Design Thinking: What is it and why is it so popular?

At first glance, the concept of design thinking may appear to be verbatim; a way of thinking and creating that emphases design. This assumption is not too far away from reality. Design thinking at its start was exclusively used by designers who needed an iterative approach to designing that would be valuable to the end user. This process became mainstream once experts realized its potential to be applied to various fields including business, technology, engineering, arts, etc. It’s easy to see how it became so popular, why wouldn’t you want your experience as an end user to be at the front and center of the design process? 

Design thinking at its core, is a creative process used by individuals and organizations to solve problems by prioritizing the consumer’s (or end-user’s) needs. It has a deep passion for understanding the targeted persons needs and interests and applied that throughout the development process. By prioritizing the needs of the end user, it is human centered and empathetic at its core. What makes this human-centered approach successful is how it enables organizations to better solve problems in a creative and innovative way by ensuring questioning, understanding root problems and needs, and re-framing. It’s extremely useful for tackling hard to solve problems or refining existing products and services. 

For example, when bringing together diverse teams to solve a problem, one of the biggest challenges is a lack of structure and organization without limiting thought and ideas. It helps remove distractions in the design and development process by focusing on what really matters: the end user (or consumer).

In practice, it can be understood as 5 high level phases. Although there are many different variants of the process in use today.

  1. Empathize – with your users
  2. Define – users’ needs and/or problems
  3. Ideate – formulate ideas and solutions and challenge existing assumptions 
  4. Prototype – begin creating solutions
  5. Testing – ensuring solutions meet target users’ needs 

Note that these phases are non-linear, so they do not always occur in order. In practice there can be multiple phases of ideation, prototyping, and testing.

So, what does it look like in application?

In the business world, design thinking has served as a viable solution for finding innovative solutions. This is particularly true for companies looking to build a new market but lack the knowhow and customer insight. One popular design thinking exercise is to observe users and how they interact with their environment and product. For example, the toothbrush brand Oral B partnered with IDEO (a global design company) to create better products for all their consumers and used the observational approach to figure out how to develop toothbrushes for children. What they found was game-changing for their business. Their designers had assumed that toothbrushes for children should mirror adult toothbrushes but at a smaller scale. In theory this makes sense, right? 

What they found proved this assumption to be false. Throughout their observations, they found that when kids were brushing their teeth, they were using their fist and holding the brush too high which ended up with them hitting their faces. Using this finding, the team identified that children need fat squishy toothbrushes. Following the launch of this innovation, Oral B became the best-selling children’s toothbrush in the world for 18 months.

Clearly design thinking is a powerful tool for developing innovations that bring positive outcomes for business. But what about tackling bigger issues like global poverty? 

In theory, design thinking can also be applied in the international development world to eradicate poverty. When in application, design thinking requires stakeholders and problem solvers to tackle the root causes of poverty rather than alleviating the symptoms. It would require asking the fundamental questions such as, “why does poverty exist?”. Design thinking as a solution for global development issues is a powerful tool that can transform the outcomes of development projects. Along with the little positive impact these efforts have made, society is now experiencing the negative effects of climate change which calls for swift action by global leaders to execute sustainable solutions. By incorporating design thinking, the international development community will be able to create well-designed and user-oriented solutions to the poverty crisis. 

The key takeaway here is that design thinking is a radically inclusive problem-solving approach specific to design but with the ability to be applied throughout various sectors and fields of study. It’s empathetic and iterative nature allows for consistent improvements to the status quo. 

If you’re interested in learning more about design thinking check out the following resources!

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