Thinking About Design Thinking

Learn how thinking like a designer can be an effective tool for solving problems, regardless of your role or business.

Insight categories: Experience Design

Design Thinking & What It Means for Businesses Undergoing Transformation

Design thinking has become a buzzword in recent years. Businesses across industries have adopted design thinking as they transform or face new challenges. But while it has recently gained popularity, the origins of this mindset date back to the 1950s.

Design thinking involves a systematic approach to problem-solving that emphasizes empathy, creativity, and experimentation that can dramatically improve business outcomes. In this article, you’ll learn about the benefits, limitations, and nuances of design thinking, and how you can incorporate it into your organization’s digital transformation.

What Exactly is Design?

To understand the value of design thinking, we need to understand what it’s like to “think like a designer.” To do that, we need to be clear about the term design.

The description below is a schematic to illustrate some vital concepts relevant to design:

Designing is about problem-solving. Finding a solution to a problem and defining the form and function of the solution.

Design involves navigating steps to find a solution to a problem (a process) and providing specifications for the form and function of the solution (an outcome).

While successfully navigating steps to a solution, decisions made by a designer (or presented by a designer for consideration) should support a plan for a viable solution. This means that any potential requirements and constraints of the project’s production, implementation, and use must be addressed during the design process.

Because of the project’s various requirements, different outcomes are possible. For example, designing a marketing website differs from developing a mobile application, although they both have a digital interface.

One common aspect of the design process is iterations or successive revision cycles. In some cases, iteration cycles may be used to expand the number of options that might be viable solutions. In other instances, iterations drive out the details and ensure that all requirements and constraints have been considered for a chosen route.

The outcomes of the design process, or what we often refer to as “the design,” can be tangible (toaster, furniture, car, airplanes, or clothes) and intangible (policies, communication protocols, programs, or software). Historically, tangible meant that you couldn’t easily modify characteristics after production, so the design must be thorough. 

There’s a unique opportunity when creating software. On the one hand, design is never complete. There’s a constant cycle of identifying, solving, and specifying errors in the software. However, digital technology is blurring the boundary between tangible and intangible outcomes. This change makes it more critical than ever to be very specific about the meaning of design thinking for a project.

Recommended reading: Next-Generation Architecture Best Practices

How Do “Designers” Think?

Do designers think or process information differently? There’s unlikely a significant difference in the way designers think than those in other fields.

But two things are worth noting. The first is the natural thinking patterns common to people who design for a living, even when not fully immersed in their work. The second is how a designer thinks from the project’s initiation to its outcome.

Designers generally think like the rest of us when playing the role of problem solvers. For a designer, however, two key processing patterns are relevant to their role as a designer: curiosity and context-seeking.

Curiosity

The best designers are often curious. They want to know how things work, why they work that way, what happens when you change the design, and what a customer would say about the design.

Curiosity is beneficial as designers need to know enough about the outcome to ensure they take the proper route. They need to have information about the requirements and constraints of the project.

Curiosity is also a tool, as designers know that they can often generate innovative and differentiated solutions if the right inspiration can be found. And curiosity is essential to the first rule of problem-solving: define the problem.

Context-Seeking

Design is all about context: what’s being considered, what’s relevant, where are unanticipated influences going to come from, and what are the existing mechanisms at play?

Is there evidence suggesting we don’t understand the broader context of people buying and using our products and services?

Defining the context for a solution to a problem is essential. When the context is too narrowly defined, the answer is incomplete. When the context is too broad, complexity gets out of hand.

To follow the first rule of problem-solving (define the problem), you must specify the context, which is why curiosity and context-seeking are standard methods of designers.

When a designer is working—engaging in a process to reach an outcome—they have a natural starting point: understanding the problem’s requirements and goals.

They will also need to know the stakeholders in the project and have a point of contact when they have questions.

How Design Thinking Solves Problems

Now let’s discuss how designers problem-solve.

Divergent Thinking

People often have divergent thinking in mind when they imagine design creativity. It’s explorative and generative, focusing on breadth over depth. They use iteration to go broader through lateral thinking until they have a clear definition of ready.

Convergent Thinking

People think of convergent thinking when they imagine the design craft. It’s reductive refining, with specific iterations focused on finding a solution.

Understanding whether you need a divergent or convergent approach is essential to the project’s success. A design rationale that helps people understand past decisions and implications for choices of current options helps ensure that everyone involved in the process is on the same page.

Recommended resource: An Engineer’s Essential Tool in Agile is Design Thinking [Webinar]

In choosing the steps of a design process, a designer’s end goal is to provide a solution to the problem based on a clear design rationale.

This design rationale should help people understand why the answer is what it is and what options might exist to change or evolve the solution. In addition, the end goal should include adequate specifications to deliver the solution.

Limitations of Design Thinking

One appealing aspect of design thinking is the priority it places on designing for the human experience. This is why design thinking can be helpful.

But that’s just one aspect of what design thinking is all about. Businesses must consider the entire design process before looking to design thinking to solve their problems. 

There are two critical capabilities that an experienced designer relies upon. The first is experience with applying divergent and convergent thinking in each problem space.  Knowing how to use information is key to developing a design rationale.

The second is that they know—through experience—the requirements, constraints, and specifications needed for a given outcome.

This means they don’t spend time collecting information or trying to understand the implications of a solution option.

The all-inclusive nature of the definitions of design thinking should raise important questions like: who ensures that the design process is based on a proper understanding of the problem? And who ensures that the outcome has appropriate specificity? 

These questions often arise when people use design thinking as a methodology or process, but there may be better methods. Examples of this include:

  • Hoping to improve plans for a product or service by applying divergent thinking during convergent iterations (where they use design thinking during the UX/UI design stage).
  • MVP/CICD-based product strategies, with limited investment in design backed by honest user feedback. Efficiency is gained through the acquisition of design systems and the ability to iterate the products. In some ways, this is turning the traditional design process inside out, where you’ll repeat the design of something based on how people use it.
  • Complex ecosystems require a more structured approach to managing information, including multiple business needs, customer needs, stages of value creation delivery, numerous touch points, and multi-stage interactions.

Note: Service design is a framework and is design thinking-friendly, but design thinking is not the same as service design.

Final Takeaways

Design thinking is now widely accepted as a powerful tool for innovation. It’s a process that involves identifying the problem, exploring possible solutions, and testing those solutions through multiple iterations.

This method can help companies build better products, services, and experiences faster than traditional methods.

Companies need to stay nimble and agile in today’s rapidly changing environment to compete effectively. They also need to continue to innovate to remain relevant and sustainable. Utilizing methods like design thinking can be a helpful approach to accomplish this.

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Author

Patrick Newbery

Chief Strategy Officer, Method

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