The Design Thinking way to Problem Solving

Hi. I had an enjoyable couple of days reading about Design Thinking. Actually, I was reading an article on Startups when I came across the term Design Thinking and got caught on. This is my first encounter with the concept, despite having 30+ years work experience with design as a primary requisite of the various functions I performed. As I read on, I saw that Design Thinking was being used quite extensively and effectively. Have you ever thought about how industry leaders such as Pepsico, Apple, SAP and Toyota to name a few achieve success? Do you think that startups such as Airbnb, PayPal, Fitbit and Freecharge made it big in their first endeavor? As Phin Barnes of First Round Capital puts it:
In 2009, Airbnb was close to going bust. Like so many startups, they had launched but barely anyone noticed. The company’s revenue was flatlined at $200 per week. Split between three young founders living in San Francisco, this meant near indefinite losses on zero growth

Those of us who are not familiar with Design Thinking may be wondering what it is all about. Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO, a keen proponent of Design Thinking says:
Design thinking is a system that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business can convert into consumer value and market opportunity.

So, what is different in Design Thinking? Before getting into the actual process of Design Thinking let me share with you how it is different from Design. Design is a tool that is primarily used to discover marketability options for fulfilling consumer desires. Design Thinking is a process that examines all ideas and constraints, opposing or otherwise, to showcase a host of possible solutions.

Let us review a normal Design Thinking process and understand how it works. By process, if you are thinking step 1, 2, 3 and I am done, you could not be further from the truth, as the steps are not meant to be linear and as you progress through the development you may realize that several steps need to be/can be performed simultaneously. In addition, do not rule out the possibility of having to iterate between the steps more than a few times.

The first step, Empathize, encourages interaction with customers. This is where you begin to involve your customers. You will agree that customers can give you insights that no one within your organization can. How do you like the idea of walking into a retail store posing as a customer and seeing things for yourself or talking to other customers and capturing their opinions? This is exactly what some of the top bosses of FMCG companies are doing.

Armed with the inputs from the empathize stage you Define the problem that needs to be resolved. You may find this a little tricky, as you should be able to provoke innovative thinking with the problem statement. How about plugging in a key question that will get the team interested? If you think that will work, go ahead.

Different tools can be used to Brainstorm and come up with possible solutions. You will be quite familiar with this activity, but you can enhance its effectiveness by inviting teams from other departments to participate and share their perceptions. Do not be satisfied with solutions that revolve around the packaging of your products. Let me explain with an example. Your GPS tells you the best route to take from point A to B. A packaging solution will suggest a better, faster and more user-friendly interface for the user. What one automobile company did was it provided their users with an app that not only displays the best way to get from A to B, but also suggests bus, train and flight routes that can be used, along with options to make necessary bookings. This is a whole new experience for the user.

Taking one or may be more potential solutions, develop a Prototype. Do not worry about how to create your prototype or how it will look, perfection is not the aim. You have a budget and a time constraint within which you want to learn and come up with a solution that justifies its value. Keep these in mind and create your prototype, which can be a product or a model or simply a sketch.

With the prototype ready, it needs to be thoroughly Tested. This is the step where you will prove the effectiveness of the prototype and develop it to represent the final perfect product. You proceed through three stages of test, refine and re-test. You will need to repeat these steps till you arrive at a practical working product that actually solves the problem. Well, what happens to the other prototypes? They will also go through the test, refine and re-test stages. You now have several tested prototypes and you can go ahead with the one that gives the best results. Now and again, we come across visible examples of test-refine-repeat, when new products are launched in the markets that vanish after a short lifespan.

Your process does not end here as you need to Measure the results regularly. You have to look for changes in customer requirements. Go out and look for advantages from technology improvements that you can use to get an edge over your competitors. That is what will keep you ahead. There is a lot you can learn from the banking industry. It has moved from the traditional banking mode to using ATMs and then onto online banking, with increasing number of banking facilities being allowed through the online mode. Besides the bank, as a user, you too have benefitted from these improvements.

Allow me to share a comment from Bruce Nussbaum, another advocate of Design Thinking.
The decade of Design Thinking is ending and I, for one, am moving on to another conceptual framework: Creative Intelligence, or CQ Design Thinking has given the design profession and society at large all the benefits it has to offer and is beginning to ossify

I will say that Nussbaum has stated it quite strongly, but more as a cautionary statement than to say that Design Thinking is dead as he has described in his article Design Thinking Is A Failed Experiment. So What’s Next?. There are some drawbacks that I think you should know about. You will be surprised to know that despite all the many advantages and the immense contributions, the success rate of Design Thinking is pretty low. Case in point is the number of prototypes that are discarded before you finalize on a particular solution. Furthermore, you must be prepared for the speed in which the process moves especially if your organization is accustomed to lengthy development processes. In addition, you will have to address the concerns of your teams, especially the designers who will feel threatened. Finally, do not lose hope or get demoralized even after going through repeated cycles of refining the product and constantly having to accept failure.

This model may appear attractive but it is no magic wand that can push aside all your troubles. Be creative to the extent of being ridiculous. You should not attempt to implement it like a business process. Make Design Thinking a way of life in your business. Learn from startups like Twitter, Instagram, Square and Tapbots.

References :


Dola Samanta. Demystifying Design Thinking: Bruce Nussbaum. 2015.
Madanmohan Rao. These are Magical Times for the Design Entrepreneur 10 tips from UX India 2015. 2015.
Linda Naiman. Design Thinking as a Strategy for Innovation. 2015.
Kaan Turnali. What is Design Thinking? 2015.
Fast Company Staff. Design Thinking What is that? 2006.
Barbara T. Armstrong. It’s Time To Bring Design Thinking Down From On High. 2013.
Bruce Nussbaum. Design Thinking Is A Failed Experiment. So What’s Next? 2011.
Helen Walters. Design Thinking Isn’t a Miracle Cure, but Here’s How It Helps. 2011.
The Mind Tools Editorial Team. Design Thinking. 2015.
Harvard Business Review.