Design Thinking: Practical Applications and Why it’s Not Just for Designers
Have you heard the term “Design Thinking” lately?
It’s a term that has become more and more popular nowadays and for good reason. Design thinking has helped many people on their journey to achieve creativity and innovation. Sounds great, right?
Now, I know what many of you are probably thinking: “Design thinking… design… I’m not a designer!” But don’t worry! I am here to help close the gap between you and the world of design thinking so you can start reaping the benefits of experimenting with and learning from human-centered problem-solving. In this article, we’ll break down what design thinking is, what its stages are, and discuss why everyone should give it a try (even those that aren’t designers).
But first of all: What is Design Thinking?
Lately, it’s been said that design thinking is an “umbrella term,” since it’s been called everything from a guide, a methodology, a process, and a framework, all the way up to a mindset, a way of thinking, and even a philosophy. Personally, I like to think of design thinking as more of a toolset from which you can use whatever tools best fit your specific needs.
But let’s get slightly technical and define design thinking as “a methodology that aims to innovate and problem-solve through creative thinking and a user-centered design.” The innovation and user-centered components are so important in design thinking that it has even been referred to as “Human-Centered Design” and “User Experience Design,” among other similar names. I’d like to really emphasize this, because the design thinking methodology truly is about first studying and understanding your users in their entirety, then creating a solution that is well-thought-through and satisfies all of their goals.
What are the 5 Stages of Design Thinking?
Even though this is not a “how-to” article, I think it’s important to break down the process of design thinking, so that you can become a bit more acquainted with it and lose some of the fear of the unknown. Design thinking is a very approachable process that I assure you’ll find somewhat familiar in a few of its parts.
The process of design thinking can be broken down into 5 main stages:
- Understanding: Take the time to be proactive and really empathize with your users. Put yourself in your users’ shoes, understand them, analyze who they are and what your project aims to achieve. Ask yourself, “What impact do my users’ goals and needs have on my project?” “What are the main problems and pain points my users are facing?” Answering these questions will help you better understand your users so that you can better satisfy them.
- Define: Define your user’s point of view and then reframe, clarify, and define the problem. Doing so will help provide guidelines for the upcoming decision-making processes that will be better aligned with your users’ expectations.
- Ideate: Step out of your own shoes and look at things from your user’s perspective. Question how you can help your user meet their goals, how you can make your ideas come to life, and how they will work. Brainstorm ideas, even if they push the boundaries of your comfort zone. Design thinking encourages regularly thinking outside of the box, especially in this stage.
- Prototype: Make low fidelity prototypes to redefine the proposed solutions and complete an initial round of testing with your users. The main objective of the prototype stage is to analyze how the users interact with the prototype, their new points of views and ideas, the implementation of the prototype, and the experience your users have with it. This will help you determine if your selected approach is producing enough positive outcomes from your users. If it isn’t, study the results and iterate; go back to see what you should improve in this proposal, or head back to the drawing board.
- Testing: Assess the results of your first round of testing, analyze the feedback, and polish your proposal. After this, you can undergo continuous testing and improvement to keep adding value to your project.
One thing I’d like to clarify is that design thinking is not often a linear process. As mentioned in the Prototype Stage, people who go through the design thinking process can always return to previous stages as many times as necessary and at any point, with the purpose of further polishing the project. In fact, design thinking promotes constantly questioning everything and learning from your failures. This reminded me of a conversation from a show I once saw that went something like:
- Son: “I made a mistake.”
- Mom: “Did you learn from it? ”
Simple, right? Yet to me, it’s such a powerful and important question to ask.
Similarly, recent trends on social media feature quotes like “Fail faster, learn faster” or “The faster you fail, the sooner you succeed.” This mindset encourages risk taking, being authentically human, making mistakes, and learning and adapting from the process every time, just like with design thinking.
What is an example of Design Thinking (in a Non-Design Context)?
To give you a better understanding of how design thinking can be applied in a wide variety of contexts, I’d like to share with you an example of how I’ve used design thinking in my daily professional life (not as a designer, but as a working professional that interacts and works with others). So, picture this:
I’m the new girl at my first job, and I, of course, don’t know any of my teammates nor how they work. I need to adapt to this new professional environment as soon as possible:
- The first thing I do is understand my new context and the “users” involved, so I take mental notes of everything: How does my boss like things done? How does the company work? What job does each team member have and what do they do? How do they like to be reached out to? What information can I obtain from each of them regarding my new position and duties? Answering questions like these will help me be more proactive and better understand the dynamics of my new setting.
- After studying and analyzing all of that, I need to start defining the main pain points. For example, things like: What situations have I noticed could be improved between me and my new coworkers? How can I facilitate and improve my work, my communication, and my interactions with them?
- Then, I take action on those pain points. For example, if I have to present a project to the team that I know is complex and that communication is going to be key…what does the rest of the team need to know beforehand to help them understand what I’m going to present without waiting for them to ask? Or if there is something that the team has been doing that is not going as well as it should be…propose a new approach to it and see what happens. If it doesn’t work, I can always go back and redefine what’s going on; there are always new ways of tackling any type of problem.
- And lastly, I analyze how the team reacts in these situations. Did communication go smoothly? Could it have gone better? How can I make it more digestible for them next time? It’s important to always be open to improvement.
So, Why Should Everyone Give Design Thinking a Try?
In a world where change is constant and evolution is inevitable, it’s important for us to grow accordingly. Our surroundings, challenges, jobs, and even social interactions change daily. In order to thrive in our current reality, we need more innovative processes, greater dynamism, and, often, a change of mentality. That’s exactly what design thinking is for.
Because design thinking is based on a very empathetic and experimental way of thinking, it can naturally encourage ideation for all kinds of people, not just innovation or design professionals. Thanks to its nature, design thinking has successfully proven many times to not only help solve problems within the design space, but in social, cultural, economic, and many other contexts as well, even our simplest daily tasks. This is what makes design thinking so powerful; it gives people an opportunity to be active agents of problem-solving in spaces that may be new or unfamiliar to them. For me, that’s kind of the beauty of it: a very versatile and flexible approach to innovation, creativity, and production.
If you’ve made it this far, it means you are, at the very least, intrigued by the many possible applications of design thinking. Therefore, I invite you to challenge and open yourself to design thinking. Empathize, ideate, learn, explore, innovate, and create. Good luck!