Is 'design thinking' a path to innovation?

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With change happening at an exponential rate, companies have felt an increasing demand to develop their ability to innovate, even to the point of disrupting their own business practices. In fact, for many people who have been charged with encouraging innovative thinking within their teams, the words “innovation” and “disruption” themselves are beginning to feel overused. Yes, it’s important to make innovation a part of your growing business, but where do you begin?

Part of the difficulty in developing an innovation practice within a company – either as a separate practice or, even better, an integrated set of practices across areas of the business - is the sheer number of approaches that are out there. These days it seems like there are an overwhelming number of methods for thinking more creatively. The trick is to find and commit to an approach that works well for your company’s culture and market position.

“Design thinking” is an approach to innovation that has gained a lot of traction within customer-centric companies, whether they’re developing products, processes, or services. It encourages team members from multiple disciplines in the company to come together and tackle problems with a holistic and human-centered mindset. In this article we’ll cover the basic definition of design thinking, and how it is unique as an approach to innovation.

What is design thinking?

The term “design thinking” goes back to the 1960’s, but really gained steam through the work of innovation company IDEO. In his blog on design thinking, CEO and president Tim Brown defines it as “matching people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and viable as a business strategy." The key skills used to make this happen are empathy with the people experiencing those needs, creativity in coming up with ideas to address them, and rationality to choose and form the most viable and feasible ideas.

Tim Brown of IDEO used this diagram to explain design thinking as a path to innovation driven by an understanding of people and a focus on their experiences.

In other words, people in a variety of roles apply skills traditionally used by designers in order to solve all sorts of problems. These problems may be related to products, services… even the company’s strategy. Design thinking may help you create a new product for your customers, but it could also help you redesign elements of your employee’s day-to-day lives – introducing new wellness programs, or more generous policies, leading to increased retention and fewer sick days.

So, how is design thinking different from other approaches to innovation?

Most approaches to innovation involve techniques that help team members open up their minds and see unusual possibilities. Techniques often include individual reflection, group brainstorming, and prompts to view problems from multiple perspectives. Generation of multiple ideas – some of them silly or outrageous! - are followed by the synthesis of those ideas into feasible concepts. Ideas are iterated upon in order to expand and refine until the strongest concepts emerge, and action plans can be made develop them. 

These steps are core to design thinking as well (and many of them actually were inspired by design thinking techniques). But here are some of the elements of design thinking that make them unique from most other approaches.

For a short explanation of design thinking by using a case study, view this video by Brett Newman.

A focus on people

Design thinking encourages you to get out into the field and learn directly from others; competitors, potential users, even the people on the extreme edges who may be able to give you insight into the activity you’re trying to improve. For example, if you’re trying to get people to jog more often, you may observe and interview casual joggers, but you should also interview people who hate to jog (what are the major obstacles?) and the people who run marathons (what are the joys of running)? 

Either way, the key is this: don’t try to innovate in a vacuum. Sitting in a conference room and writing on the whiteboard is a good part of the process, but if you only base your ideas on your own assumptions, you’ll probably miss the key insights that lead to new and effective solutions. 

Some of the techniques involved in this immersion are field observation, interviews, and surveys. The resulting data helps you create tools like personas and customer journeys, which help you build empathy with the people you’re designing for – and keep it throughout the process.

A foundation based on design principles

As your ideas begin to flow, grounded with your empathy, design principles will begin to emerge. These principles are beliefs you should hold near and dear, which form a method for you to judge ideas. 

For example, architect Antoni Gaudi had principles on the usage of light, which helped him generate and implement ideas for the design of his buildings. These principles combined his beliefs regarding the desired experience – too much light in a room causes as much blindness as too little light – with specific details that help attain the desired experience – use 45 degree angles and windows of varying sizes to ensure the appropriate level of light. These guidelines were built through observation of existing structures, and trial and error.

As you immerse in a problem area you’d like to solve, design thinking encourages you to make these observations, form hypotheses around them, and build and test, which will lead you to forming your own design principles.

A fluency in visual language

Design is traditionally a visual field, which can be intimidating to those who don’t consider themselves designers. However, visual thinking is an important skill for people in any role. 

Sketching your ideas can open up more of your mind when generating new ideas – and a simple sketch can communicate very well. You don’t have to be an artist!

The design thinking process encourages people to sketch ideas, storyboard processes, and use images like photographs to connect with the emotional moments involved in the activity you’re trying to improve or problem you’re trying to solve. 

Even if you don’t consider yourself an artist (most people don’t), you have the capacity to communicate visually. Keep playing Pictionary and work out that muscle - or try your hand at sketching your notes while you listen to a TED talk. 

The forming of prototypes

Design thinking encourages you to make your ideas concrete in some manner, through prototyping, in order to test them out. For a web site, this may mean a rudimentary clickable prototype or series of sketches. For something physical, it may mean whittling or gluing something together to be held, or 3D printing a concept. For processes, it could mean setting up a replica of a space in order to mimic movement, like the process of going through a cafeteria line with different layouts for kiosks and cashiers. The important thing is, make something that you can test – then learn and iterate. 

Even simple, sketched prototypes like this one can be tested with potential users, giving you valuable insights.

In conclusion

Of the many possible paths to innovation, design thinking is an approach of growing interest due to its grounding in human needs, its focus on using different perspectives and outliers to push your creative thinking, and its strongly rationale approach to business success. Consider it for those in your organization – in any role – who are willing to exercise their designer minds in order to see and act on new opportunities. Just be ready to sketch, stretch, and challenge yourself, and others. 

If you’d like to learn some of these techniques yourself, join us 5th and 6th December for a 2-day intensive, Learn to design with users in mind.

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