What is design thinking?

Some context

First, we’re talking about design in this case, not in the traditional marketing sense as visual appearance, but rather as referring to the purpose, planning, or intention that occurs in the creation of an experience or physical object. Design thinking refers not simply to that purpose or intent, but rather to the process of how one arrives at the most optimal expression of it.  

 

A systematic approach

Design thinking is a systematic, process-oriented approach to developing elegant solutions to complex problems. More importantly, it refers to maintaining a perspective that all of the end-state possibilities explored are evaluated and refined along the way, in terms of how beneficial or desirable each will be to the end user or customer. 

When talking about using design thinking to develop new products, processes or experiences for a business, the process also takes into account how to most effectively balance customer desires with what is technically feasible, financially and strategically viable, and scalable. Ultimately, it’s a process for creating an interaction or connection with customers that delivers a sustainable competitive advantage in the market.

 

So, what does that process look like?

If you google the term, you’ll find innumerable versions of the process, each with some proprietary naming scheme. For the most part, however, the progression of stages in each of them follow a similar trajectory.

 

Immerse/Discover/Empathize

This stage of the process is all about observing and gaining understanding of the problem and finding the foundation of the opportunity. The challenge, or current state, is defined and its physical experience and the behavioral, emotional and cognitive impacts understood. Any existing competitive alternatives are evaluated, ranked and mapped. The desired end state, in as far as what physical, cognitive and business requirements it should satisfy, is defined. 

 

Explore/Ideate/Generate

This stage is about creating a high volume of solution ideas based on observations and evaluations of the customer, marketplace and business strategy from the previous stage(s). This stage should proceed without judgement or editing. Instead, it should focus on refining, merging and evolving ideas until a collection of viable solution ideas emerge. In the end, potential solutions are ranked and sorted to determine which of the lot will progress into prototyping.

 

Prototype/Test/Iterate

This stage is where ideas are transformed into tangible, though low-fidelity, experiences. The idea is to spend as little time and resources as possible to create a prototype that will successfully convey the general opportunity of the final product and place that into the hands of end users for testing. 

For physical products, it may be cardboard or foam mock-ups. For digital experiences, this may even be as simple as a paper flip book illustrating a user journey or UX design. Again, the idea is to fail or succeed as quickly as possible to allow for maximum iteration and refinement before heading into high-fidelity or truly functional prototypes.

 

Refine/Scale/Launch

The final stages of the process focus on refining the final delivered design. High fidelity prototypes are created and the testing processes of the earlier stages are repeated, though the changes and refinements are more nuanced. Further refinements address optimizing the product or experience for final deployment—ensuring it not only delivers the intended experience for the customer but that it can be manufactured and delivered efficiently, effectively and sustainably, at scale, by the enterprise. Then, assuming all business and user criteria are met, the product or experience is launched into the market.

 

Why is everyone talking about design thinking?

It seems like you can’t read a marketing journal or ad industry publication these days without seeing an article about design thinking. Why? For one reason, we are in the midst of a major marketing transformation. The only interaction many companies have any longer with customers is online. In that case, experience is the brand. The brand is the experience. In that environment, there is very little barrier to competition and companies eventually compete on the smallest differences. Gaining any sustainable competitive advantage will require maintaining a vigilant eye on user satisfaction while continually delivering the next great thing. And design thinking has proven an effective means for delivering just that.