What Is Design Thinking

What is Design Thinking

Design Thinking (DT) is many things, but at its core it helps organizations think about what they are trying to do and how their organized structure interacts with these goals. Many times Design Thinking is compared to Total Quality Management (TQM) and what it did for manufacturing. Jeanne Liedtka points out in an HBR article that _ “… what people may not understand is the subtler way that design thinking gets around the human biases (for example, rootedness in the status quo) or attachments to specific behavioral norms (“That’s how we do things here”) that time and again block the exercise of imagination.”. This approach helps organizations reframe problems and experimentation, utilize diverse teams, better understand complex systems and integrate new technology into their capabilities.

Common Definition

Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, Design Thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It is a way of thinking and working as well as a collection of hands-on methods.

How is Design Thinking Used?

The Airbnb Story

A often sited success story is Airbnb in 2009. Joe Gebbia and his team were on the brink of failure when they noticed a trend in poor performing listings in New York City, they all had bad pictures. Gebbia had a hunch that people didn’t want to rent a random listing on their site without seeing decent pictures of it first. They immediately flew to NYC, took beautiful pictures of the listings, and updated the photos on the listing. Within a week the revenue doubled and proved that beautiful pictures of the listing mattered. This shifted how Airbnb listed the properties and approached problems - coded their way through it. They realized they now had to consider other factors outside of code for their company and needed a framework to incorporate these factors. Gebbia had previous experience with design school ideas and embraced the design thinking methods. The rest is history and Airbnb went on to change the way people travel

The Benefits

IBM has been a big proponent of DT and has helped many customers with it. With Forrester they published a report in 2018 that highlighted quantified benefits.

  • Project teams doubled design and execution speed with Design Thinking. Profits from faster releases combined with reduced design, development, and maintenance costs to deliver $678K per minor project and $3.2M per major project, for $20.6M in total value.
  • Organizations slashed the time required for initial design and alignment by 75%. The model demonstrates cost savings of $196K per minor project and $872K per major project.
  • Project teams leveraged better designs and user understanding to reduce development and testing time by at 33% This equates to cost savings of $223K per minor project and $1.1M per major project.
  • Design Thinking practice helped projects cut design defects in half. Projects were more successful in meeting user needs, thereby reducing design defects and subsequent rework to save $77K per minor project and $153K per major project.
  • Faster time-to-market enabled increased profits from netnew customers and the higher present value of expected profits. Faster time-to-market increased profits by $182K per minor project and $1.1M per major project.
  • Human-centered design improved product outcomes, reduced the risk of costly failures, and increased portfolio profitability. Refined strategic prioritization enabled investments in solutions that were less likely to fail. Better design increased average product profits. They helped expand design thinking at the organization over three years to penetrate one quarter of the entire portfolio, enabling $18.6M in increased profits.
  • Cross-functional teams collaborated to share problems and find solutions, reducing costs by $9.2M in streamlined processes.

These are very impressive benefits and these types of gains are within the reach of many organizations.

Doing Design Thinking

There are many approaches for using Design Thinking in an organization, but generally speaking an engagement or session is conducted to consider a new project, product or problem that the organization will be focusing on. For a DT Engagement it will typically look something like this. (This is based of the IBM approach which they offer numerous courses on)

Key Concepts:

  • Design Thinking Hills: statements of intent written as meaningful user outcomes. They tell you where to go, not how to get there, empowering teams to explore breakthrough ideas without losing sight of the goal.
  • Design Thinking Playbacks: bring stakeholders into the loop in a safe space to tell stories and exchange feedback. They reveal misalignment and measure progress against the big picture problem you are solving.
  • Design Thinking Sponsor Users: real-world users that regularly contribute their domain expertise to your team, helping you stay in touch with users’ real-world needs throughout the project.

Conducting Design Thinking DT is not a fixed and rigid process. Not every part of the process has to be conducted and how much emphasis on the parts will fluctuate based on the task at hand.

  • Hopes and Fears: Talk about the project, get to know everyone involved and learn what what they think about the project.
  • Stakeholder Map: This helps everyone understand who is involved and why. Many times people don’t know what happens outside of their responsibilities.
  • Empathy Map: Think like your intended user or customer, walk a mile in their shoes. Use this exercise to learn how the product or service is being used.
  • Scenario Map: Helps to document collective understanding of user workflows and are best used as precursors to exploring new ideas.
  • Big Idea Vignettes: Build on what your team has learned and shard so far. Rapidly brainstorm possible ideas as a group.
  • Prioritization Grid: With many items to consider this activity helps your team evaluate and prioritize them by focusing discussions on importance and feasibility.
  • Needs Statements: Keep on task and minimize drift, this makes sure you focus on actual needs, desires, and goals.
  • Storyboarding: Iterate and communicate ideas and scenarios visually by telling user-centric stories. Good for when getting started and implementing ideas is proving to be challenging.
  • Assumptions and Questions: Identify and prioritize what assumptions are being made, what you’ve been guessing about, and what your team still doesn’t know.
  • Feedback Grid: Gather and organize any sort of feedback and to then unpack questions and ideas as an efficient means of determining next steps.