Design Thinking is obvious isn’t it? … deeper insights into smarter concepts into faster innovation

June 15, 2017

“Design thinking” is obvious isn’t it?

You spend some time with customers, and then from those insights, you come back and quickly mock-up a prototype, which you can test and evolve practically, until you find a winning solution.

Yes. But when most companies start with customer insight, they commission huge research studies, to ask the questions which they already think are important. They average out the data, and after much procrastinating, they slowly develop something average or slightly better. When perfect, at least in their eyes, they launch it to the world, usually with limited success.

“Design thinking” has become one of those addictive concepts, which sounds cool and creative, but in reality is the clever packaging of a number of simple ideas which require careful facilitation, and are crucial to business today:

Inspiration: Finding new insights …  Every business wants to be driven by customers, but one of the hardest challenge is to get them to explain what they don’t know they want. To find the real problem to solve, and the bigger needs and emergent behaviours. This takes time to uncover, to dig deeper into the customer’s world, and to explore new and unusual customers (newness tends to occur in the margins not the mainstream!). This requires a mix of open-minded observation and conversations, to go beyond what we already know, and to uninhabited by our current assumptions and frame of thinking. Indeed you often gain better, deeper insights by understanding a few people deeply, rather than hundreds superficially. What works really well is including senior decision-makers in this process, and facilitating it carefully – so they are open, observe and question in a smart way, and then capture the learning as genuine insights.

Ideation: Turning insights into ideas … This is the hard bit, because it requires a creative leap to turn insights into ideas … or to put it another way, the “pains and gains” of customers into “pain relievers and gain creators” in the form of products and services. This is for three reasons, one is that we lose momentum between the insight generation and the idea development – maybe because of different people, or intervening discussions and misdirection. The second, is that we again fall into the trap of applying our existing assumptions, we try to use new insights to justify our own pre-existing ideas. Third is that we get carried away with science and technology, we want to create products and services that are technically incredible, rather than solving the real problem of human beings. I find that bringing the process together, fast, with the same people involved, and smartly facilitated overcomes much of this.

Iteration: Making innovation happen faster … every business wants to achieve this. Design thinking turns conceptual ideas into practical prototypes (or drawings and trials, if its more of a service concept) quickly. Something more tangible acts as a point to build on, to challenge and test, to improve and extend. Rapid testing of the idea with customers (even if it is only partially finished – best is to start with a limited but still meaningful version – and then add more of the concept later), allows rapid feedback to cut out the bad ideas, and accelerate the best. GE for example, developed Fast Works which cuts time to market from 3 years to 3 months, even for complex industrial concepts. Saving time also means a dramatic reduction in cost, and risk. It also creates the “concept in use” business case rather than projecting possibilities in financial models. Once tested and adapted, enhanced and proven, the concept can be scaled quickly and with confidence. Again the facilitation of this process is key.

Overall I bring this all together for business teams as the “InnoLab” … design thinking, into smart ideas, into fast innovation.


Design thinking as a concept started in California.

Brothers David and Tom Kelley are the founders of IDEO, a leading San Francisco based design agency. They took years of practical experience in designing better solutions, and applied some academic rigour to it. They embraced emerging concepts in design, business and human behaviour to shape the way we solve problems and create better solutions. They worked closely with Stanford University, nearby, where funding from Hasso Plattner, founder of SAP, allowed them to develop the D-School at Stanford. Here is an introduction to IDEO:

Design thinking emerged from the “deep dive” process, championed by IDEO a decade ago. Most famous, is it’s one-week team process to develop a new shopping trolley. This ABC documentary transformed thinking across the business world, as to how to best find new insights, and turn them quickly into practical ideas and commercial innovations. Here’s a flashback to almost 20 years ago, featuring the Kelley brothers facilitating the process:

Design thinking as a concept has spread rapidly. Many people talk about it, although still money fall into the traps of closing down too quickly and mis-defining the problem, or becoming obsessed with the superior technology-enabled product, rather than the right solution. The secret lies in the experienced and nurturing facilitation process, building momentum  in a cross-functional team including decision makers, and in focusing energy on the things that really matter. Here’s a summary:

IBM’s approach in complex markets and big organisations is useful, as many people think design thinking works in simple consumer products but is not applicable in more complex or B2B environments. This is not true, in many cases it is even easier, and the results more dramatic. Key is to understand the customer’s world – on one side this is their own strategies and goals for innovation and growth – on the other side, it is about partnering with them to address the “customer’s customer” in design thinking ways:

Christoph Meinel and Larry Leifer, of the HPI-Stanford Design Thinking Program, laid out four principles for the successful implementation of design thinking:

  • The human rule, which states that all design activity is ultimately social in nature, and any social innovation will bring us back to the ‘human-centric point of view’.
  • The ambiguity rule, in which design thinkers must preserve ambiguity by experimenting at the limits of their knowledge and ability, enabling the freedom to see things differently.
  • The re-design rule, where all design is re-design; this comes as a result of changing technology and social circumstances but previously solved, unchanged human needs.
  • The tangibility rule; the concept that making ideas tangible always facilitates communication and allows designers to treat prototypes as ‘communication media’.

Design thinking is especially useful when addressing what Horst Rittel called “wicked problems” …  ill-defined or tricky. With ill-defined problems, both the problem and the solution are unknown at the outset of the problem-solving exercise. This is as opposed to “tame” or “well-defined” problems where the problem is clear, and the solution is available through some technical knowledge.

For wicked problems, the general thrust of the problem may be clear, however considerable time and effort is spent in order to clarify the requirements. A large part of the problem solving activity, then, consists of problem definition and problem shaping.

The “a-ha moment” is the moment (I hate the phrase, but you get the idea!) where there is suddenly a clear forward path. It is the point in the cycle where synthesis and divergent thinking, analysis and convergent thinking, and the nature of the problem all come together and an appropriate resolution has been captured. Prior to this point, the process may seem nebulous, hazy and inexact. At this point, the path forward is so obvious that in retrospect it seems odd that it took so long to recognize it. After this point, the focus becomes more and more clear as the final product is constructed.

Design methods and design process are often used interchangeably, but there are significant differences between the two. Methods are techniques, rules, or ways of doing things that someone uses within a design discipline. Methods for design thinking include interviewing, user personas, looking at other existing solutions, creating prototypes, mind mapping, asking questions like asking 5 whys, and situational analysis.

Because of design thinking’s parallel nature, there are many different paths through the phases. This is part of the reason design thinking may seem to be “fuzzy” or “ambiguous” when compared to more analytical methods of science and engineering.

Some early design processes stemmed from soft systems methodology in the 1960s. Koberg and Bagnall wrote The All New Universal Traveller in 1972 and presented a circular, seven-step process to problem-solving. These seven steps could be done lineally or in feed-back loops. Stanford’s D-school developed an updated seven step process in 2007.Other expressions of design processes have been proposed, including a three-step simplified triangular process (or the six-part, less simplified pyramid) by Bryan Lawson. Hugh Dubberly’s free e-book How Do You Design: A Compendium of Models summarizes a large number of design process models.

For keynote speaking, practical workshops and consulting process on design thinking, contact me,

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