In recent years, Design Thinking has increasingly gained traction as an approach to tackling complex business challenges. It features in thought leading publications such as the Harvard Business Review, it’s adopted and applied by the management consultancy sector and has been woven into the culture and practice of some of the world’s largest organisations, such as IBM and Google.

Before we examine what the Design Thinking process is, and how to use it, let’s first consider the term itself. Design Thinking has become a buzzword, and like all buzzwords, has been over-used. This has triggered debates about whether it over-simplifies or devalues the professional practice of design. Part of the issue is the understanding of the word design. When applied to fields such as fashion, design is all about creativity and making a statement — almost as a work of art. Usually we describe what we do as user-centred innovation, design and product development, but one thing that happens a lot during our process, is thinking — so we’re more than happy to welcome the adoption of the term Design Thinking, as acknowledgement that our design process encompasses complex critical thought and analysis, as well as creative inspiration and craft — equally important in bringing solutions to realisation.

Most definitions of the Design Thinking process include 5 steps. Whilst this framework is certainly valid, it is not a simple “design by numbers” exercise and there is expertise required in shaping a programme to meet the needs of any given brief and executing this process to achieve the objectives. At Kinneir Dufort, we develop bespoke programmes to meet the demands of a challenge, but they always include some consistently important elements.

Design Thinking (the Kinneir Dufort way) explained:

Deep user understanding and definition of opportunity areas

Great design starts with an understanding of the people we are designing for — their context, environment, abilities, attitudes and needs. How best to gain that empathy and understanding is the subject of careful, and often creative, consideration and planning. Equally important is to define who your users are — they will certainly include your consumers, but they may also include other stakeholders such as distributors, service engineers and retailers. Our Research and Human Factors team use a range of methods to allow us to get close to users to unearth valuable insights that will identify problems, or, to borrow from Strategyn founder Tony Ulwick’s outcome-driven innovation theory, to define the “jobs to be done”. This can take the form of a mapping of opportunity areas and “how might we” starting point statements, in preparation for ideation. It is also important, at this stage, to define success criteria with key business stakeholders to provide a basis for idea evaluation.

Ideation, filtering and evaluation

This is the exciting part, but the magic won’t happen without skilful planning and execution. It’s important to have the right process, the right stimulus, including insights gathered, the right environment, and the right mix of people. Whilst having trained and experienced designers will help fuel the creative process, cross-fertilisation of different perspectives is vital, so the ideation group should include a variety of stakeholders from the client teams, and, potentially, from end customers. You can’t simply get your customers to define their perfect product, but this 3-way co-creation, involving designers, clients and consumers, can be extremely powerful in rapidly generating and evaluating seed ideas. The role of the designers in this part of the process is not essential (the crafting of winning products and experiences that will stand out from the competition is something that can come later), but involving trained designers can certainly help maintain pace and momentum during ideation. To quote Paula Scher’s famous words:

“It took me a few seconds to draw it, but it took me 34 years to learn how to draw it in a few seconds”

Paula Scher

Having generated a wide range of ideas, the task is then to switch hats from creative to rational, to filter and evaluate against a clear set of criteria, and identify the most compelling ideas to prototype and test.

Prototyping, testing and iteration (failing fast and learning quickly)

Nothing communicates an idea better than a prototype, so realising your idea in prototype form and testing it with users are vital next steps. In the Design Thinking mindset, the objective here is to learn from the building and testing of the prototype and, as will often be the case, to embrace failure as part of an iterative learning process. In this, Design Thinking shares a principle with another much-followed methodology, Eric Ries’ Lean Startup. In this, Ries promotes the creation of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), defined as:

“A version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.”

The goal at this stage is to define the most important aspect of the new product idea to test, and to create the cheapest, fastest way of prototyping that puts experience in the hands of potential users.

For digital products which use currently available hardware and ecosystems, this can be fairly easy to realise in a familiar and convincing way, but for ideas which include complex devices, or infrastructures and production processes not yet in place, finding a way to prototype the experience can require a good deal of clever and creative thought. At KD, we’ve used a variety of techniques, from a “vanilla” digital prototyping framework, which we can adapt to the needs of the new product, to creating simplified versions of products containing only the key functions we wish to test. One interesting approach to consider is creation of a “Wizard of Oz” prototype where an experience is produced by an unseen person creating a realistic illusion of the experience for the user in the test. This method was famously used by a team at IBM on their “listening typewriter” experiment in the 1980s to test user acceptance of voice recognition software before the software was developed.

What you get

Design Thinking is not a guaranteed silver bullet to achieving new product innovation and business success, but it is a valuable tool which can encourage new ways to connect with your consumers, engage with a wide range of stakeholders in your organisation, and create, build and test new concepts in a time and cost-effective way. More broadly adopted, it can also foster a powerful culture of creativity and learning within your organisation, which can be applied to a wide range of business challenges.