Why Design Thinking Works

Whether you are experienced with design thinking or have only just heard of it—strap in because we are kicking off a series covering many aspects of design thinking.

Today, many designers are identifying as design thinkers, consultancies are selling design thinking facilitation and training workshops, a growing number of corporations are seeking to infuse their organizations with design thinking, and media from Fast Company to the Harvard Business Review are writing about it.

If you have not yet heard of design thinking, it is a framework that allows non-designers to think like a designer by using a human-centered design process that transforms how we create products and services, how teams work and how entire corporations operate.

If you are not a designer, you may be wondering what is so special about the way designers think, or how is that going to have results that are better than anything taught in an MBA or engineering program? When done well, design thinking causes six almost magical things to happen, creating conditions that significantly increase the chances for radical innovation or powerful new solutions to occur.

In the first part of our series, we are going to skip most of the “What”—what is design thinking, where it came from, what it is good for. Instead, as Simon Sinek suggests, we will start with “Why.” Starting with Why provides a solid foundation to build upon, as well as an understanding of how design thinking produces the results it is known for. As the formula created by David Hussman, called Dude’s Law, states: Value = Why / How. You will get more value from design thinking if you know why it works. Over the course of this series, we will come back to what design thinking is, how to make it work, what to avoid when using it and much more.

An aside for designers and engineers (for the record, engineers are designers too) before we dive in (non-designers and non-engineers can skip this paragraph). You may have noticed a statement earlier, that design thinking was created for non-designers. That is correct. If you are a designer and you just said, “wait, what?” watch David Kelley (the father of design thinking) explain it. If you are a designer or engineer and you are already following good human-centered design practices through user experience, human factors or human-computer interaction principles, you are likely following most of the principles of design thinking already. Design thinking expands the circle of participation and enables non-designers to join in that process. You probably know this already, but if you are wondering why you want to do that, read on for why this and other parts of design thinking work.

Before we start, we need to establish what design is. Perhaps Steve Jobs defined it best, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” To create genuine value and a competitive edge, design includes the interface; the mechanics of the service or product and the needs, tasks or problems of the people using your product or service. An interface includes any combination of physical or digital UI (visual, audio or other), programmatic or human. Mechanics can include the logic and business rules that govern a product or service. With such an expansive definition, you can see that design involves systems, complexity and the skills of multiple disciplines.

Additionally, there was mention of magic, but as Jared Spool has pointed out, design thinking is not magic, it is not a silver bullet. Design thinking is, as William Burnett put it, a method. Like any good method, it takes understanding to get the most out of it. In fact, “be mindful of the process” is one tenet of design thinking; to be aware of where you are in the process, what your goals are and to know which methods to use at any given stage. That said, when done well, design thinking does enable a team to become greater than the sum of its parts, which is a form of magic when it happens. Design thinking also replicates many of the necessary conditions for innovation to consistently occur as outlined in Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka’s seminal article “The New New Product Development Game” leading to customer delight through new and seemingly magical products and services that anticipate their needs before they even knew they had them.

Now, let’s take a look at how design thinking enables magical superpowers in you, your team or organization.

1. Unyielding Focus on Humans

While many consider Apple’s greatest strength to be design, it is Apple’s focus on humans that is their real superpower, enabling the level of design they are known for. At its heart, design thinking is about human-centered design and, by following the process, a team can become sharply focused on customers and the end-users.

The very first step in design thinking is empathy. Meeting the people who will use your product or service in the environment where they will be using the product. The point here is to focus on the customer (or user) and understand them, their goals, as well as the context and environment they are operating within. While data is both important and awesome, you need to go to the users and meet them to build empathy and understand their needs.

The design thinking process not only starts with humans, but it keeps the team focused on them. While illustrated as a 5-step process, design thinking is iterative (we will address the 5-steps further in the future). As an iterative process, you will repeatedly build prototypes to show potential end-users and learn from them; with each cycle through this loop, you will change or refine your solutions based on what you learned, repeating as needed.

The design thinking process puts the user at the start and at the heart of all team activities. For companies looking to do great design, it all starts with an unyielding focus on humans.

2. The Power of Serial Thinking

During the space race, NASA did not simply want the best engineers; they wanted the best and most creative engineers. In 1968 NASA asked Dr. George Land and Dr. Beth Jarman to devise an assessment for creativity to identify these engineers. The test was so successful and straightforward to administer that later Drs. Land and Jarman decided to conduct a longitudinal study on creativity with 1,600 children enrolled in a Head Start program. The first round of testing occurred when the children were 4–5 years old and the researchers found that 98% of the children possessed creativity at the “Genius Level.” However, when the pair of researchers went back, they found only 30% of the same children at age 10 and then 12% at age 15, still tested at the “Genius Level.” In fact, when the same test was given to over 280,000 adults (average age of 31) only 2% tested at the “Genius Level.” Something was happening to decrease creativity.

The explanation, according to Land and Jarman, is that when people create, there are two types of thinking that are used: divergent thinking and convergent thinking. In divergent thinking, people imagine new ideas, consider alternative possibilities and go beyond convention. Conversely, convergent thinking is where you judge ideas, critique possibilities and consider feasibility. One expands possibilities, while the other reduces possibilities. The problem, as Land and Jarman found, is that through education or maturation, people begin to blend the two modes of creative thinking, doing both at the same time. It is this mental multitasking of divergent and convergent thinking that decreases creativity.

Each step in the design thinking process focuses on activities that use either divergent or convergent thinking. This is often illustrated by a diamond to show divergence and then convergence (or generation and synthesis) of research, thoughts and ideas. In addition to focused activities, whenever possible, design thinking encourages exploration and evaluation through the manipulation of physical objects and other forms of storytelling created by hand—some might say through play.

Following the design thinking process and working with their hands allows team members to use one type of thinking at a time; separating divergent and convergent thinking. This separation allows for a wider array of possibilities to be examined.

By helping team members separate divergent thinking and convergent thinking, design thinking significantly increases their creative abilities.

3. The Sum Is Greater Than Its Parts

While studying highly innovative teams, Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka, the authors of “The New New Product Development Game” found that “a multidisciplinary team whose members work together from start to finish” is essential to success. While published in 1986, the article is still relevant today. One of the key reasons design thinking works is that it makes use of collaborative multidisciplinary teams.

Today, most designers and engineers have worked in teams, but for some, that experience has been with teams composed only of members of their own discipline. Collaborative multidisciplinary teams may include designers, engineers, product management, suppliers, marketing or sales and others with needed skills or expertise in the field (such as a subject-matter expert (SME)). When design thinking is used to produce a future state affecting policy change or how people work, then the team may even include members of the people directly affected by the proposed changes.

It is with highly collaborative multidisciplinary teams that ideas are not only generated but also built upon by looking at the problem and the solution through multiple lenses.

4. Unleashing Creative Confidence

Research has shown that no more than 25% of the population considers themselves creative. Using design thinking, individuals not only learn to separate the cognitive processes of divergent and convergent thinking but they are encouraged to be more creative through both active participation and team dynamics. Over time, this builds creative confidence. As their confidence increases, practitioners of design thinking feel freer to push even further when generating ideas and imagining new possibilities, developing even greater levels of creative confidence. By making you feel more creative, design thinking enables you to become more creative.

5. Take Action

According to David Kelley, one of the people most closely associated with design thinking, you have to “fail fast to succeed sooner.” Some may consider this quote to be incongruous with developing groundbreaking design; but to be groundbreaking, design needs to serve people and to do that, you must generate it and show it to the people who will use the product or service. The sooner you can show an idea to potential users, the sooner you will know if you are on the right track or not and likely, you will not be on the right path from the start, so better to learn that quickly and move on.

Design thinking has a bias towards action. While design thinking starts with empathy, requiring you to get out of the building and meet the people you will be designing for; you do not want to spend more time than needed in research, as you will need to get to work generating ideas; you can always go back.

It is better to learn enough to understand the problem, move forward quickly with as little investment in time and resources as possible to build a prototype and show it to users for feedback. You will learn faster this way, even if you learn that you failed on this try. Sure, research takes time, and good design takes time, but getting to a great design requires more iterations through the whole process than time spent on each cycle. Digging into this deeper, as mentioned earlier, there are 5-steps in design thinking, each time you go through the steps is an iteration, you may not go through all five steps on every iteration, you may even need to jump back to a previous step. The chances of reaching a satisfying resolution are greater with more iterations, rather than more time spent on each iteration or specific steps. As you keep iterating, you will hone in on the right solution, and with each pass, you will have an opportunity for refinement.

6. (Re)Frame the Problem

Customers rarely know what they want. Through the empathy phase and repeatedly building prototypes and demonstrating them, you can learn about users’ deeper needs and find ways to meet those needs.

Part of the way this is accomplished in design thinking is by reframing the problem, not just once, but over and over as needed. As you learn, you will find that you not only adjust your solutions, but you will also adjust, or reframe, the problem to better match the needs of your users.

In the old days, a client or manager gave you a problem to solve; you would analyze it, perhaps break it down into smaller parts. You would then iterate on different possible solutions, using what you learned from taking it apart and putting it back together a few times. Finally, you would present a new solution in a “ta-da!” moment. In this case, you start with a problem statement that is assumed to be correct, and you keep working from that. The issue here is that on day one of a project, the team knows the least it ever will about the problem and the people they are working on a solution for.

With design thinking, you imagine a future state based on the problem, and after going through the empathize phase and with each pass through the process, you can change what you are working on through reframing and redefining the future state you are trying to achieve for the user. With each cycle through the design thinking process, you have the opportunity to learn from doing and from users, giving the team a chance to see something new and reframe the problem. It is through reframing that big ideas and innovative breakthroughs usually happen.

Putting It All Together

At the start, Simon Sinek’s Start with Why was mentioned. The Why of design thinking, as in why use design thinking, is that innovation and value are generated by focusing on and meeting people’s needs. Why design thinking works is: an unrelenting focus on human needs, allowing a radically collaborative cross-disciplinary team to learn, and reframe the problem through the use of an iterative process biased towards action while building creative confidence. While not magic, design thinking can enable magical things to happen.