Design Thinking

Putting the Customer at the Heart of Development

Design Thinking

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Let your ideas flow with design thinking.

Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.– Thomas Edison, inventor

What do you think of when you consider a product's design?

One of the first things that may come to mind is how attractive the product is. You might think about how it looks, and its features and functions. But did you ever consider the process used to develop it?

Over the years, the term "design" has evolved. Now, instead of just describing the physical attributes of goods and services, it also refers to their development, based on consumers' wants and needs.

The Evolution of Design Thinking

Social scientist Herbert A. Simon was among the first to develop a systematic approach to design in his 1969 book, "The Sciences of the Artificial." He described a three-stage process for decision making:

  1. Intelligence gathering: identifying a problem that requires a solution.
  2. Design: researching and developing options to solve the problem.
  3. Choice: analyzing and choosing one of the options.

Headings reproduced from "The Sciences of the Artificial, Simon's Three Strategies of Rational Decision Making" by Herbert A. Simon. Third edition. © 1996 Massachusetts Institute of Technology by permission of MIT Press. 

As others began to embrace the concept, it grew in popularity. By the late 1980s, learning institutions, including Stanford University's Joint Program in Design and Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, fully endorsed the concept. In 1987, Harvard professor Peter Rowe published his book, "Design Thinking."

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking puts your customer at the heart of your problem-solving and innovation processes. This approach focuses on studying what people really want from a product or service, and then delivering that experience through repeated cycles of development and testing.

Traditionally, designers took an existing idea or product and looked at what they could do to make it more appealing to the customer. With design thinking, they are asked to come up with new ideas, based on studying how customers use the product or service and listening to their wants and needs.

Design thinking examines problems from many angles, draws ideas from numerous sources, and then tests them relentlessly. It's an open-minded approach that emphasizes positive input and constructive feedback. It is also inclusive, as ideas can come from anyone in an organization, regardless of their position or department.

Although it originated more than 40 years ago, the business climate and its continual evolution have kept design thinking relevant.

The Advantages and Challenges of Design Thinking

One of the biggest advantages of design thinking is improved customer satisfaction. And if you give your customers what they deeply want, their loyalty to your brand will increase, boosting your organization's reputation.

But, as with any business approach, design thinking has its drawbacks. If an organization is used to long development processes, the speed of design thinking can be unsettling. Team members may resist new ways of thinking and revert to their old decision-making habits.

People who aren't used to design thinking may be put off by the short-term failures that can occur during the testing cycle. If they aren't comfortable with the relentless process of refining products through trial and error, they might use initial failures to reject the process.

How to Encourage Design Thinking in Your Organization


Keep in mind that the following steps don't have to be linear. In fact, many of them may happen at the same time. Also, remember that you may cycle through them many times as you refine your ideas.

Design Thinking Diagram

1. Empathize With Users. You and your team members should observe and meet with customers to discuss and understand their needs.

2. Identify and Define the Problem. Decide which problem you want to solve, based on your discussions with your users. Your aim is to frame the problem in a way that encourages people to develop innovative solutions, for example by sharing an introductory statement that describes the problem and asks a key question for your collaborators to consider.

3. Brainstorm and Evaluate Potential Options. Invite people from other departments and teams to brainstorming sessions. They may see different connections between ideas and be willing to question traditional ways of thinking. Design thinking requires you to look at problems from different perspectives, and multiple viewpoints lead to more ideas and richer discussion.

The key during this phase is for people to suspend their judgment, so that they don't dismiss ideas too readily. Sometimes, the best solutions come from unexpected sources.

Other tools that can help you generate ideas include Reverse Brainstorming , Crawford's Slip Writing Method , and the Charette Procedure . Then, it's time to begin narrowing down the options, until you've chosen a prototype for testing. (If you've generated a large number of ideas, you may want to organize them with an Affinity Diagram .)

4. Develop the Prototype. Once you have agreed on a potential solution, make a prototype. Depending on your time and budget, it can be a product, model, storyboard , or sketch. (See our article on minimum viable products for a good way to do this.)

Developing a prototype this early on in the process can surprise some people, so remind them that the idea is not to shoot for perfection at this stage. The aim is to learn as much as you can, as quickly as you can so the prototype can be quite basic, and it can involve quite large amounts of human intervention, as long as it proves the right things.

5. Test, Refine and Repeat. At this stage, your goal is to find out what works and what doesn't. Study how your users respond to and implement your prototype, then refine it based on their feedback.

Repeat this stage until you have a working product or service that solves your problem and satisfies your customers' needs in a way that they want to use and are happy to pay for.

6. Measure the Results. The learning process never stops. Continue to collect feedback from customers as other developments and improvements present themselves, and further refine the product, based on these.

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Design Thinking in Action

Many organizations have used design thinking to encourage innovation. One of the most successful is software company Intuit®.

In 1983, Intuit launched its flagship product, Quicken® personal finance software. With an appealing, user-friendly design, it quickly became the market leader. Although Quicken continued to "top the charts," its developers concentrated on adding features and lost sight of its original design. So, when Brad Smith became Intuit's CEO in 2008, he changed the company's approach to product development.

He created the company's D4D ("Design for Delight") program, to put the emphasis on creating software that appealed to customers on an emotional level. The program's three pillars are empathy, idea generation, and experimentation.

Smith integrated D4D into every facet of the company: he encouraged collaboration, hired more designers, held design conferences, and studied customer feedback.

As a result, Intuit's business has grown, and it continues to develop new ways to reach consumers. In 2014, it created an app called SnapTax®. This allows users to take pictures of their tax forms with their smartphones and upload them into the company's tax software. They can then prepare and file tax returns from their mobile devices. Two weeks after Intuit released the app, it replaced Angry Birds™ as the most downloaded app on iTunes.

Key Points

Design thinking puts the user at the center of the development strategy for products, services or processes. It combines rigorous analysis with creative, intuitive thinking techniques. In general, design thinking involves the following steps, which can then be repeated:

  • Identifying and defining the problem.
  • Brainstorming and evaluating potential options.
  • Developing the prototype.
  • Testing, refining and repeating.
  • Measuring the results.

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Comments (4)
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hello timothyinchina,

    Try this article:
  • Over a month ago timothyinchina wrote
    Any suggestions on tools to gain empathy?
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    H Fred,
    Thanks for your feedback and pleased to hear that you find our site and all the information beneficial to you on a professional and personal level.

    Mind Tools Team
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