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design thinking

Design thinking is an iterative approach to problem solving that intentionally seeks out people with different perspectives, knowledge, skills and experience and has them work together to create a practical solution for a real-world problem.

Design thinking uses a process-based approach to solve problems and like any process, it involves a series of steps that are carried out in a particular order to achieve a goal. In this case, the goal is to identify a solution that is capable of succeeding, can be carried out in a timely manner and is likely to be accepted by all stakeholders.

The five steps in design thinking are empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test.

Empathize – This step involves interviewing stakeholders and asking open-ended questions. The goal is to learn more about the problem from multiple perspectives.

Define – This step involves synthesizing all the information that was gathered during the previous step and arriving at a group consensus that states what problem needs to be solved. The goal is to identify the scope and true nature of the problem.

Ideate – This step involves sharing ideas – however wild and impractical -- and using each other’s ideas as triggers for continuing the ideation process. The goal is to brainstorm solutions to the problem.

Prototype – This step involves creating a mock-up that conveys the essence of a proposed solution. An important goal of this step is to help the design team weed out unworkable or impractical solutions and focus attention on ideas that are likely to be approved by stakeholders.

Test –This step involves presenting the prototype to stakeholders. The goal is to solicit feedback that will let the design team know if they have successfully solved the problem or whether they need to go back to the drawing board and repeat steps.

In professional development training, the concept of design thinking is often illustrated with an urban legend that begins on the top floor of a tall skyscraper in a large city. In this scenario, executives at a large power utility have been called to an emergency meeting because there has been a huge increase in negative remarks about the utility on social media and the press has picked up on it.

Design Thinking Example: XYZ Power Company

Goal: Stop negative press about XYZ Power Company outages.

Step 1 (Empathize): We decided to contact and interview every customer who has made a comment about the power utility on social media. After reviewing customer interviews, it became clear that the increase in negative comments was in direct response to power outages after recent snowstorms. Additional interviews with meteorologists and our electrical engineers revealed that both storms dumped heavy, wet snow that took down power lines in several rural areas.

Step 2 (Define): The group agreed the problem really had nothing to do with the press or even with social media. We have redefined the problem: Figure out how to prevent wet snow from taking down power lines in rural areas.

Step 3 (Ideate): We will invite customers, engineers, meteorologists, marketers and employee representatives from multiple departments throughout the company to a full-day workshop where all ideas for how to prevent heavy snow from taking down power lines will be considered.

Many ideas were generated during this full-day workshop, including the following three. The second idea was inspired by the first idea and served as the trigger for the third idea.

  • Attach cell phones to each power line and set the phones to vibrate. When it snows, call the phones repeatedly so when they vibrate, the snow falls off the power lines.
  • Train birds to sit on power lines and flap their wings when it snows. The birds’ movement the will shake snow off the power lines.
  • Fly helicopters at low altitude over the power lines. The downwash from the helicopter blades will knock the snow off the power lines.

Step 4 (Prototype): The group decided to focus their attention on creating a prototype for the third idea, flying helicopters. The prototype was simply a large diagram that illustrated how the idea worked.

Step 5 (Test): The prototype was presented to stakeholders and feedback was solicited. After much discussion, stakeholders agreed that flying a helicopter over power lines to knock off snow was a feasible solution. Flight time could also be used to inspect lines for worn or damaged equipment and identify vegetation hazards that might disrupt service in the future.

The concepts that form the foundation of design thinking are drawn from many branches of knowledge including engineering, computer science, the arts, social sciences and business. Depending upon the implementation, the steps may be called by different names, combined in different ways or carried out in different orders. Regardless of the specific implementation, however, the principles of design thinking remain the same: gather information by talking to the stakeholders, brainstorm ideas, create a prototype and test it. Make sure that both creative and analytical ideas are perceived as having value and understand that failure is OK as long as it moves the team closer to a real solution.

In many ways, design thinking reflects the management philosophy of Engineer Taiichi Ohno, who is credited with developing the Toyota Way to help with Japan's economic recovery after World War II. The Toyota Way has two components, Respect for People (also known as Respect for Stakeholders) and Continuous Improvement (also known as Kaizen). After the last recession in the United States, its guiding principles, which are customer-centric and designed to deal with changing constraints, were adopted by software developers and business managers under the new labels agile and lean. Since then, new terms like user story, specification by example and acceptance test have entered the lexicon and gone mainstream.

Similarly, design thinking has also gained popularity in a changing economy and is increasingly becoming a valuable tool for large enterprises that are challenged with finding new revenue streams. This is especially true for established information technology (IT) vendors who are struggling with how to respond to market changes caused by mobile and cloud computing. In the past, IT buying decisions were the exclusive domain of an organization’s CIO or CTO and they were who marketers reached out to. The Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) delivery model changed the purchasing landscape and buying power has trickled down into the hands of department heads throughout the organization. As a result, IBM, Citrix, Microsoft, HP Enterprise and many other IT vendors are hiring design thinkers to help the vendor get to know these new customers and create new features, products and services that meets their needs and brings in revenue.

This was last updated in February 2016

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