What is design thinking and why is it important?

Here's what you need to know about this creative problem-solving technique, including a definition and why it's taking the business world by storm

Design thinking started out as a process for creating sleek new technology and products. But this methodology is now widely used across both the private and public sectors, for business and personal projects, all around the world.

Design-thinking methodology was popularized by design consulting firm IDEO. The methods gained momentum in the larger business world after Tim Brown, the chief executive officer of IDEO, wrote an article in 2008 for the Harvard Business Review about the use of design thinking in business—including at a California hospital, a Japanese bicycle company, and the healthcare industry in India. Today, one of the most popular courses at Stanford University is Designing Your Life, which applies design thinking to building a joyful career and life.

Here’s what design thinking is, how it works, and why it’s important.

What is design thinking? 

Design thinking is a process for solving problems by prioritizing the consumer’s needs above all else. It relies on observing, with empathy, how people interact with their environments and employs an iterative, hands-on approach to creating innovative solutions

Design thinking is “human-centered,” which means that it uses evidence of how consumers (humans) actually engage with a product or service, rather than how someone else or an organization thinks they will engage with it. To be truly human-centered, designers watch how people use a product or service and continue to refine the product or service in order to improve the consumer’s experience. This is the “iterative” part of design thinking. It favors moving quickly to get prototypes out to test, rather than endless research or rumination. 

In contrast to traditional problem-solving, which is a linear process of identifying a problem and then brainstorming solutions, design thinking only works if it is iterative. It is less of a means to get to a single solution, and more of a way to continuously evolve your thinking and respond to consumer needs.

Why is design thinking important? 

Design thinking enables organizations to create lasting value for consumers. The process is useful in any complex system (not just design systems) because it:

Aims to solve a concrete human need

Using an observational, human-centric approach, teams can uncover pain points from the consumer that they hadn’t previously thought of, ones that the consumer may not even be aware of. Design thinking can provide solutions to those pain points once they’re identified.

Tackles problems that are ambiguous or difficult to define

Consumers often don’t know what problem they have that needs solving or they can’t verbalize it. But upon careful observation, one can identify problems based on what they see from real consumer behavior rather than simply working off of their ideas of the consumer. This helps define ambiguous problems and in turn makes it easier to surface solutions. 

Leads to more innovative solutions

Humans are not capable of imagining things that are not believed to be possible, which makes it impossible for them to ask for things that do not yet exist. Design thinking can help surface some of these unknown pain points that would otherwise have never been known. Using an iterative approach to tackle those problems often lead to non-obvious, innovative solutions.   

Makes organizations run faster and more efficiently

Rather than researching a problem for a long time without devising an outcome, design thinking favors creating prototypes and then testing to see how effective they are. 

WeWork Yanzhong Tower in Hangzhou, China.

The five stages of the design-thinking process 

Design thinking follows a five-stage framework. 

1. Empathize

In this first stage, the designer observes consumers to gain a deeper understanding of how they interact with or are affected by a product or issue. The observations must happen with empathy, which means withholding judgment and not imparting preconceived notions of what the consumer needs. Observing with empathy is powerful because it can uncover issues the consumer didn’t even know they had or that they could not themselves verbalize. From this point, it’s easier to understand the human need for which you are designing. 

2. Define

In this second stage, you gather your observations from the first stage to define the problem you’re trying to solve. Think about the difficulties your consumers are brushing up against, what they repeatedly struggle with, and what you’ve gleaned from how they’re affected by the issue. Once you synthesize your findings, you are able to define the problem they face. 

3. Ideate

The next step is to brainstorm ideas about how to solve the problem you’ve identified. These ideation sessions could be in a group, where your team gathers in an office space that encourages creativity and collaboration, or can be done solo. The important part is to generate a bunch of different ideas. At the end of this process, you’ll come up with a few ideas with which to move forward. 

4. Prototype

This is the stage that turns ideas into an actual solution. Prototypes are not meant to be perfect. The point of a prototype is to come out quickly with a concrete version of the idea to see how it is accepted by consumers. Examples of prototypes include a landing page to test consumer desire for a product or a video that demonstrates streamlined logistic processes. 

5. Test

Once you give a prototyped solution to consumers, you must observe how they interact with it. This testing stage is the one in which you collect feedback on your work. 

The design-thinking process is an iterative, rather than linear, one. At the end of the fifth stage, you’ll likely have to go back to one or several of the other stages. Perhaps the testing has shown you need to develop another prototype, for which you’d return to the fourth stage. Or perhaps it’s shown that you’ve misdefined the consumer’s needs. If so, you would have to return to an earlier stage of the process. 

What industries and roles can benefit from design thinking?

While design thinking originated with designers, it is now widely used by people from all disciplines. Even among design agencies the work is famously cross-functional: IDEO and similar agencies hire non-designers—chefs, engineers, social scientists, biologists—and integrate them into their project teams to add perspective.

Our growth innovation team at WeWork comprises a designer, who focuses on applying this method for the end consumer of a project; a technologist, who uses this technique to deliver value to engineers; and a business strategist, who applies this method to deliver value for business owners and various stakeholders.

Design thinking has been used at Kaiser Permanente to overhaul the system of shift changes among nursing staff. It has helped the Singapore government make the process for securing a work pass in the nation-state easier and more human. Design thinking has been used to solve business problems at companies like Toyota, Intuit, SAP, and IBM.  

One reason for the proliferation of design thinking in industries is that it’s useful to break down problems in any complex system, be it business, government, or social organizations. It can be used to explore big questions about how to respond to the growth of technology and globalization, how to pivot in response to rapid change, and how to support individuals while catering to larger organizations.

Design thinking can be used by all departments in a business. It can be fostered by bright, airy physical workspaces that cater to the way employees prefer to work. To employ design thinking in all projects, managers should first define the consumers they’re trying to help and then employ the five stages of design thinking to define and tackle the identified problems. Employing a design-thinking process makes it more likely a business will be innovative, creative, and ultimately more human.

Graham Tuttle is a director of growth innovation at WeWork. He has more than a decade of experience in design and new product development. Prior to WeWork, Tuttle worked at frog in design strategy, helping global enterprises and startups take a user-centered approach to product development, innovation, and investment strategy. He has an M.B.A. and a masters of design from the Illinois Institute of Technology and contributed to the development of 101 Design Methods: A Structured Approach for Driving Innovation in Your Organization, a step-by-step guidebook for innovation planning.

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