Design Thinking For Dummies
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An essential element in the design thinking approach is that you develop a thorough understanding of the task and situation before you look for creative ideas for products, services, procedures, or business models. Don’t rush into things and immediately search for solutions for something that you haven’t really worked through yet.

Give this analysis of the tasks all the time it needs. Separating the analysis of the task from the search for solutions to the task is a success factor. When you know and understand the details and reasons for the problems or desires of a particular target group, it will be much easier for you to find ideas designed to solve those problems or fulfill those wishes. In many cases, you already find the initial approaches to innovative ideas during the fundamental analysis.

When analyzing your task, systematically work through the six W questions: What? Whereby? Who? Where? When? Why? On this basis, you’ll develop assumptions about the cause of the problem or desire and test these assumptions with your target users. In addition to getting a detailed task description, this gives you initial insights about possible solutions.

When you work through the individual W questions, you can compare the task with a case in which the problem or desire (surprisingly) doesn’t occur. This case can be similar or come from a different area (different target users, another scientific field, or an external industry, for example). Afterward, perform a systematic check of what is different and what is the same in your task and the comparison case.

Clarifying what the task is and how it manifests itself

For the first step, you have to clarify exactly what the task consists of. The task can be a desire of (or problem faced by) a particular target group. Problems reveal themselves when something occurs differently than expected or desired. Describe these expectations or wishes and compare them with the actual situation. The expectations can also relate to an ideal condition that hasn’t been achieved yet. Also scrutinize the expectations and wishes to see to what extent they might just be subjective or shared by only a few people. When you compare the ideal condition with the current situation, you can systematically find gaps that you'd be able to close with new products, services, processes, or business models. Ideal means that something creates high usefulness (high quality and reliability, good design, user-friendliness, convenience) or reduces a disadvantage (cost and risk reduction, lower consumption of resources, time savings) for the target users. A fully automated, intelligent, and solar-powered lawnmower can describe an ideal condition.

Compile all the information and describe what you know about the problem. From this you can detect what in turn you don’t know or understand. Write down the gaps in your knowledge in one sentence: for example, “We must clarify how often an error appears while operating a device” or “We must clarify how to increase customer loyalty for our service.”

With an eye toward the solution, you should check which efforts were already made in the past to solve the problem. If it’s a technical problem, you can get information in literature databases or with a patent search. The persons affected by the problem can give you information about the solutions that have been used so far. Ask the persons involved why these solutions failed or why they’re unsatisfactory. As part of this process, you'll also clarify which elements are absolutely mandatory for a satisfactory solution.

Follow this stage by asking yourself what is not necessary, or at least not important, about the solution. The search for what doesn’t constitute the problem goes in a similar direction. Ask older people about their behavior when they use smartphones. It is shown that, on average, only three or four features are actually being used. A smartphone with even more features, therefore, can’t be the objective.

Find out whether there’s anything related to the task that you may not change or that is absolutely required. A technical product must have certain material characteristics, or a children’s toy may consist only of elements that don’t pose a health risk. A financial consultation requires a signed privacy policy, even if this seems unnecessary and time-intensive to the customer. However, note that these requirements can change over time. The security conditions related to self-driving cars will certainly change in the future along with the technical progress.

After clarifying what the problem or wish is, describe in detail how, exactly, these requirements are shown. A problem or wish can refer to quality issues, service, design, image, user-friendliness, convenience, security, usage period, price, or environmental or social compatibility. You can develop an electric scooter that is reliable, robust, comfortable, compact, easy to use, stylish, and cheap and has a long usage period.

Focus on a few significant characteristics of the problem or wish. Some requirements can also contradict each other. In many cases, it’s difficult to manufacture a high-quality product consisting of high-grade materials in an inexpensive way. However, your tasks could lie precisely in resolving this contradiction.

Clarifying who has the problem or wish

Who has the problem or the wish is important information about the task. Some tasks are theoretically relevant to many people. Smart-home solutions that improve the home quality through networked and remote-controlled devices and systems are certainly interesting to many people. It has proven to be expedient to make a selection at this early stage of the design thinking process. Older people or those with physical disabilities can particularly benefit from smart-home systems, for example. However, this group will have special requirements regarding the operability and functionality that you have to focus on.

You can initially limit the group of persons by describing who isn’t affected by the problem or doesn’t have a desire for a solution to the present task. From the remaining group, I recommend that you focus on the target users for whom the solution to the task has a certain relevance and urgency. The following questions will help you decide:

  • Who is most annoyed by the problem?
  • Who might benefit most from a solution?
  • Who can save money or time with a solution?
  • Who needs a solution as soon as possible?
  • Who is most dissatisfied with the alternatives available on the market?
  • Who would pay the most for the solution?
At this early stage, you shouldn’t view the relevance of (and urgency for) the task too narrowly. You already achieve a lot when you can roughly distinguish the groups of people according to the relevance and urgency related to the task. In the subsequent design thinking phases, you'll increasingly get information about the target users you selected at the beginning. You'll also continue to narrow your selection.

Ask yourself for whom the solution might be useful outside of your selected target group. This group of persons isn’t initially in focus, but as you develop the solution, it may be revealed that this group in particular has a special interest in the found solution and will quickly adopt the new product or new service after the market launch.

In addition to looking at the groups of persons interested in the result of your search for a solution, you should use this phase to look for people who can contribute to this search. You can query these people in the later phases of the design thinking process or integrate them into joint workshops.

Some people may not be interested in the solution or will deliberately or unintentionally stand in the way of the solution. For your further analysis, and particularly for the subsequent implementation of your proposed solution, it’s helpful for you to also become aware of and characterize these people.

You can characterize the individual relevant groups with the Persona method. A persona represents a fictitious person with individual characteristics that stand for the target users (or some of them) for whatever innovation you have in mind. In a study profile, describe the characteristics of this person (age, gender, education level, values, opinions, lifestyles, hobbies, modes of behavior, consumption habits) with keywords or in short sentences.

Clarifying where and when the problem or wish occurs

You shouldn’t neglect the where-and-when aspects of your task. The situation can be an everyday event (for example, a shopping spree, household activities, surfing online, travel, leisure, or cultural activities), personal circumstances (the person is pregnant, in a financial predicament, or under time pressure or stress), or a special place where your target users’ problem or wish occurs. The requirements for a meal can differ on the road, at home, at work, or during recreational activities (hiking, sailing, bowling, at the movies). The task may also depend on the time, duration, and frequency of occurrence. The need for information about snow skiing opportunities is much higher in the winter than in the summer. You always have to consider your task in connection with the specific situation and the special aspects of the location or time.

You can discover the significance of certain situations and times when you compare various situations and times. Clarify when and where the problem or wish of your target users doesn’t occur. On this basis, contrast differences and commonalities in terms of the situation and time.

When buying flowers, for example, you can see differences depending on when the purchase occurs. Study when and where your target users buy flowers, by observing people at garden centers and flower shops at various times. You'll certainly find differences among the customers in terms of the length of the shop visit, the type and number of purchased flowers, and the use of customer service in the morning as opposed to the late afternoon.

Clarifying why the problem or wish occurs

Only if you know and understand what caused of the problem or what drove the wish can you find a satisfactory and permanent solution. You can use the fishbone diagram by the Japanese chemist Kaoru Ishikawa (also called the Ishikawa diagram) to systematically structure the causes of the problem. The fishbone diagram is a simple diagram that lets you provide an illustrative identification of causal relationships.

fishbone diagram With the fishbone diagram, you can systematically search for the causes of a problem.

For a better overview of the relationships between cause and effect, the various causes are written along the individual lines (bones) — as either the main cause or a secondary cause, depicted in the form of a branch. As a system, the main causes are divided into the areas of man, machine, material, method, management, and Mother Nature, where the latter stands for the environment of the problem. Because these areas share the initial letter, this is also referred to as the 4M (man, material, machine, method), 7M (with the addition of management, Mother Nature, and measurement), or even 8M (expanded to include money). Individually, the following causes of the problem or wishes are considered in these categories:

  • Man: Special weaknesses (or strengths) of humans. These can be in the areas of skills (technical, methodological, and social), performed activities, or modes of behavior. A lack of customer orientation and employee motivation in customer service can result in low customer satisfaction.
  • Machine: Special weaknesses (or strengths) of the machine or tools used for the task. Using an outdated machine in production can be a cause of the low productivity.
  • Material: Special weaknesses (or strengths) in the material used or information required for the task. Increases in the prices of raw materials result in higher costs in the manufacturing of a product.
  • Method: Special weaknesses (or strengths) in the technical or organizational approach. The delivery times for customer orders take too long because the merchandise is unnecessarily checked for completeness by two departments at a time.
  • Management: Special weaknesses (or strengths) in the organization, planning, management, and control of a task. A scheduling error can be the cause of delays in business processes. The communication deficits between two departments can explain the slow processing of customer inquiries.
  • Mother Nature: Special weaknesses (or strengths) in the external environment of the task. “The environment” can refer to environmental influences as well as the activities of external business partners and competitors. High temperature fluctuations in the supply chain cause a high amount of rejects in food transports. The declining market shares of a product can be explained with the successful market launch of a better product by the competition.
  • Measurement: Special weaknesses (or strengths) in the measurement of technical or economic processes. A defective measuring system intended to recognize deviations in the paint can be a cause for subsequent paint damages in a new product. Exclusively using the number of processed customer inquiries as the key indicator in an employee evaluation can be the cause of low-quality consultations during customer inquiries.
  • Money: Special weaknesses (or strengths) in the available financial resources (money) for the task. Insufficient financial means can cause a lag in the development of a sales team in Asia.
In this early phase of the design thinking process, the fishbone diagram gives you an initial overview of the cause-and-effect relationships. In the following phases, you'll use surveys, observations, and experiments to collect additional information that you can adopt into your fishbone diagram.

After compiling the causes, you need to evaluate them. One simple approach is to perform the evaluation with your team by applying red adhesive dots on the causes in the fishbone diagram. Each evaluator gets five adhesive dots that can be applied freely. If a cause is especially significant, a participant can give it multiple dots. The sum of the adhesive dots provides the order of the causes, from least to most significant. You should discuss the most important causes in more detail among the team.

Lastly, make sure that you've listed every possible cause. Ask yourself whether the causes you came up with are sufficient for explaining the problem or wish of your target users. When doing this check for completeness, you might come up with additional causes.

As a supplement to the fishbone diagram, I recommend that you use the 5 Whys technique for each identified main cause. Behind every problem or wish is a chain of causes that you must identify. Like a small child, ask at least five times in a row why something is the way it is. In cases where the cause of failure is initially felt to be technical in nature, the 5 Whys technique often reveals that human error or mismanagement is often the root cause.

Let's say you have a quality problem with a new product, where a plastic part keeps breaking after constant use and customers are complaining about it. You ask: “Why is that?” Answer: “The manufacturing process is defective.” You ask a second time: “Why is that?” Answer: “The process couldn’t be tested adequately.” You ask a third time: “Why is that?” Answer: “There wasn’t enough time to develop the process before the market launch.” You ask a fourth time: “Why is that?” Answer: “The research unit told the production department about the technical specifications for the new product too late before the market launch”. You ask a fifth time: “Why is that?” Answer: “There’s no organized coordination process between the research and production units at the company.” Ultimately, the cause of a technical problem lies in a communication deficit between two departments.

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