How can you make something better? Be it a product or a service, or perhaps a process. In a world of fast-paced action and reactions, quality results are something that we all aim for. So, how are you going to design a world which is long and equitable, to attain a degree of excellence? 

We know the role of the Kanban system in implementing Just in Time for Toyota. If TQM (Total Quality Management) did that for manufacturing, design thinking has the potential to bring human-centric solutions for innovations.

Design thinking is not restricted to only building products, any new initiatives that foster innovations can leverage the design thinking principles of problem-solving. Design thinking takes the human-centric approach to understand how to deal with the problem before we jump into all possible solutions. We could see its use in various places. The buzz is everywhere, from the social sector to policy making, health care to business. So what is design thinking? 

What is design thinking?

Though it’d be hard to put the definition of “Design thinking” in a few words, I’d rather look at design thinking as a philosophy or a mindset to solve complex problems that are too tough to be solved with the conventional and standard practices of problem-solving. Design thinking takes the route to give solutions that are: feasible, viable, and desirable.

Generally, solutions to problems are sometimes overlooked with the conventional approach to solving them, while some approaches are highly rational and analytical while others are emotional. Design thinking might just be the third way that augments the rational, emotional, and functional needs of human problems. 

The Origin

While there are no solid indications of the origin of design thinking, design thinking as a mindset could be traced back to John E. Arnold, a professor of Mechanical engineering who pioneered the study of “Creative Engineering.” This was considered to be the seed for design thinking as a movement.

One of his quotes emphasizes the importance of approaching the problem like an artist and having humans as the cornerstone for the solutions you want to build:

“The engineer can take on some aspects of the artist and try to improve or increase the salability of a product or machine by beautifying or bettering its appearance, or by having a keener sensitivity for the market and for the kinds of things people want or don’t want.”

– John E. Arnold

The design thinking process:

In an effort to contextualize and apply design thinking, it is often identified with a process that guides the values to hold sway on how you approach the problem. This process may not necessarily be linear or sequential but rather a loop that makes sense for the particular problem or use-case one undertakes.

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Empathize

The first step in the process is to get inspired by the problem to understand what motivates people to search for a solution. Empathizing with the users for their problems helps you understand the opportunity space available (especially for businesses) to get into the realm of the problem space. In order to identify and understand the pulse of the problem, you have to gather information. This is where you talk to people in the problem space to understand what they care about and how they currently deal with the problem. User interviews and their feedback help you get into their shoes. 

Define

This is one of the most important steps where the problem gets shaped, where sometimes ill-conceived problem statements pave the way to building solutions to “a problem,” not “the problem.” 

Let me explain.

For example, you talk to someone about a problem. You record the observation and pitch in a plausible solution to that problem. The user gets excited that your solution might solve that problem. But what really happens here is it is just one of the problems among their other problems, and their decision to adopt your solution depends on the importance they weigh for the problem that you promise to solve. 

Here is where defining the problem becomes very crucial. Often in hindsight, the spotlight falls on the problem you are trying to solve rather than the problems the person actually has. 

Hence defining the problem goes a long way to give you leads on how to go about building human-centric solutions.

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Ideate

This is the phase where your observations find a home to be synthesized into an opportunity for change. You brainstorm to define and redefine the potential solution to create competing ideas to be solved. This step ideally helps you to get to the core of the problem. As said earlier, this is not going to be a linear phase, and you might often find yourself going back to previous steps as you work together to challenge the idea or perhaps the problem itself. Thereby you cull out good ideas to implement.

Prototype

The next phase is the prototype, where you validate your ideas by creating a mockup of your final solution. Your solution takes a tangible form to show evidence in this implementation phase of the prototype. It also shows you the limits and limitations of your idea that are left unaccounted for during the ideation phase. 

Test

The final prototype is then tested with your target group and is reiterated to accommodate the learning that comes your way. The validation takes the final form here and may again require you to revisit some of the previous steps to implement the plan at scale. 

Design thinking in action

Malaria, which was one of the nerving problems in Africa, was one of the top 5 causes of death for children under the age of five. This is a social problem highly complex in nature, and the design thinking approach to distributing mosquito nets helped to combat the disease effectively. The World Health Organization reported a 50%-60% decline in death in countries like Ethiopia and Rwanda and a 34% decline in Ghana.

It was found that the design of nets was unappealing to some people in Ghana. A group of researchers identified a potential solution to address the problem of getting people to use the net. They came up with a human-centered design of nets that paved the way to provide a long-lasting solution to this social problem.

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Design thinking has also played a huge role in transforming an almost failing company- Airbnb. Their business was crippling down, and when they got into the problem, they realized they saw a pattern in their ads with the pictures which weren’t working great. The pictures on display were taken on low-quality phones that the people who wanted to rent were not ready to book as they did not get to see what they were actually paying for. As soon as the founders realized this, they rented a camera to take good pictures of the customer’s property. 

Gebbia, one of the founders, went on to explain how the design school experience helped them reinvent themselves to serve customers better. 

And not just this. The list goes on and on. 

Final Thoughts

Design thinking has been evolving itself. People have been contributing to making it more useful to contextualize its use in various fields. Applying the design thinking framework and getting into creating a human-centric solution comes with different shapes, depending on the size and complexity of the problem.

Given its flexibility, design thinking helps you get familiar and comfortable with ambiguity. The approach lets you play around dynamically at various scales, making it a valuable pursuit. 

Try it by starting with any problem you want to solve and let us know how it worked for you in the comments below. We’d love to hear and help if you want

Author

Krithika is a curious marketer who loves to explore the reason for the human condition. Outside of work, you can spot her enjoying the sound of waves washing up on the shore or can be found strolling around with her furry friends.

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