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Design thinking, explained
Sep 14, 2017
What is design thinking?
Design thinking is an innovative problem-solving process rooted in a set of skills.The approach has been around for decades, but it only started gaining traction outside of the design community after the 2008 Harvard Business Review article [subscription required] titled “Design Thinking” by Tim Brown, CEO and president of design company IDEO.
Since then, the design thinking process has been applied to developing new products and services, and to a whole range of problems, from creating a business model for selling solar panels in Africa to the operation of Airbnb .
At a high level, the steps involved in the design thinking process are simple: first, fully understand the problem; second, explore a wide range of possible solutions; third, iterate extensively through prototyping and testing; and finally, implement through the customary deployment mechanisms.
The skills associated with these steps help people apply creativity to effectively solve real-world problems better than they otherwise would. They can be readily learned, but take effort. For instance, when trying to understand a problem, setting aside your own preconceptions is vital, but it’s hard.
Creative brainstorming is necessary for developing possible solutions, but many people don’t do it particularly well. And throughout the process it is critical to engage in modeling, analysis, prototyping, and testing, and to really learn from these many iterations.
Once you master the skills central to the design thinking approach, they can be applied to solve problems in daily life and any industry.
Here’s what you need to know to get started.
Understand the problem
The first step in design thinking is to understand the problem you are trying to solve before searching for solutions. Sometimes, the problem you need to address is not the one you originally set out to tackle.
“Most people don’t make much of an effort to explore the problem space before exploring the solution space,” said MIT Sloan professor Steve Eppinger. The mistake they make is to try and empathize, connecting the stated problem only to their own experiences. This falsely leads to the belief that you completely understand the situation. But the actual problem is always broader, more nuanced, or different than people originally assume.
Take the example of a meal delivery service in Holstebro, Denmark. When a team first began looking at the problem of poor nutrition and malnourishment among the elderly in the city, many of whom received meals from the service, it thought that simply updating the menu options would be a sufficient solution. But after closer observation, the team realized the scope of the problem was much larger , and that they would need to redesign the entire experience, not only for those receiving the meals, but for those preparing the meals as well. While the company changed almost everything about itself, including rebranding as The Good Kitchen, the most important change the company made when rethinking its business model was shifting how employees viewed themselves and their work. That, in turn, helped them create better meals (which were also drastically changed), yielding happier, better nourished customers.
Imagine you are designing a new walker for rehabilitation patients and the elderly, but you have never used one. Could you fully understand what customers need? Certainly not, if you haven’t extensively observed and spoken with real customers. There is a reason that design thinking is often referred to as human-centered design.
“You have to immerse yourself in the problem,” Eppinger said.
How do you start to understand how to build a better walker? When a team from MIT’s Integrated Design and Management program together with the design firm Altitude took on that task, they met with walker users to interview them, observe them, and understand their experiences.
“We center the design process on human beings by understanding their needs at the beginning, and then include them throughout the development and testing process,” Eppinger said.
Central to the design thinking process is prototyping and testing (more on that later) which allows designers to try, to fail, and to learn what works. Testing also involves customers, and that continued involvement provides essential user feedback on potential designs and use cases. If the MIT-Altitude team studying walkers had ended user involvement after its initial interviews, it would likely have ended up with a walker that didn’t work very well for customers.
It is also important to interview and understand other stakeholders, like people selling the product, or those who are supporting the users throughout the product life cycle.
The second phase of design thinking is developing solutions to the problem (which you now fully understand). This begins with what most people know as brainstorming.
Hold nothing back during brainstorming sessions — except criticism. Infeasible ideas can generate useful solutions, but you’d never get there if you shoot down every impractical idea from the start.
“One of the key principles of brainstorming is to suspend judgment,” Eppinger said. “When we're exploring the solution space, we first broaden the search and generate lots of possibilities, including the wild and crazy ideas. Of course, the only way we're going to build on the wild and crazy ideas is if we consider them in the first place.”
That doesn’t mean you never judge the ideas, Eppinger said. That part comes later, in downselection. “But if we want 100 ideas to choose from, we can’t be very critical.”
In the case of The Good Kitchen, the kitchen employees were given new uniforms. Why? Uniforms don’t directly affect the competence of the cooks or the taste of the food.
But during interviews conducted with kitchen employees, designers realized that morale was low, in part because employees were bored preparing the same dishes over and over again, in part because they felt that others had a poor perception of them. The new, chef-style uniforms gave the cooks a greater sense of pride. It was only part of the solution, but if the idea had been rejected outright, or perhaps not even suggested, the company would have missed an important aspect of the solution.
Prototype and test. Repeat.
You’ve defined the problem. You’ve spoken to customers. You’ve brainstormed, come up with all sorts of ideas, and worked with your team to boil those ideas down to the ones you think may actually solve the problem you’ve defined.
“We don’t develop a good solution just by thinking about a list of ideas, bullet points and rough sketches,” Eppinger said. “We explore potential solutions through modeling and prototyping. We design, we build, we test, and repeat — this design iteration process is absolutely critical to effective design thinking.”
Repeating this loop of prototyping, testing, and gathering user feedback is crucial for making sure the design is right — that is, it works for customers, you can build it, and you can support it.
“After several iterations, we might get something that works, we validate it with real customers, and we often find that what we thought was a great solution is actually only just OK. But then we can make it a lot better through even just a few more iterations,” Eppinger said.
The goal of all the steps that come before this is to have the best possible solution before you move into implementing the design. Your team will spend most of its time, its money, and its energy on this stage.
“Implementation involves detailed design, training, tooling, and ramping up. It is a huge amount of effort, so get it right before you expend that effort,” said Eppinger.
Design thinking isn’t just for “things.” If you are only applying the approach to physical products, you aren’t getting the most out of it. Design thinking can be applied to any problem that needs a creative solution. When Eppinger ran into a primary school educator who told him design thinking was big in his school, Eppinger thought he meant that they were teaching students the tenets of design thinking.
“It turns out they meant they were using design thinking in running their operations and improving the school programs. It’s being applied everywhere these days,” Eppinger said.
In another example from the education field, Peruvian entrepreneur Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor hired design consulting firm IDEO to redesign every aspect of the learning experience in a network of schools in Peru. The ultimate goal? To elevate Peru’s middle class.
As you’d expect, many large corporations have also adopted design thinking. IBM has adopted it at a company-wide level, training many of its nearly 400,000 employees in design thinking principles .
What can design thinking do for your business?
The impact of all the buzz around design thinking today is that people are realizing that “anybody who has a challenge that needs creative problem solving could benefit from this approach,” Eppinger said. That means that managers can use it, not only to design a new product or service, “but anytime they’ve got a challenge, a problem to solve.”
Applying design thinking techniques to business problems can help executives across industries rethink their product offerings, grow their markets, offer greater value to customers, or innovate and stay relevant. “I don’t know industries that can’t use design thinking,” said Eppinger.
Ready to go deeper?
Read “ The Designful Company ” by Marty Neumeier, a book that focuses on how businesses can benefit from design thinking, and “ Product Design and Development ,” co-authored by Eppinger, to better understand the detailed methods.
Register for an MIT Sloan Executive Education course:
Systematic Innovation of Products, Processes, and Services , a five-day course taught by Eppinger and other MIT professors.
- Leadership by Design: Innovation Process and Culture , a two-day course taught by MIT Integrated Design and Management director Matthew Kressy.
- Managing Complex Technical Projects , a two-day course taught by Eppinger.
- Apply for M astering Design Thinking , a 3-month online certificate course taught by Eppinger and MIT Sloan senior lecturers Renée Richardson Gosline and David Robertson.
Steve Eppinger is a professor of management science and innovation at MIT Sloan. He holds the General Motors Leaders for Global Operations Chair and has a PhD from MIT in engineering. He is the faculty co-director of MIT's System Design and Management program and Integrated Design and Management program, both master’s degrees joint between the MIT Sloan and Engineering schools. His research focuses on product development and technical project management, and has been applied to improving complex engineering processes in many industries.
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Design thinking is a way of working that sharpens creativity to come up with new ideas to solve user problems. It is inspired by the working methodology of product designers and has five main categories: empathy generation, definition, ideation, prototyping and testing. In this template you will find different types of infographics with them as the main character: diagrams, timelines, tables, etc.
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Present Design Thinking Process with Sleek PowerPoint Diagrams
Do you use the design thinking process in or on behalf of your business? Whether you’re literally developing design concepts with a team or are innovating your offerings with this approach, using impactful visuals will help you make your points.
Why present design thinking visually?
Having a clear, visual flow chart will help you stay on track and help your audience follow along. They will benefit from simple, easy-to-follow visuals.
Articulate your plans and thoughts clearly and concisely with modern graphics. Make your otherwise busy content look professional with ease. See the full Design Thinking PowerPoint Diagrams set by clicking here.
Look at these examples to see how you can better present design thinking:
Explain the 3 stages of design thinking on one slide
The 3 stages of design thinking are usually inspiration discovery, idea generation, and implementation of the solution you’ve devised. This may not be the case for your process or the scenario you need to present, but this basic framework can set the stage for numerous presentations on virtually any topic.
Present relations among the 5 action phases of design thinking
The 3 stages of design thinking can further be divided into 5 action phases. They are empathy – where you understand your target user; define – where you describe what the user needs; ideate – you generate solutions and come up with ideas; prototype – you try to draft prototypes of the creative solutions you devised in the ideation stage; test – the final phase where you present and test your prototype to see what can be improved. Think about what this process would look like in your organization.
You can visualize the flow of these 5 phases with 5 circles. You can make each look distinctive by using various colors and adding icon symbols for each phase. In the example, we used two people sharing the ideas for the empathy phase and a magnifying glass for the testing phase. We have added additional arrows to show each iteration of feedback loops among the elements.
Describe the details of each phase in separate slides
In the example, the Empathy action phase has been selected. The description of what understanding the target user looks like for you and your organization can be changed. You can add the steps which are part of this phase in the larger box. Avoid boring text-only slides and repetition while maintaining visual consistency. Achieve this by keeping the visuals cohesive and appealing. We used one main color variation for each slide with a specific phase. In the example, you see we used light and dark turquoise for Empathy.
Present non-linear looping processes of the flow
What if your design thinking process isn’t linear? That’s fine! You can use loop diagrams to present these same steps in a striking, modern way. Let your audience see how the different phases interact and lead into one another. This approach is creative and eye-catching and using this diagram along with the linear structure may grant your audience an alternate perspective and help those who struggle with the concepts to understand.
Express diverging and converging ideation process with a double diamond diagram
The Double Diamond Diagram of Design Thinking is a unique way to break down a process into the research, insight, ideation and prototype phases.
We additionally illustrated the four key diamond elements with outline icons: Discovery with the outline of the silhouette of a man’s head with a question mark, defining with a list on a piece of paper, develop with a lightbulb outline, and deliver with the outline of a hand beneath two gear outlines. You might proceed differently when you have a general problem versus a specific problem and this diagram will help you explain that to your audience.
Using diagrams to keep your design thinking presentation fresh
Explaining design thinking yourself without images can be difficult and confusing. Creating dynamic graphics can be time-consuming, and they may not be as visually appealing when you build your own.
Resource: Design Thinking Process Diagrams
We created the Design Thinking Process Diagrams set to help you overcome the challenges which stand between you and a compelling presentation. Avoid repetitive presentations with fresh, clean graphics. This set really POPs, which will help your audience stay interested and follow along:
Design Thinking Process PPT Diagrams
With graphics you can often communicate a full idea, why not put that to work for your next presentation? Give an impactful presentation without building all the graphics yourself. To make your presentations even greater, consider adding diagrams and charts graphics to your slides.
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Design Thinking PowerPoint Templates laid out the Six Phases of Design Thinking Process . Consequently, the step by step process diagrams, cycle charts, and creative frameworks. It helps small to large scale businesses create a more desirable business plan.
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Each phase is iterative and cyclical rather than the strictly linear process. In addition, the design thinking framework follows an overall flow to understand , create and deliver . Within these larger categories fall the 6 phases:
- Empathize: Gather facts and get to know about what users do, say, think, and feel.
- Define: Combine the gathered facts, analyze user’s unmet needs and begin to highlight opportunities for innovation.
- Ideate: Brainstorm creative ideas that address the unmet user needs.
- Prototype: Transform ideas into a physical form to allow experience and interaction with them and, in the process, learn and develop more empathy.
- Test: Observe and gather feedback to refine prototypes, learn more about the user, and innovate the original ideas.
- Implement : Put the vision into effect. Ensure that the solution is put into action and affects the lives of the end users.
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Design thinking is an innovation method for problem solving and developing new ideas. Design Thinking's approach is based on the thesis that problems can be better solved by an interdisciplinary team. Design thinking is therefore also a creative process for finding ideas, which is oriented towards the user and his needs.
It is based on design methods that were originally developed by the innovation agency IDEO and, similar to user-centered design, focuses on creating new innovations. Use our PowerPoint presentation on design thinking now to present your concept and processes and to effectively introduce design thinking into your day-to-day business.
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Stage 4 in the Design Thinking Process: Prototype
One of the best ways to gain insights in a Design Thinking process is to carry out some form of prototyping . This method involves producing an early, inexpensive, and scaled down version of the product in order to reveal any problems with the current design. Prototyping offers designers the opportunity to bring their ideas to life, test the practicability of the current design, and to potentially investigate how a sample of users think and feel about a product.
Prototypes are often used in the final, testing phase in a Design Thinking process in order to determine how users behave with the prototype, to reveal new solutions to problems, or to find out whether or not the implemented solutions have been successful. The results generated from these tests are then used to redefine one or more of the problems established in the earlier phases of the project, and to build a more robust understanding of the problems users may face when interacting with the product in the intended environment.
The five stages in the Design Thinking process are not always sequential — they do not have to follow any specific order, they can often occur in parallel and be repeated iteratively. As such, the stages should be understood as different modes that contribute to a project, rather than sequential steps.
When designers want to determine and understand exactly how users will interact with a product, the most obvious method is to test how the users interact with the product. It would be foolhardy and pointless to produce a finished product for the users to test. Instead, designers can provide simple, scaled down versions of their products, which can then be used in order to observe, record, judge, and measure user performance levels based on specific elements, or the users’ general behavior, interactions, and reactions to the overall design. These earlier versions are known as prototypes; they are not necessarily in the medium of the finished product, as this may not be cost-effective in terms of time or money.
Prototypes are built so that designers can think about their solutions in a different way (tangible products rather than abstract ideas), as well as to fail quickly and cheaply, so that less time and money is invested in an idea that turns out to be a bad one. Tim Brown, CEO of the international design and innovation firm IDEO, said it best:
“They slow us down to speed us up. By taking the time to prototype our ideas, we avoid costly mistakes such as becoming too complex too early and sticking with a weak idea for too long.” – Tim Brown
For instance, when developing software, a design team may produce a number of paper prototypes, as shown in the image above, which the user can gradually work through in order to demonstrate to the design team or evaluators how they may tackle certain tasks or problems. When developing tangible devices, such as the computer mouse, designers may use a number of different materials to enable them to test the basic technology underlying the product. With advances in 3D printing technology, producing prototypes is now often a more instant and low cost process, and as a result, this has allowed designers to provide stakeholders with accurate and testable/useable replica models before settling upon a particular design.
Types of Prototyping
Prototyping methods are generally divided into two separate categories: low- and high-fidelity prototyping.
Low-fidelity prototyping involves the use of basic models or examples of the product being tested. For example, the model might be incomplete and use just a few of the features that will be available in the final design, or it might be constructed using materials not intended for the finished article, such as wood, paper, or metal for a plastic product. Low-fidelity prototypes can either be models that are cheaply and easily made, or simply recounts or visualizations of them.
Examples of low-fidelity prototypes:
Sketching (although Bill Buxton, a pioneer of human-computer interaction, argues sketching is not an example of prototyping).
Card sorting .
'Wizard of Oz'.
Pros of Low-Fidelity Prototyping
Quick and inexpensive.
Possible to make instant changes and test new iterations.
Enables the designer to gain an overall view of the product using minimal time and effort, as opposed to focusing on the finer details over the course of slow, incremental changes.
Available to all; regardless of ability and experience, we are able to produce rudimentary versions of products in order to test users or canvas the opinions of stakeholders.
Encourages and fosters design thinking.
Cons of Low-Fidelity Prototyping
An inherent lack of realism. Due to the basic and sometimes sketchy nature of low-fi prototypes, the applicability of results generated by tests involving simple early versions of a product may lack validity.
Depending on your product, the production of low-fi prototypes may not be appropriate for your intended users. For instance, if you are developing a product bound by a number of contextual and/or dispositional constraints (i.e., physical characteristics of your user base, such as users with disabilities), then basic versions that do not reflect the nature, appearance, or feel of the finished product may be of scant use; revealing very little of the eventual user experience .
Such prototypes often remove control from the user, as they generally have to interact in basic ways or simply inform an evaluator, demonstrate, or write a blow-by-blow account of how they would use the finished product.
High-fidelity prototypes are prototypes that look and operate closer to the finished product. For example, a 3D plastic model with movable parts (allowing users to manipulate and interact with a device in the same manner as the final design) is high-fi in comparison to, say, a wooden block. Likewise, an early version of a software system developed using a design program such as Sketch or Adobe Illustrator is high-fi in comparison to a paper prototype.
Pros of High-Fidelity Prototyping
Engaging: the stakeholders can instantly see their vision realized and will be able to judge how well it meets their expectations, wants, and needs.
User testing involving high-fi prototypes will allow the evaluators to gather information with a high level of validity and applicability. The closer the prototype is to the finished product, the more confidence the design team will have in how people will respond to, interact with, and perceive the design.
Cons of High-Fidelity Prototyping
They generally take much longer to produce than low-fi prototypes.
When testing prototypes, test users are more inclined to focus and comment on superficial characteristics, as opposed to the content (Rogers, Preece, and Sharp, 2011).
After devoting hours and hours of time producing an accurate model of how a product will appear and behave, designers are often loathed to make changes.
Software prototypes may give test users a false impression of how good the finished article may be.
Making changes to prototypes can take a long time, thus delaying the entire project in the process. However, low-fi prototypes can usually be changed within hours, if not minutes, for example, sketching or paper prototyping methods are utilized.
Due to the pros and cons of low-fi and high-fi prototyping, it should be no surprise that low-fi prototyping is the usual option during the early stages of a Design Thinking project, while high-fi prototyping is used during the later stages, when the test questions are more refined.
Guidelines for Prototyping
It is important to remember that prototypes are supposed to be quick and easy tests of design solutions. Here are a few guidelines that will help you in the Prototyping stage:
Just start building Design Thinking has a bias towards action: which means if you have any uncertainties about what you are trying to achieve, your best bet is to just make something. Creating a prototype will help you think about your idea in a concrete manner, and potentially allow you to gain insights into ways you can improve it.
Don’t spend too much time Prototyping is all about speed; the longer you spend building your prototype, the more emotionally attached you can get with your idea, thus hampering your ability to objectively judge its merits.
Remember what you’re testing for All prototypes should have a central testing issue. Do not lose sight of that issue, but at the same time, do not get so bound to it so as to lose sight of other lessons you could learn from it.
Build with the user in mind Test the prototype against your expected user behaviors and needs. Then, learn from the gaps in expectations and realities, and improve your ideas.
Prototyping can be a quick and effective way of bringing you/your client's ideas to life. A sample of your intended users or evaluators can then be observed and tested, and their opinions can be used to make improvements during an iterative design process . Prototyping methods are generally classified into one of two broad categories: low-fi or high-fi. In the former, simple versions are produced, sometimes with whatever materials are available, which can be tested immediately. In contrast, high-fi methods are generally closer to the final product in terms of look, feel, and means of interaction. Whilst hi-fi prototypes can help the design team gain valuable insights into how the product will be received when distributed, production of hi-fi prototypes can be time-consuming and can have the potential to significantly delay a project should changes need to be made. Therefore, designers have a number of different prototyping methods at their disposal, but there are drawbacks associated with both of these broad categories of testing methods, and this must be taken into consideration when deciding how best to improve your design within the allotted time frame and budget.
References & Where to Learn More
Course: “Design Thinking - The Ultimate Guide” .
Bill Buxton, What Sketches (and Prototypes) Are and Are Not .
d.school: Wizard of Oz Prototyping .
d.school Bootcamp Bootleg , 2013.
Hero Image: Author/Copyright holder: Annie Mole. Copyright terms and license: CC BY 2.0
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