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Solve your users’ problems with the design-thinking process

Use the six-step design thinking process to work on user-centric problems to make better products and create happier customers.

You have a problem but you’re not sure what to do next to get to a solution? To know what to do when complex situations come up, you need to understand how it affects people and explore the problem creatively. This is where the design-thinking process comes in.

What is design thinking?

Have you ever walked down a pavement and intended to turn left at the corner, and decided to cut diagonally through the grass to save time? Yes, most people have the same thought, and you’ll often see a well-used man-made dirt path appearing before bends.

This dirt road is an example of a ‘desire path’, a shortcut for a user to get from A to B quicker, without a lot of effort. It comes about where a design doesn’t fully include the needs and wants of the user.

In order to make your services and products the best they can be for the user, they must use problem-solving to answer a user’s needs and requirements. Otherwise, your customer won’t be satisfied with your version and will make their own or go elsewhere.

Design thinking is a creative design process that helps you to see a complicated situation differently. You focus on the user experience (UX) design – taking a human-centric approach to understand the underlying human needs. By focussing on the user’s experience, needs, and wants, you can create a solution that fulfills their requirements.

How did the design thinking process come about?

What’s the history behind design thinking?

Historically, the term ‘design thinking’ first became public around the 1990s. It was coined by David Kelley and Tim Brown of design company, IDEO, with Roger L. Martin of the Rotman School of Management.

It was developed as an innovation method for products and services for Stanford. Tim Brown said design thinking “could break out of the conventional focus of R&D and new product development, to actually begin to impact sort of leadership as a whole and the way we tackle systems and process problems in our organizations and in our institutions”.

Why do we need a design thinking process?

The process is needed as it provides a number of benefits:

  • Your products and services can get to market faster because you’ve innovated using an effective process that incorporates feedback and refining into the model.
  • You have a shared process that all stakeholders can buy into, which helps to bring people together on the same idea and creates consensus. This promotes "we-intelligence" and collaboration.
  • You have a greater chance of successfully connecting with your customer or user, as you’ve properly considered their point of view and understood their side.
  • It allows all stakeholders to explore lots of ideas at the same time, which means you can have shorter design thinking cycles and faster turnaround for solving problems.
  • You test your human-centric solutions to make sure they actually help fix the problem, making sure that the design works and the final product or service are ready for market.

The 3 components of good design thinking

The Hasso Plattner Institute says that there are three core elements to good design thinking:

  • Multidisciplinary teams - these are teams of about 5-6 people, which hold different backgrounds and disciplines so that the answers created during the process are varied and far-reaching.
  • Variable space - for the team to get creative within. This could be a flexible space that changes according to need, where the team members can move around or stand up within.
  • The design thinking process (5 steps) - an economically viable process of understanding your end user’s needs and wants, followed by creating and testing out ideas that could help solve the needs and wants of your customers.

The 6 stages in the design thinking process

Specifically, design thinking is practically applied in a six-stage process, which can be used by all organizations of all sizes:

1. Understand

What do you understand about the problem? What do you know to be true? This is the section that collects general assumptions and information and puts it to the whole team. This stage lets you and your team define the problem.

Team members collect data and insights, from current research or existing similar projects to provide useful current knowledge. Based on this, an internal knowledge landscape can be created, where gaps are identified and an action plan for further research can be carried out.

Top tip: Use the question ‘How might we…’ to phrase the situation into a solvable problem. This phrasing also is open-ended and allows the team to think of possibilities, rather than constraining their thinking.

2. Observe

At this stage, you’re capturing qualitative research from either observing relevant customers or targeted users or immersing yourself in the situation of the user.

This provides an opportunity to find out about the situation and context of the users, who’ll use your product or service. You can observe their experiences, physical environment, or belief systems, and this will give you an idea of their needs and wants.

Top tip: Sections 1 and 2 are often combined under the heading ‘Empathy’. This provides a similar function of engaging the team member’s emotional intelligence and removing their own personal biases before continuing.

3. Define the POV

Given all you know and all you’ve found out from the first two stages, this is the stage to define the user’s point of view. The team combines the information and builds up a picture of the users that are affected by ‘personas’.

These personas give the design team a complete picture of who the ‘end-user’ is for the product or service. Now, you can use these easy-to-understand profiles to move into the Ideate phase.

Top tip: Use a ‘problem statement’ to help you define the point of view. It is a concise statement describing the situation of a user to keep you focused. An example of a problem statement is ‘As a [insert description of user], I need [describe the goal], because [describe the compelling reason].

4. Ideate

Now that you have the ‘customer’ firmly in mind with these personas, it’s time to think about the problem from different angles. Each team member will have their own experiences and ideas, so all ideas are put on the table at this stage.

Ideas can come from thinking about the problem practically, brainstorming sessions, or role-playing the solutions against the personas. You’ll know quickly if these fit the bill, thanks to the work you did in the earlier stages, and you can prioritize these into viable ideas that you want to test out.

Top tip: Some other brainstorming tools to try are ‘Six thinking hats’, ‘Worst possible idea’ and ‘SCAMPER’.

5. Prototype

The team moves forward with these ideas, bringing them to life, into prototypes. These can be scaled-down versions of tangible products for testing, or tangible representations of each idea, which can be tested in real-time.

The aim is for this prototype to be a minimum viable version of the idea, which will be understood and used in the manner you want it to be used. This prevents misunderstanding when you test the prototype in the final phase.

Top tip: If you’re not able to use technology to bring your idea to life, simply draw it out and indicate how it changes and what each component does. You’re looking for the simplest and clearest way to share the idea with others.

6. Test

When you have a solution that has been created through this process, see if it works on your intended audience by testing it. For each test group, document and record the findings, before repeating the test again in cycles.

Over time, you’ll gain enough evidence to suggest design changes and amendments, which can be verified through testing again. You’ll also remove ideas that don’t completely resolve the issue, as part of refining down your solution.

The aim is to get to a level where you have enough detail and feedback that supports that you have a working solution that solves the user’s problems – this can take several cycles! Once completed though, you have successfully completed the design thinking process.

Top tip: Once you’ve completed one cycle, don’t be alarmed if you have to go back a stage or even to the first stage again. This is part of the process and you’re on the right track.

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