Design Thinking: A Quick Overview

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If you have just started embarking your journey through the Design Thinking process, things might seem a little overwhelming. This is why we have prepared a useful overview of the Design Thinking process, as well as some of the popular Design Thinking frameworks commonly used by global design firms and national design agencies.

To begin, let’s have a quick overview of the fundamental principles behind Design Thinking:

  • Design Thinking starts with empathy, a deep human focus, in order to gain insights which may reveal new and unexplored ways of seeing, and courses of action to follow in bringing about preferred situations for business and society.
  • It involves reframing the perceived problem or challenge at hand, and gaining perspectives, which allow a more holistic look at the path towards these preferred situations.
  • It encourages collaborative, multi-disciplinary teamwork to leverage the skills, personalities and thinking styles of many in order to solve multifaceted problems.
  • It initially employs divergent styles of thinking to explore as many possibilities, deferring judgment and creating an open ideations space to allow for the maximum number of ideas and points of view to surface.
  • It later employs convergent styles of thinking to isolate potential solution streams, combining and refining insights and more mature ideas, which pave a path forward.
  • It engages in early exploration of selected ideas, rapidly modelling potential solutions to encourage learning while doing, and allow for gaining additional insight into the viability of solutions before too much time or money has been spent
  • Tests the prototypes which survive the processes further to remove any potential issues.
  • Iterates through the various stages, revisiting empathetic frames of mind and then redefining the challenge as new knowledge and insight is gained along the way.
  • It starts off chaotic and cloudy steamrolling towards points of clarity until a desirable, feasible and viable solution emerges.

As we have seen from the definitions and descriptions, Design Thinking means many things to many people, and this theme persists into the practical implementation as well. There are a wide variety of process breakdowns and visualisations ranging typically between 3 and 7 steps. Each process step or phase embodies one or more of the core ingredients of design thinking that being, reframing, empathy, ideation, prototyping and testing. These different implementation frameworks or models might have different names and number of stages, but they embody the same principles laid out in the bullet points above.

Modelled on Early Traditional Design Processes

The earliest process expressions of Design Thinking were almost exact replications of the traditional Design Process, with the later addition of deeper empathy and more specific forms multidisciplinary collaboration. Taken from Herbert Simon's 1969 seminal work The Sciences of the Artificial, the design process: define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, and learn has been the cornerstone of design process for decades.

Popular Design Thinking Frameworks

Heart, Head and Hand

The Design Thinking Process is a blend of Heart, Head and Hand. This means the process is based on vision, need, emotion and feeling to begin with, continuing on to the cognitive processing for ideation and evaluation and then diving into practical creation by hand. It's a holistic process and demands input from all of our faculties in order to be successful.

Deep-Dive

The Deep-Dive was IDEO'S first expression of this process, which they aired LIVE on ABC Nightline back in the late 90's. Deep-Dive Dive process comprises of the following steps:

  • Understand
  • Observe
  • Visualise
  • Evaluate
  • Implement

Deloitte acquired the Deep-Dive process in 2006.

d.school’s 5 Stage Process

Author/Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

The Stanford Design School (d.school), now known as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design began teaching a design thinking process with the following 3 steps:

  • Understand
  • Improve
  • Apply

They have since moved on to formulate and open source their famous 5 stage process below which is widely used. This is the process we also recommend:

  1. Empathise
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

The d.school represents the 5 stage process by their hexagonal Design Thinking Lenses. The lenses are purposely defined as such so they will be seen more as enablers or modes of thinking, rather than concrete linear steps.

IDEO’s Design Thinking Process

IDEO uses a different process, and while it has only three stages, covers pretty much the same ground as the other processes covered here. The three stages are

  • Inspire: The problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solution
  • Ideate: The process of generating ideas
  • Implement: The path that leads form the project room to the market

IDEO have also released a deck of IDEO Method Cards covering the modes Learn, Look, Ask, Try each with their own collection of methods for an entire innovation cycle.

HCD - Human Centred Design

IDEO has also developed contextualised toolkits, which repackaged the Design Thinking processes. One such iteration focuses on the social innovation setting in developing countries. For this context the terminology needed to be simplified, made memorable and restructured for the typical kinds of challenges faced. The HCD process (Human Centred Design) was re-interpreted as an acronym to mean Hear, Create, Deliver.

H: Hear

Similar to early phases in other Design Thinking processes, the Hear stage is about developing an empathic understanding of users, as well as defining the problem that the team is trying to solve. It serves the purpose of gaining a solid foundation in the context of the problem and sufficiently reframing it in order to progress. In this phase of the process, design thinkers need to

  • identify their challenge,
  • recognise existing knowledge in the challenge space,
  • identify people to engage with to understand the deeper human side of the challenge,
  • engage in a range of ethnographic research activities to uncover sufficient human insight, and
  • develop Points of view or stories to guide the creation phase.

C: Create

Similar to the Ideate and Prototype phases in d.school’s 5-stage approach, the Create stage here is concerned with exploration, experimentation and learning through making. It involves pinpointing potential areas of exploration and then engaging those closest to the problem to co-create solutions. This allows design teams to maintain the highest levels of empathy during early design phases as well as weed out potential problematic assumptions made by designers who do not sufficiently understand the context.

  • Highlight Opportunities to explore from insights gained in the Hear Phase
  • Recruit participants for the co-design task from a diverse pool of those affected
  • Maintain awareness of sensitivities by avoiding judgements
  • Encouraging storytelling and expression
  • Facilitate action orientated creation of tangible solution

D: Deliver

The Deliver phase of the HCD process is centred around logistical implementation and overcoming any obstacles which may exist when rolling out a solution within the required context. Though solutions arrived at may provide a functional patch to a problem, getting by in communities and bypassing any other roadblocks on the path of implementation is essential for the process to be completed successfully.

Design Council of the UK: 4 D’s

The Design Council of the UK has settled on 4 D's, Discover, Define, Develop, Deliver. They make use of a Double Diamond process diagram to indicate 2 cycles of divergent and convergent thinking and activities.

Frog Design

Frog Design's 3 D's Discover, Design Deliver has been replaced with Explore, Converge, Support, indicating a focus on more than just finite projects or products but an ongoing relationship with their clients well after delivery date.

What x 4

Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie's book, Designing for Growth, puts forward a unique spin on the same journey, reframing the terminology into a more inquisitive and intuitive 4 W's. Jeanne Liedtka is a professor of business administration at the Darden School of the University of Virginia, while Tim Ogilvie is the founder of innovative consultancy firm Peer Insight, and both are experts in design thinking and strategic thinking. Their 4 W’s process involves asking:

  • What is? Exploring the current reality
  • What if? Envisioning Alternative Futures
  • What wows? Getting users to help us make some tough choices
  • What works? Making it work in-market, and as a business

Author/Copyright holder: Christine Prefontaine. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

What if—one of the most powerful phrases in the English language, and for good reason.

The LUMA System

The LUMA Institute, a global firm that teaches innovation and human-centred design, has its own expression of Design Thinking modes: Looking, Understanding and Making. This unfolds through a series of steps per mode completed with a proprietary user manual and method cards. The modes allow for remixing a wide range of processes through the 3 modes using methods specific to your needs.

The Take Away

We could spend weeks exploring the Design Thinking Processes, their differences and similarities and the merits of variety or conformity. It is important for us to peel away the facade in order to understand the foundations. To the first timer, at first sight, the Design Thinking process is mysterious, chaotic, and at many times complex. However, it's a discipline, which will grow on you with direct practice. You will learn things in a practical manner, which no theory can adequately cover growing in confidence with each new experience. You may even be tempted to develop your own expression of these steps, modes, and phases to suite a completely new context, and that's part of the beauty of Design Thinking.

References & Where to Learn More

Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, 1969: https://monoskop.org/images/9/9c/Simon_Herbert_A_The_Sciences_of_the_Artificial_3rd_ed.pdf

Deloitte, Deep diving for innovation, 2011: http://globalblogs.deloitte.com/deloitteperspectives/2011/10/deep-diving-for-innovation.html

d.school, The Design Thinking Process: http://dschool.stanford.edu/redesigningtheater/the-design-thinking-process/

Tim Brown, Design Thinking for Social Innovation, 2010: https://ssir.org/articles/entry/design_thinking_for_social_innovation

IDEO, Method Cards: https://www.ideo.com/post/method-cards

IDEO, Design Kit: The Human-Centered Design Toolkit: https://www.ideo.com/post/design-kit

Design Council of UK, Eleven lessons: managing design in eleven global brands: http://www.designcouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/asset/document/ElevenLessons_Design_Council%20(2).pdf

frog design, Collective Action Toolkit: http://www.frogdesign.com/work/frog-collective-action-toolkit.html

Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie, Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Tool Kit for Managers, 2011: http://www.designingforgrowthbook.com/

LUMA Institute’s Design Thinking modes: https://www.luma-institute.com/story

Hero Image: Author/Copyright holder: Paris-Est d.school at Ecole des Ponts. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 4.0

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