music.

Finally, you test it out. You decide two months should be enough to see how employees will respond to this new area. People enjoy it but are put off by the noise from the server room. You decide to change the meditation room and set it up away from the noisy server room. 

This entire process is just one of many ways the design thinking process can turn out. The key aspect of retaining is that companies are always free to go back and forth from one stage to the other to achieve better results, if necessary. 

5 design thinking skills for IT professionals

1. Empathy

Much has been said about how empathy constitutes the core of design thinking, so it should be no surprise that IT professionals should have this skill if they are looking to implement design thinking strategies.

2. A non-judgmental attitude

This goes hand in hand with empathy. For example, IT professionals working in an ideation session should be open to ideas, as crazy as they may sound. It is commonly said, “Don’t yuck other people’s yums.”

3. High tolerance to frustration

It’s easy to feel bummed out if a prototype never sees the light of day or if testing shows that an idea that looked like the company’s silver bullet fails tremendously. Having a high tolerance for frustration allows IT professionals to get back on their feet and try again quickly.

4. Excellent communication skills

Though it may come as something obvious, articulating one’s thoughts is paramount to any project’s success, even more so in design thinking. In this sense, soft skills are crucial to facilitate communication — so, make sure to train them properly!

5. A bias towards action

We repeatedly hear that bias in the corporate environment is a definitive no-no. However, being biased toward action means that IT professionals are likely to prioritize action and testing over just theorizing, something crucial to developing robust concepts and ideas.

Key takeaways

We’ve learned that design thinking, though not entirely new, is a concept that has garnered a lot of attention in the current ITSM landscape. Its focus on human-centered solutions and its streamlined set of processes has helped many companies fully understand their issues and corresponding solutions.  

By keeping these principles and stages in mind, any company can start experimenting with this highly successful, result-oriented framework and make changes that significantly impact their customers and employees. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How did design thinking originate?

The concept of design thinking has been around since the late 90s but has been popularized by the founder of IDEO, David Kelley. 

What is the design thinking process?

The design thinking process includes 5 steps: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.

Why is design thinking important?

Design thinking is critical because it fosters creative thinking and allows companies to better connect with users’ needs and expectations.

How to apply design thinking?

Any company or person can apply it by following the 5 steps of the design thinking process and then figuring out how they fit into their framework.

Are Agile and design thinking the same thing?

Agile centers around problem-solving, while design thinking focuses on problem finding and then solving.

Read other articles like this : Change Management, Problem Management, Experience Management

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