Design thinking is considered by some as one of the most important ideas of the 21st century as it has had vast impacts on product design, how organizations solve problems, and therefore how we live our daily lives. Nevertheless, it has come a very long way since its inception.

In Summary: Design Thinking is a creative and interdisciplinary approach to problem solving which consists of divergent and convergent phases. It’s a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor-made to suit their needs. After immersing yourself in their world you make sense of all things learnt, collect lots of different ideas, and quickly translate those into prototypes. You then bring these prototypes back to the user and learn from their feedback.

Back in 1999, IDEO demonstrated its process for innovation to the American public when they were featured in ABC’s late-night news show Nightline. In the episode, IDEO (back then described as “a tiny design firm…”) created a new shopping cart concept, considering issues such as maneuverability, shopping behavior, child safety, and maintenance cost.

Today the video is an all time Youtube classic that instantly makes people feel reminiscent of the good ol’ VHS-times, from the very moment the intro song begins playing. It’s not only the goofiness of corporate Silicon Valley at that time which makes this a gem, but how this short clip aptly sums up some of the most important aspects of design thinking.

IDEO’s famous shopping cart video

You do not need to be an expert in a given area to take something existing and completely redesign it in a week. The trick is to find real experts to learn from quickly. To innovate you bring together eclectic teams from different backgrounds — no titles, no hierarchy, but all experts in their diverse fields and in the process of design.

In the beginning, it is all about learning, understanding the problem space, and then sharing with the team what you’ve learnt. You have one conversation at a time and stay focused. The hardest thing is to restrain from criticizing and instead build on the ideas of others. Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius. Having to work under time constraints helps to get things done. At the end of day, the team votes for something that’s both cool and buildable. In the next phase the team combines all promising ideas into the design of one prototype. It’s constructive chaos at its best: Teamwork, designing with context and users in mind, and the willingness to fail often to succeed sooner.

While IDEO, today one of the world’s most respected design firms, was one of the first to introduce design thinking to many companies, it is actually interesting to look back in time to learn a little bit more about who started it.

Who started it?

(Disclaimer: This is not a complete list)

Well, there was Plato in 400 BC, Ancient Greece. He invited citizens to define how the city should be built. That makes Plato one of the earliest examples of public participation.

In the 1960s, Horst Rittel coined the phrase “Wicked Problems”.

Problems are wicked because you can never really solve them. The moment you come up with one answer you get three more questions. The world, as a matter of fact, is very complex and we should not try to trivialize it but rather learn how to deal with complexity.

Herbert Simon, a designer and academic, said that designers think they are smart and can figure out everything. He challenges them to build their ideas and make them tangible. This was an early example of prototyping as a process.

During the Summer of Love, societal issues became more important. Anthropologist Victor Papanek came up with questions of what helps society as a whole and how we figure that out by interviewing people, asking their needs, etc.

In 1987, the term “design thinking” popped up in a book by Peter Rowe, first in reference to urban planning issues. This makes sense, as in the field of architecture, it always has been necessary to collaborate with people of different expertise.

Richard Buchanan was one of the first people to connect discourse on the design practice and design as a process to be put into context of business and innovation (not just aesthetics).

The renowned d.school at Stanford initially spun off from a mechanical engineering course (ME310). One of its founding fathers, Professor Larry Leifer, realized that his engineering students came up with great technical solutions but unfortunately they lacked a problem. Some of the engineering students simply wanted to build things but did not think deeply enough about who they were building for and were missing empathy for their users.

Larry (teacher to both Sam and Boris) talks about a core framework of three elements: On the tip of the iceberg you have tools and methods, which you can easily learn about. Then there is process. An explicit one which can be taught and an implicit one which you would need to experience yourself within a coached project. And thirdly, at a more advanced level, is design thinking as a mindset — where you have internalized this way of working.

Criticism on design thinking is often targeted at the very surface level, where people just see innovation as theatre props like people with post-its — looking creative, but actually just talking basic common sense.

However, when you want to really understand what design thinking is, it is important to understand some of the basic characteristics that in sum make up the mindset.

Interdisciplinary teams

To succeed you need to acknowledge business (viability), technology (feasibility), and people (desirability) alike. Design thinking foremost comes from the point of view of the user, advocating the human being who will use a product or service. Taking on different perspectives comes naturally for teams made up of people from diverse backgrounds. Therefore, these teams are more inclined to develop mindful and holistic solutions. In the end, in order to develop a truly valuable product, the design, business, and technical perspectives need to be brought together.

Divergent and convergent phase

In order to make choices, first we need to create choices. Sometimes you go wide, then you go narrow again. A metaphor that works well for divergent and convergent is mushroom picking. You go to the forest, spread wide, collecting mushrooms till the basket is full. Once you have enough, you don’t go for a long hike afterwards. You go back to the car and drive straight home, and combine what you found to make a delicious mushroom risotto.

In projects, when you make decisions too early it is hard to open up again for other options later — even for better ones. The key is not to fall in love with your own ideas, but rather to detach yourself. Divergent phases are messy and ideas change over time, therefore, start by saying “ours” instead” of “my” ideas as it was the context of the team that made them possible.

Dancing with Ambiguity

Larry Leifer likes to describe design thinking projects as a dance with ambiguity. In the divergent phase, you have to be able to deal with multiple streams and ideas at the same time while not settling in for a solution yet. This is the only way how you can get out of the ‘known’ and into the ‘unknown’. In these phases, Larry describes the innovator as a hunter. Sometimes this hunt for the new and unknown is a messy process. Business clients usually don’t really like the divergent part as there can’t be a clear plan by definition. They want to know already in the beginning what they get in the end.

Research at Stanford showed that during the middle of a project, when ambiguity is often the highest, the motivation of teams and clients is often at its lowest. You may feel like you have spent too much time without achieving something tangible yet. At this point, dealing with the ambiguity requires trust in the process.

Problem over solution

It takes creative confidence to look for bigger problems, when others are urging to get to solutions quickly. A big part of design thinking is to spend enough time in the problem space. We have to ask ourselves. “Are we solving the right problem here?”. Imagine Oral B comes to you to design the toothbrush of the future. A toothbrush designer would start by sketching brushes, forms, grips, and colors. But how about we zoom out and ask: “Are we really talking about toothbrushes here or should we actually talk about dental care?” Scale the problem.

Another example: Young people are not buying cars anymore. Japanese car manufacturers decide to target young female car buyers with pink cars. But let’s be honest, pink cars are not going to save the automotive industry. It can be difficult for a “car designer” to think of mobility in a wider sense. And even more difficult for management to think about selling kilometers (or miles!) when they are used to selling cars.

The iterative process

The design thinking process is a sequence of diverging and converging phases and can be visualized as an “inverted double diamond”. The process has two main spaces, the problem space, where the challenge is defined, and the solution space, where possible answers are generated. It is crucial to understand that this process is not to be seen as linear but that iterations can happen all the time, back and forth. Therefore, it is also okay to jump from one part of the process to another. Nevertheless, it is important to still have an understanding of which phase you are in and for what reasons.

Let’s take a look at a project for Swiss bank UBS to explain the different phases.  

The iterative Design Thinking process

The team was given the challenge to redesign wealth management for the young UHNW (Ultra High Net Worth) generation. It’s not easy to relate to this particular target group who are defined by having more than $30m in their bank accounts. Not to mention that they are — for good reasons — secretive, highly concerned about privacy, and difficult to reach.

Needfinding

In the case of the UBS project, Sam and and his team got creative to get in touch with “rich kids”. They went to meet the director of a Swiss boarding school and went clubbing in exclusive clubs. Sam even started working again as a ski instructor in St. Moritz to get closer to the target user. Simply being there, immersing yourself can be very insightful. The motto here is GTFO – get the f*** out of your office, go on the streets, get in touch, and talk to real people. That is the best and only way to gain instant expertise, to really understand the problem space, and to build empathy.

Needfinding is not: Fictional personas (which often is just a nice way to gift wrap stereotypical assumptions) or qualitative stats in the form of market research.

Ideation

Here you diverge, go wide, go for quantity. You want to get from the known to the unknown. Coming together as a team you start by structuring insights and by telling the narratives of real-life personas. At this moment every idea is a good idea.

Language is really important here. It feels natural to say “Yes, but…” always seeing the weak point in what somebody else is saying. Try to change that to “Yes, and…” and it will change the way you collaborate, bringing you a whole lot further. The more innovative the ideas are, the more innovative the language becomes as well.  If it is really something new you might need to invent new words (“Google it”).

Ideation is not: Expert rounds, but you become an expert through needfinding. You are also not prioritising for feasibility at this point.

Prototyping

Stanford ME310’s Paper Bike Challenge

Usually we assume we have to think first before we start doing, but sometimes you can think better when you’re already doing. We call this “build to think”. An example of the power of prototyping comes from the ME310 university course mentioned earlier. A team working for BMW to improve the driving experience of convertibles got stuck along the way. Out of frustration, one student drilled a hole in the windshield of an actual car. What seemed like a stupid idea at first actually was the breakthrough. The hole in the window magically prevented wind turbulences inside the cockpit. A simple but powerful solution. Even in very complex (wicked) challenges, it helps to start building prototypes. They are not perfect yet, but they force you to make certain decisions, allow you to summarize findings for your team and show you where there are missing parts.

By the way, it seems more obvious to prototype physical objects, but you can prototype for services too. One great way to do that is roleplay (try it out: Act as if you are your favorite app providing a service for someone) or “Wizard of Oz” prototyping where you fake it in the background.

Documentation is important. Give your prototypes names and focus on the insights gained. Narrating the evolution of your prototypes is a great storytelling tool when you present your ideas to clients.

Prototyping is not: Time/cost intensive, beautiful or perfect, a sales tool.

Testing

Fail early to succeed sooner.

The value of prototypes resides less in the models themselves than in the interactions they invite. Take the prototypes you built and show them to users. Listen carefully and ask why a lot. Pretend to be naive to get the most out of it. And there is much more than what the user actually says out loud. What is the user thinking and feeling? What are some of their worries and aspirations? What does the user see while using your prototype? What are the pain points and what gains might the user experience when using your product? In order to get valuable and true feedback, It’s important not to explain or sell the prototype to them.

Reframe

You learnt a lot along the way. You discovered new solutions, and now you realize new questions came up as well. It is important to redefine the original challenge if necessary and include what was learnt. No need to be afraid to pivot, but it requires clear communication (to the client) why that mindshift happened. In the example of the banking service for the young UHNW generation, the team realized that their users were not yet actively managing their assets themselves. However, the need for self-realization was huge and therefore also finding meaningful ways of spending. The project challenge moved from “financial profit” to a more educational focus where it was the goal to help those kids gain experiences by doing good at the same time through funding startups, NGOs, etc. This was far away from the original challenge given by the client but the team had enough material to back it up.

Co-Author: Samuel Huber

Samuel Huber works as a Design Strategist for Goodpatch Berlin. His studies in sociology, economy, management and design led him to the Universities of Zurich, St. Gallen and all the way to Stanford and Tokyo. The fascination for systemic problems, making innovation happen and a curiousness in uncertain situations have provided him with a variety of experiences. He was a founding member of UBS Y, the think tank of a big financial provider, worked in a New York art gallery, focused on development economics with Biovision and now enjoys his work in interdisciplinary teams to conceptualise and develop anything from compression stockings to electric mobility platforms.

Big thanks also to the contributors to this article, Aneliya Kyurkchiyska and Elaine Westra.