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design thinking

The 5 stages of Design Thinking

Reading time: about 6 min

It’s estimated that humans have about 12,000-16,000 thoughts per day. That sounds impressive, but up to 95% of those thoughts are repeats from the day before. And that makes sense, given that we largely keep to the same routines every day and often struggle with the same problems for most of our lives. But it’s so easy to repeat thoughts that breaking the habit of repetition can be downright mystifying. Especially when it comes to creating new solutions.

We tend to refer to unique thoughts as “outside of the box” thinking. It’s a common idiom that gets tossed around without much forethought, from appearing in job interviews to popping up in client briefs. Thinking “outside the box” is the holy grail of originality, but there’s very little direction about how to think outside the box.

For many people, the notion of thinking outside the box seems a bit like having good luck: It’s something you either have or don’t have, and even if you have good luck one day, it may well be gone the next. 

But here’s a secret: Thinking outside the box is just another way of describing Design Thinking. And Design Thinking can be learned and perfected. Here’s how.

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a philosophy and set of tools to help you creatively solve problems. What sets it apart from other problem-solving techniques is its adherence to keeping humans at the center of solutions. Design Thinking looks at who you’re designing for and what their needs and problems are so that the human perspective dictates the solution. 

That’s unique because other approaches may look at keeping cost reduction at the center of solutions or thinking of ways to utilize current technology. Design Thinking relies heavily on empathy to develop creative innovations. It seeks to improve the lives of real humans by solving problems and creating better experiences. Further, it can be applied to every industry and nearly every problem.

The history of Design Thinking

Though using empathy to create solutions has been around likely as long as humans have been in existence, it began to be codified within the last hundred years. In 1935, John Dewey began to meld aesthetics and engineering principles for the 20th century. His work informed designers like Richard Buchanan and Dan Koberg. But really, human-centered design methodology and Design Thinking can be attributed to David Kelley, founder of design firm IDEO and former Boeing engineer. 

Kelley’s firm has over 1,000 patents and counts companies like Procter & Gamble, Gap, Marriott, Kaiser Permanente, and Gamble in its portfolios. Kelley started presenting clients with a proposal where each phase of the process was priced separately: understanding, observation, brainstorming, and prototyping. Though clients were initially reluctant to pay for the first two phases and wanted to jump straight to phase three, those two phases were the origin of big, impactful ideas. Kelley realized how crucial those phases were to generating creativity. 

Most students are taught to identify an opportunity, deal with numbers to quantify risk and certainty, then optimize based on outcomes. Kelley humanized the thinking experience, taking service design to human-centered design. Where service design set out to improve, human-centered design set out to empower. Service design was happy with an indirect understanding of the customer, but human-centered design focused on gaining a direct understanding.

The 5 elements of Design Thinking

It may seem counterintuitive that creativity has rules. But in actuality, these elements are guideposts meant to lead you toward new ideas while keeping the customer in mind. Yes, you’re thinking outside the box, but you’re still in the same room as the box. 

We’re going to demonstrate each of these five elements using a distance learning solution.

Empathize: Empathizing with your users means putting yourself in their shoes and understanding their circumstances. In our distance learning example, you might put yourself in the children’s shoes: they’re bored, they miss social interaction, and they’re unaccustomed to doing school online. You might also empathize with the parents: they’re frustrated, overwhelmed, and skeptical. By empathizing further, you might also recognize the lack of access many parents and children have to reliable WiFi and computer hardware.

Define: Next, based on the understanding you’ve developed of your audience, you’ll define their needs and problems. In our distance learning example, you’ve discovered that a tremendous swath of the nation does not have access to reliable technology, which makes internet-driven solutions less effective.

Ideate: Here, you’ll challenge assumptions and think of innovative solutions. Perhaps you move away from broadband-based distance learning. Maybe you’ll experiment with utilizing local television stations or in-person cohorts.

Prototype: Now it’s time to bring your solutions to life. Maybe you’ve launched thirteen television channels that stream educational classes 24/7 and are accessible to most of the nation. Maybe you’ve decided to focus on delivering powerful internet free of charge. Now is the time to build it.

Test: Does it work? When you’ve deployed your solution, you’ll need to test, test, and retest. 

While we’ve listed the steps in order, they don’t necessarily have to be performed in that order. You could ideate first and empathize next. Or you could define first and ideate next. These are simply the phases that best inspire innovation.

How Design Thinking benefits businesses

Humans seek primarily to be understood. Design Thinking puts humans at the center of design, so when a problem is solved, the user feels listened to. This method of providing solutions to needs creates necessity for buyers. 

Consider, for instance, the evolution of headphones. While corded headphones were functionally fine, they didn’t empathize with the customers’ day: the cords were constantly in the way, and the wearer had to carry both the headphones and the device they were plugged into. 

Cordless earphones are a direct answer to the problem: they’re never in the way, don’t need to be in the immediate vicinity of the device to operate, and automatically pause if one falls out. In response, they’ve become a must-have purchase. 

Here are a few more reasons Design Thinking is so key to innovation:

  1. It provides a fresh perspective to problems.
  2. It helps determine a problem’s root cause.
  3. It encourages collaboration, innovation, and problem-solving.
  4. It empathizes with the user.
  5. It encourages rapid prototyping and fast feedback. 

When empathy is at the center of solutions, it’s apparent in the finished product. Customers can tell and they feel understood. This drives better innovation and sets businesses apart in the marketplace. 

Design Thinking also guides teams to innovate instead of relying on the same repetitive thoughts. The process provides the freedom to innovate with the directions that provide a framework for thinking. It focuses on the humans who need solutions and keeps their emotions and behaviors at the center of innovation. The great juggernauts of the modern age—Apple, Microsoft, Tesla, etc.—use Design Thinking to create elegant solutions to human issues. That’s why using a well-designed product feels so good as a customer: we feel we had a part in its genesis.

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Learn how to facilitate your own Design Thinking workshop to bring what you’ve learned to your team.

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Now it’s time to put what you learned into practice and find out how to facilitate your own Design Thinking workshop.

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