Design is intentional and strategic. It’s human-centered problem-solving. Or at least, that’s what it can be.
Unfortunately, when someone says they value “good design,” they don’t usually mean empathy-based problem-solving. Instead, it means they’ve focused on making something sleek and contemporary.
But that’s aesthetics, not design.
Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.Steve Jobs
Aesthetics is all about what’s beautiful or appealing to the eye. It’s the curved edges of your laptop or the mid-century modern furniture in your house.
And don’t get us wrong — aesthetics are important. But when you substitute aesthetics for design, you get this:
A product that may look good, but nobody actually wants. Juicero was supposed to…revolutionize juicing or something. Instead, as the Guardian reported, the failed product has “become something of a symbol of the absurd Silicon Valley startup industry that raises huge sums of money for solutions to non-problems.” Yikes.
So when we say design, we’re talking about design thinking — a human-centered way of finding solutions to complex problems.
In this article, we’ll cover what design thinking is and (just as importantly) what design thinking is not. We’ll go over the elements of design thinking, why you should stop talking in terms of ‘stages,’ and provide some design thinking examples and actionable exercises.
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What is Design Thinking?
The design thinking process is better understood as a mindset, and mindsets are harder to trap through definitions.
There are some clear identifiers to what separates design thinking from non-design thinking: Design thinking is strategic and focused on human-centered problem-solving. Non-design thinking is anything outside of that.
Design thinking can be traced back to the 1950s when it was first discussed by mechanical engineers, John Arnold and Bruce Archer, who were looking for creative solutions to challenging problems.
It’s not until the ‘80s and ‘90s that we see a design thinking framework applied on a large scale by the designers at IDEO. This global design company is famous for, amongst other things, designing the first manufacturable mouse for Apple.
In 1992, Richard Buchanan, a professor of design and one-time head of the Carnegie Mellon School of Design, published “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking” through MIT Press.
In that seminal paper, he discussed how design thinking could tackle what he called “wicked problems” (very intractable and complex problems).
Some naysayers have pushed back against design thinking, claiming that a company should be ‘design doing’ instead.
However, that distinction doesn’t make any sense to us. Doing design is part of design thinking.
If people were using design thinking in a way that doesn’t get them out of conjecture and hypotheticals, to never prototype, to never test, to never create – then they were never really doing design thinking.
The misconceptions of what design thinking is, is one of the biggest challenges to get a product team on the right page.
Most people don’t hate design thinking. They hate what they misunderstand about design thinking.Tweet this
For example, IDEO popularized its own process because people needed a way to understand a design thinking approach. People needed a framework or process that was tangible.
When other companies were disappointed with results they got from IDEO’s design thinking framework, the companies attacked design thinking as a whole. But that’s nonsense. The issue isn’t design thinking doesn’t work; it’s that these companies implemented design thinking as a linear process expecting a vending machine-like outcome – instead of getting beneath the surface of how their organization operates, they’re simply parroting success stories.
That isn’t design thinking, that’s a copy-and-paste strategy, which leads us to…
What Design Thinking is Not
Design thinking is not a plug-and-play set of mechanics.
Like adopting agile methodologies, design thinking is a mindset that – coupled with mechanics – teams can use to solve problems.
Design thinking is the conduit between designers (or developers or individuals) and the solution. It isn’t the solution itself.
Incorporating design thinking into your business isn’t as simple as making surface-level changes such as morning meetings and brainstorming sessions. Incorporating design thinking means changing the way you think about problems and solutions.
Design thinking is the conduit between the designer (or developer or individual) and the solution. It isn’t the solution itself.tweet this
Design thinking isn’t a process focused solely on increasing profits and reducing costs.
While increasing revenue can be a by-product of design thinking, it’s not the primary motivator.
Simply put, trying to create a design thinking methodology around the sole goal of increasing profits will undermine the work you do. It shows you’re more empathetic to a bank balance than to the users whose life you’re trying to improve.
Design thinking isn’t defined by the tools you use.
In our experience, it’s less about the tools you use and more about finding tools that enable you to show empathy, better define challenges, and ideate solutions.
At Sprintwell, we’re helping organizations learn how to use their favorite tools to instill design thinking as a habit, not a random occurrence.
The 5 Elements of Design Thinking
When we talk about design thinking, the conversation usually revolves around five stages.
But we don’t want you thinking linearly, and we don’t want you to believe that going from stage four to stage three is backtracking or “going the wrong way.”
The five stages complement each other. Getting to the prototyping stage, learning something, and going back to ideation isn’t a bad thing.
So, at Sprintwell, we talk in terms of elements, instead of stages.
The first element we’re going to discuss is using empathy to gain a deep understanding of the problem.
Design thinking should be humble by nature. It’s you saying, “I’m not sure I know the best solution, so I’m going to use these tools and other mechanics to figure it out.”
Empathy is a crucial part of design thinking. It helps you ignore your ego and inherent self-centeredness, and make an effort to see how others are impacted by the problem you’re looking to solve.
2. Define and Reframe
The second element is defining and reframing the problem.
You need to be able to take the data found in the first element and define the problem on your own. This is critical information that allows you to reframe the problem into a design challenge.
Once you’ve defined the problem, you should be able to answer these questions:
- What is the problem we are trying to solve?
- Who is most affected by it?
- What are the different ways we can solve this problem?
Reframing takes the form of asking: how might we solve for XYZ?
XYZ is filled in when you have a strong grasp of the problem. If you don’t have this part down (what the problem is and how it works as a design challenge) you’re going to waste time, money, and energy creating a solution to the wrong problem – which is not really a solution at all.
Let’s really hit this point home: Having ideas is the third element. Not the first, not even the second — third.
Most of us will put our ideation hat on long before we begin our design thinking process. That’s human nature. When someone mentions a problem, an idea for a solution pops into our head, and we want to get started.
But design thinking teaches us to silence our inner problem solver for a bit, and use a human-centered and empathetic approach to isolate and define the problem first.
Once you’ve done that, then it’s time to ideate.
Sprintwell Ideation Pro-Tip: Focus on quantity, not quality. Don’t worry about if you can afford the idea or have the resources. Even ideas that aren’t feasible can teach you something about the problem you’re trying to solve.
Like in agile design sprints, design thinking emphasizes prototyping.
Prototyping is all about taking the abstract solutions proposed in the third element (ideation) and making them concrete.
To avoid getting bogged down in making a fully-functional, polished prototype, we recommend design teams produce low-fidelity or scaled-down versions of the design or product.
As you prototype, you’re looking to confirm your hypothesis while checking for gaps between what you thought you knew and what your test is revealing.
This is both the final element and the one that serves as a segue to all the other elements. The results you get by testing will likely be used to redefine one or more problems.
From there, you can refine and go to the element that works the best.
4 Design Thinking Exercises
The design thinking exercises we’ll go over in this section are aimed both at getting the creative juices flowing from a high level and at looking at an existing problem in a new way.
Here are a few of the top exercises you can use to get you and your team into a design thinking mindset.
“What’s in Your Bag?”
We like this exercise because it’s a great way to break down boundaries and gain insights, which is an excellent primer for what design thinking asks you to do every day.
Some people do this exercise by having participants literally empty their bags (which is tricky if not everyone has a bag).
Some people do it where participants just share what they would put in their bag if they were going on a trip (but that’s too manufactured for our liking, as it doesn’t get at unfiltered behavior).
Instead, we like to ask the potentially more intimate (and relevant) question of “What’s on your phone’s home screen?” Nearly everyone will have their phone on them, and no one is (usually) prepared for sharing their home screen with another person.
Coe Leta Stafford, the Design Director at IDEO, talks about this very exercise. She says if you’re looking at the screen with your business hat on (which is still important), your eye is likely going to focus on what apps they have installed.
However, Coe Leta Stafford says she likes to focus on the wallpaper image because it’s personal and human.
She asks the person why they chose that specific image.
This gets the participants in the habit of looking deeper into the data presented to them and gets them in the habit of learning to observe what other people value.
“Yes, But” vs. “Yes, And”
This is a fun exercise and will probably seem familiar for anyone who has been to an Improv night.
First, get everyone in groups of two.
Person A suggests doing something, and Person B has to respond “yes, but . .” and then Person A has to react to their response, “Yes, but…”
Here’s an example of a “Yes, but” conversation:
Person A says, “Let’s go to the mall.”
Person B says, “Yes, but we don’t have money for gas.”
Person A now has to say, “Yes, but we can walk.”
You can see this conversation’s focus is on a path towards the absurd. It’s clear the two participants aren’t going to get anything done.
Now do it again but change the responses to “Yes, and” and see how long the conversation can go plus what information is revealed.
Here’s how “Yes, and” could go:
Person A says, “Let’s go to the mall.”
Person B says, “Yes, and when we get there, we can get pretzels.”
Person A now has to say, “Yes, and after pretzels, we can go shopping for a mattress.”
Person B now can say, “Yes, and with a new mattress, we can finally get better sleep.”
And on and on, into new and uncharted territories. This helps show participants that adding onto a topic is often a better route to take than immediately rejecting a suggestion.
“The Five Whys”
Sometimes the hardest part about solving a complex problem is identifying it.
For example, if the problem is “I keep struggling to be productive at work,” you might have a gut reaction to solve the problem with productivity apps or one of those desks you can write on to plan your day.
But that’s you assuming that the first problem you identify is the main problem.
You want to get to the root of a problem. The “Five Whys” is a great exercise that shows you how.
It works by having a partner ask you follow-up questions until you can’t follow up anymore (no more than five times, to save everyone a big headache).
Warning: this exercise can get annoying, real quick. To avoid that and keep it productive, we recommend you frame it more conversationally, instead of just asking “why” repeatedly.
Here’s an example of the “Five Whys” design thinking exercise (going back to our example above of someone struggling with productivity):
Person A: “I’m really struggling to be productive at work.”
Person B: “Why is it that you struggle to be productive at work?”
Person A: “I don’t know. I’m just always behind on all my tasks by noon.”
Person B: “Why specifically at noon?”
Person A: “Because I spend most of the morning trying to wake up.”
Now, we could keep going, but you get the point. We were presented with a problem (struggling to be productive), and instead of thinking we knew the answer, we kept digging.
Now, just two follow up questions later, we’re quickly getting closer to learning something which could inform our design process to address the problem.
“The Six Thinking Hats”
This exercise shows a team how the way we see a problem (and how we then try to solve it) is dependent on our operational mindset.
In this exercise, you give your team a prompt of a problem or a decision that needs to be made, and they each approach the decision based on the hat they are wearing.
- White hat = data-driven.
- Red hat = gut instinct.
- Black hat = focuses on potentially negative outcomes.
- Yellow hat = thinks positive.
- Green hat = thinks creatively.
- Blue hat = process-driven.
We’d recommend switching it up by making sure you’re challenging individuals to think outside of how they normally think.
So if someone on your team is really data-focused and analytical, then give them the Red Hat and see what they come up with.
A Design Thinking Example: How Focusing on Scalability Almost Ruined Airbnb
In 2009, Airbnb was struggling. Three owners had maxed out their credit cards, and the company had a whopping $200 a week in revenue. No VC fund was interested in what they were offering.
“We had this Silicon Valley mentality that you had to solve problems in a scalable way because that’s the beauty of code. Right? You can write one line of code that can solve a problem for one customer, 10,000 or 10 million. For the first year of the business, we sat behind our computer screens, trying to code our way through problems.” – Joe Gebbia, Airbnb co-Founder
The problem was they were looking for a Silicon Valley solution, not a human-centered one.
They weren’t looking at the problem within a design-thinking framework. Instead, they were stunted by their insistence of using a narrowly focused hyper-growth “hacking” mindset that looks for solutions to only one problem: how to get bigger faster.
In the case of Airbnb, both their mindset and their methods were flawed.
As often happens when you’re seemingly out of options, the three owners were forced to think outside the box.
Specifically, on their customers’ experience.
The owners decided to use their own service to book a room. They looked over Airbnb listings in New York and discovered the photos were horrible — not inviting, not detailed. To their dismay, they realized they probably wouldn’t use their service at all
That’s when they saw a pain-point for prospective customers: who would spend money on a place that doesn’t look inviting?
The founders went to New York, took professional photographs, updated the listings, and saw an immediate increase in revenue.
You might be thinking that the idea of updating rental listings with quality photos isn’t exactly your idea of innovation.
But look how radical a solution it was given the preconceived notions of the founders.
They were focused on scalability, and the solution that worked for them was flying across the country to take quality photos their prospective customers would love.
Understanding the design thinking approach is pretty simple, at least in the abstract.
Design thinkers are focused on utilizing empathetic, human-centered solutions to solve problems. Design thinkers also create solutions that are viable and economically feasible.
But like a lot of simple definitions, the devil is in the details.
- How do you get your team to consistently use a design thinking approach?
- How does a team go from empathizing with the customer to using those insights to help create innovative solutions that will be successful on the market?
For more information on how to create an environment that encourages consistent design thinking that leads to innovative solutions, speak to a design thinking expert from Sprintwell.
CEO & Co-founder, Sprintwell
After 20 years designing for Google, LinkedIn, and global startups, I burned out. I believe there’s a better way to work. At Sprintwell, we’re on a mission to help innovators like you build your business without burning out – and work with joy while you’re at it.