Design Thinking For Dummies
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Before you try some of the methods of design thinking in a workshop, you should become familiar with the basics. The principles and methods of this approach to innovation are probably unfamiliar to many in your organization. New ideas are always met with skepticism, reservations, or resistance. Overcome your reservations and foster your curiosity.

Following and communicating the principles

In design thinking, you should observe a few principles that will guide you toward success:
  • Align yourself with people and their needs at an early stage: You start with people by either taking up a problem your target users have pointed out or a wish they may have expressed. Look for lead users — the ones who are ahead of their time and anticipate future needs of the target market. They are especially useful because their needs precede those of all other customers in the market and they have a strong incentive to resolve the need. Actively involve these customers in the development of your idea.
  • Develop empathy: Put yourself in the position of your target users and explore these users’ emotions, thoughts, intentions, and actions.
  • Illustrate ideas: Visualize your idea and demonstrate it with a prototype for potential users to experiment with. Prototypes can be hardware of various kinds, drawings, stories, role-playing games, model designs, or online applications in the form of Internet pages or apps.
  • Learning from failure: Establish a culture that welcomes the value of mistakes at your company so that errors are tolerated as well as learned from. Make sure that mistakes are understood as a fixed component in the design thinking process and perceived as opportunities to learn.
  • Ensure diversity in the team: Rely on diversity in the team so that you offer different perspectives. Diversity is shown in age, gender, education, cultural background, and personality type.
  • Offer team-oriented and creative workspaces: The workspaces for individual and group work as well as spaces for the group as a whole must have a flexible and inspiring design. You should choose different locations, rooms, or furniture arrangements for the different design thinking phases.
  • Make the process flexible: The design thinking process promotes a gradual approach. Analyze the problem, use it to formulate a task, develop initial possible solutions, test them, and learn from the feedback.

You don’t strictly go through these phases in sequence. Whenever you get information that you have to analyze in detail, jump back to a previous step.

Consider and observe these principles during the entire innovation process. Discuss the principles in each workshop, write them down, and display them in communal spaces so that they’re easily visible. As a team, check whether you’ve consistently adhered to the principles after each phase.

Overview of the design thinking process

In the first part of the design thinking process, you analyze the problem. This is the problem space, where you address the What and Why. (What is the problem? Why is it a problem?) Only in the second part, the solution space, are specific solutions developed and tested: Here you ask about the How. (How can something be solved?)

In this process, you combine two phases. In the divergent (dispersing) phase, you collect information or develop numerous ideas that result in expanding your perspectives. In the convergent (combining) phase, you sharpen the field-of-view and compile the results or decide on choices.

These divergent and convergent phases alternate. According to the British Design Council, the change between expanding and focusing resembles the image of a double diamond (Double Diamond Process Model), as shown.

The design thinking process The design thinking process.

The design thinking process is similar to the approach of members of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University (commonly known as the “”). They spell out these six distinct phases:

  1. Understanding the problem: In the first phase, you create an in-depth understanding of your target users’ problem or need. You have to clarify which information you’re still lacking about the target users, their needs, and their problems.
  2. Observing customers: This phase consists of detailed research and on-site observations about the customer’s need or problem. It utilizes observations and surveys so that you can put yourself in the customer’s shoes.
  3. Defining the question: After the observations and surveys, you should focus the insights on a selected group of customers or users and summarize their problems and needs in a defined question.
  4. Finding and selecting ideas: Only in this phase do you actually find ideas. You need to employ creative principles and techniques so that you prepare multiple possible solutions. Evaluate the usefulness, economic viability and feasibility of your ideas and make a selection.
  5. Developing prototypes: In this phase, you should visualize the ideas, make them tangible, and then outline, design, model, or simulate them so that the potential customer understands your idea and can test it.
  6. Testing assumptions: In this concluding phase, you test your assumptions or ideas with systematic customer feedback. You receive responses, learn from them, and continue developing your idea.
Even if the phases are shown in sequence, as shown, there are numerous feedback locations between the phases. You can skip phases (at first). If you already find interesting solutions while researching the problem, you can design initial prototypes and test them with the help of customer surveys. If you see that the customer doesn’t care for the idea, take a few steps back and analyze the needs of your target users again. Critically ask yourself whether you chose the right target users.

Run through the individual phases quickly. The principle is to fail early and often so that you can learn from the failure. The feedback between the process phases helps you learn.

If necessary, terminate the process if the customer doesn’t give you positive feedback. This saves you time and money that you would have spent on something that flops in the market.

The design thinking process in detail

The path toward creating an attractive solution for your target users’ needs can be complex and can carry great uncertainties regarding its success. In situations of uncertainty and complexity, there’s often little information available about the best solution. The best way to achieve your goal is to proceed gradually: Collect information about your task so that you can accumulate knowledge.

Collecting and evaluating information about the task

In the first phase, you have to understand the task you want to solve. Take enough time for the task analysis, which can be presented as a problem brought up by your target users or a wish expressed by them. When analyzing your task, it’s helpful to systematically answer the six "W" questions:
  • What is the need of your target users?
  • Who has this need?
  • In what way is this need of your user group revealed?
  • Where is this need evident?
  • When does this need show?
  • Why do your target users have this need?
Compile all the information and describe what you know about your target users and the problem. A problem or wish can refer to a service, a design, user friendliness, usage period, price, or environmental or social compatibility. Focus on just a few significant characteristics of the need.

You need convincing and up-to-date information to close the gaps in your knowledge. You can use the following sources:

  • Publications and patent databases
  • Customers surveys or direct customer observations
  • Supplier surveys
  • Joint workshops with customers or suppliers
Search online and offline for studies, articles, and newspaper reports about your target users, and be sure to collect statements, contact details, or other relevant information in social networks. Finally, don't forget to search for blogs by or about your target users.

Observing the target users

Collect important impressions and information about the problems and needs of your target users through observations in real environments. Only through observations can you capture the authentic and spontaneous behavior of people in their natural environment.

Don’t immediately evaluate the people and situations you encounter. Ask yourself what kinds of actions are underway and which situations are being created. Don’t immediately categorize it. The focus should be on the respondent’s actions instead of on their disposition, values, and norms. You can better get to the bottom of those aspects through interviews.

Observations aren’t just about the specific superficial activities — the persons and situations must be considered as a whole. Capture the surroundings, including all relevant objects, the situation itself, and all actions and interactions of the people as well as their emotions.

Link the observation with a survey, for example, by asking the target users about their motivations behind specific actions. You can perform a survey before, during, or after the observed situation.

When you start recognizing patterns in the observations, you have invested enough time. Write down as much as necessary — but as little as possible.

Defining the task

The analytical phases are followed by the consolidation — the synthesis — of the gained information in a concise form. The question or problem is your task — the design challenge that you and your team want to master.

The information must answer two basic questions that are important for solving the problem:

  • Who are the target users that matter here?
  • What is the specific need that you want to satisfy?

In this phase, don’t offer any indication of what a possible solution might look like. Always separate the wording of the challenge from finding the solution.

The Persona method is the best way to summarize the relevant information when it comes to describing the target users. A persona is a real or fictitious person with individual characteristics that represent the target users (or at least some of them). Describe the characteristics of this person (age, gender, education level, opinions, hobbies, and modes of behavior) with keywords or in short sentences.

When you describe customer needs, ignore the fact that your target users want to get a certain product or specific service. Ask yourself what and why your target user wants to achieve something in a particular situation. The problems and frustrations of your target user when handling a task are often the starting points for the subsequent solution. In addition to the problems, consider the (unstated) wishes of the target user. These wishes enable you to find new offers for the target user. Ask your target user about the motivations behind the needs.

Finding solutions

Based on how you define your task, your goal must be to develop as many ideas as possible for potential solutions. For the initial search for ideas, you can use these sources:
  • General Internet research in the area of your task
  • Articles in trade magazines
  • Descriptions of patents in databases
  • Participation in specialized presentations or discussions at trade shows and conferences.
  • Surveys and observations of lead users or suppliers who have already found initial possible solutions

Be sure to integrate experts with a scientific background as well as those with practical experience into your design thinking process. Organize joint workshops, execute your projects together, or ask experts about your assumptions and ideas. Many years of experience with creative processes have yielded some general principles regarding the search for problem-solving ideas:

  • The decomposition principle: The idea here is to disassemble the problem, task, process steps, or redesigned product into its various parts and then vary or combine these parts in a new way.
  • The association principle: Here, you want to link together ideas, information, perceptions, and emotions. One example is brainstorming and its variants

Brainstorming is common enough, and probably doesn’t need defining here. The idea is for participants to spontaneously express ideas, leading to many ideas being produced in a short amount of time. The participants give their imagination free reign to find new and original ideas — even the craziest ideas are welcome. The free expression of ideas also stipulates that only one person speaks at a time. Ideas by others can and should be picked up, modified, or refined. The most important rule to follow is to focus just on finding ideas —actually evaluating the ideas you find should wait until later.

  • Analogy and confrontation: These involve specific methods for adopting a new perspective on a problem. With analogies, you compare your task with a task from a completely different area and then use the commonalities and differences you discover as a stimulus for new ideas.

Use the principle of analogy to put yourself in the situation of another person or another company. Ask yourself what would happen if you were another person or a company. One example is, “What if I were a billionaire?” A billionaire symbolizes infinite riches that would be available for the solution to the problem. This analogy method, known as the what-if technique, allows you to overcome your own mental barriers.

As for confrontations, the selected area you choose is intentionally posed as a counterpart to your task. Setting the two areas side-by-side forces you to change perspective and thus get new ideas.

  • Provocation: With the Provocation technique, you formulate the solution as provocative statements in order to get new stimuli from exaggerations, contradictions, or wishful thinking. Consider how you might make the customer’s problem more extreme.
  • Abstraction and imagination: The idea here is to move out from your problem so that you can view it from a higher, more abstract, or pictorial level. Get as much distance from the problem as possible so that you can understand the problem from a “helicopter perspective” and get ideas for solutions. Use your imagination to create a more image-based view of the problem, abstracting out even further.
  • Simplification: As with abstraction, the simplification of products and processes is a successful formula for innovative solutions. The idea here is to remove or decrease process steps, characteristics, or functions that aren’t relevant for the customer or aren’t perceived and acknowledged as relevant. Instead, you should focus on the necessary functions, streamline your products, and standardize and automate your processes.
The greatest potential of creative principles and techniques lies in their combination. Test the various principles and techniques in a team, and then go with what works best.

Remove all obstacles to your creativity. Avoid stress and unhealthy behavior — it can influence your creativity. Renovate non-ergonomic workplaces, replace inadequate work equipment, reduce noise levels, and fix rooms that are too cold or hot. On an organizational level, rigid and strict controls, numerous regulations, and a dry formalism result in a bureaucracy that limits the flourishing of creativity. Scrutinize the regulations and formalities. Create breathing spaces where no regulations apply.

Selecting solutions that work

If you pursue every possible solution, you'll soon reach your limits because you probably aren't working with an unlimited budget. Admittedly, people want to see quick results — usually, a newly developed product poised for great success — but despite such pressures, you should avoid initiating multiple developments simultaneously. Have the team make a selection at an early stage.

There is no single correct evaluation method. If you employ several kinds of evaluations, you will develop a comprehensive picture of your idea. Dot-voting — where you have every participant distribute five adhesive dots to the various individual ideas, including giving multiple dots to one idea — is a great way to make a rough selection. Just sort the ideas according to the number of dots received.

Employees from different departments often assess the opportunities and risks of the same potential solutions in different ways. Utilize the range of perspectives and rely on variety in the evaluation. This makes the idea easier to implement later, when you integrate persons from different departments during the decision.

When the rough selection is completed, look at the advantages, opportunities, and implementation barriers of your proposed solutions. Use checklists like the following to review whether the ideas can meet the stipulated criteria:
  • Feasibility: You must check whether the idea is feasible.
  • Fit (strategic and cultural fit): The idea must fit the vision, strategy, and culture of the company.
  • Desirability: Your idea must have a customer benefit.
  • Business viability: An idea with business viability is one where the income is higher than the expenses.
  • Scalability: This refers to the idea’s ability to accomplish high growth with relatively little effort.
  • Sustainability: Your idea must be successful in the long run; it must have a long-lasting economic, social, and ecological benefit.
  • Adaptability: In a dynamically changing environment, your idea must be adaptable.

Developing prototypes

With a prototype, you can vividly present and test the essential functions and characteristics of your idea. Create a prototype early on, without elaborate planning and with little effort. You can choose from different types, and the selection depends on the maturity of your idea and whether you want to develop an innovative product, a service, or a business model.
  • Drawings and photo collages: You can easily and quickly create a prototype of your idea on paper, a whiteboard, or an electronic device with a drawing or an image made of collaged photos. Outline the product design or create drawings from the individual functions and characteristics of your idea.
  • Model constructions: Use paper, cardboard, modeling clay, or Styrofoam to illustrate certain functions or characteristics of your idea. A 3D printer makes it possible to create realistic models.
  • Stories and role-playing games: Tell a story about the use of a product so that you get feedback about its usefulness and ease of use. With storytelling, describe the advantages or the use of your idea as a real or fictitious story. You can also act out the story in the form of a video or role-playing game or with toy building blocks.
  • Digital prototypes: You can prepare initial visual representations of control elements and buttons with wireframes. Create a web page on which you present your ideas and evaluate the user behavior on this web page.

If the creation of a prototype involves a significant amount of effort, you can also simulate how a prototype functions in an experiment for test subjects. For example, if you want to test whether customers accept the use of artificial intelligence by a consulting service, you can offer an entry screen on a computer and explain that the answers to the test subject’s questions are provided by a computer. Simulate this for the test subjects, and have an employee answer the questions. Check whether customers generally accept such a consulting service. You will also find out how to design artificial intelligence for the consultation. This is a Wizard of Oz prototype. Just as in the classic movie The Wizard of Oz, something happens behind a screen, and it's not necessarily what the customers expect. Tell the test subjects that this is an experiment.

Testing solutions

Design thinking lives off early feedback from potential customers about ideas and assumptions. You can learn from this and adapt your assumptions and solutions. The idea here is to formulate and check various assumptions about the behavior and needs of your target users as well as your ideas for a solution. Ask the customers for an evaluation based on a single characteristic that the customers can most easily test on a prototype. If you get negative feedback from a customer, you have to respond quickly and flexibly. Use what you learn to design a new prototype and test it again.

You can gain respondents in various ways. Use your friends and your contacts in the social networks, ask friends of friends for recommendations, or create emails describing your project for others to forward, along with a note that you’re looking for contacts to test your assumptions or ideas. You can approach your employees or colleagues at your own company and survey them in the role of the customer.

Always be thinking about where you might find potential customers. The place might be understood as a real location (cafés, shops, trade shows) or a virtual place (social networks, trade forums). Research where your customers shop, work, or spend their time off. During the first contact with anybody from a new pool of potential customers, emphasize that this is not a sales pitch but that you’re looking for advice and need that person’s evaluation.

Conduct personal interviews, if at all possible. During each interview, don’t just consider content-specific claims — pay particular attention to statements that have some emotion behind them or that come as a surprise. You know that you have conducted enough interviews when you recognize a clear response pattern. When you create an online prototype in the form of a web page or an app, you examine the visitor behavior on this page. With this online prototype, you can test individual functions or the user friendliness of these online offers.

If your assumptions aren’t confirmed or if your observations and surveys show ambiguous results, you might need to return to an earlier stage in the design thinking process. You learn from the failure, change the idea according to the feedback from your target users, create an improved prototype, and perform new tests. With this approach, you'll gradually reach a promising product, service. or business model innovation.

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