Design Thinking

Imagine a wall covered in post-its or people working in a group around a whiteboard. Are they design thinking? Also, what is this phenomenon that has been taking businesses by storm in the recent years? Let’s dig deeper into this subject through 5 points.

1. Design Thinking. The What?

Design Thinking is a method following a set of principles that allows benefiting from design as a means for change.  The process can be useful for anyone who is looking for new ways to look at problems or get the work done. It has been in particular popular with companies to create advances in product innovation and efficiency. In fact, design thinking has been described as “a unified framework for innovation” or “the essential tool for simplifying and humanizing”.

The set of Design Thinking principles is simple:

  • Focus on user experience
  • Build prototypes
  • Tolerate failure.

Focusing on providing excellent user experience shows you have connected and empathized with your users. As for the prototyping– even the most fabulous sculptures were not created without drafts and iterations. A culture of tolerance for failure is also required – with a little digging, even the biggest tech giants be it Apple or Google have had products failing and being discontinued.

More specifically, design thinking is about putting in place a multidisciplinary team (such as engineers, marketers, consumers and others) to find solutions to concrete problems in a human-centred way. The answers can span from a new product to a reimagined consumer experience or a new way of management.

2. Design Thinking. How It All Started?

The neologism “Design Thinking” as it is known today has been popularised from the 1990s by a US design firm from Palo Alto “IDEO”. Ideo attracted experts in various fields – anthropology, engineering, business strategy or healthcare and continuously advocates for design as a means to solve complex problems.


“In order to survive in today’s complex world, organizations need to generate, embrace, and execute on new ideas. That takes creativity and a creatively capable workforce. It’s the secret sauce, or in evolutionary terms, it’s what keeps you fit. Organizations without it can’t compete.”

–  Tim Brown, CEO IDEO


The story begins much earlier than that. (For those readers, who are interested in learning more about how design thinking evolved from the 1960s and who were the personalities who stand out, an interesting article can be found here.) But what about before 1960s? People have practised design for ages. A good design throughout history is the one that could effectively respond to the needs of people, be it in construction or fashion. In this sense, fashion designers or dressmakers who paid attention not only to the way their clothes looked but also how their clothes fit with the customers’ lifestyles and needs can be considered as early design thinkers.

Traditionally, however, in business, the design has been mostly concerned with a product’s aesthetics. Designers have been considered as “artistic savants” and placed at the end of the product development chain. As a result products and solutions, although technically well executed, failed to uncover or meet customer’s real needs. Some companies have therefore moved the designer teams upstream the product development process (see below). This has proven to be a differentiator. Products or services that take into account not only the performance aspects but also the emotional resonance with the customer have reaped financial benefits thanks to the human-centred approach to their development.

However, how to implement a creative process, often considered unstructured and unpredictable into large organizations and businesses that seek to minimize the uncertainty of outcomes? Hence the formalization of the design thinking process into a framework with concrete steps to tackle various business problems.


3. Design Thinking. The How?

Design Thinking Framework with possible useful tools at each stage.



Various design-thinking frameworks exist with different number of steps. It is less critical which frame you decide to use than to understand the chronology and the underlying aim of these steps. Here, we suggest one possible model.

     1) Discover

Dive into your specific topic. What is it that you want to focus on? What is the present state and what is the desired future state you will be trying to achieve?

     2) Empathize

This is the part where you will connect with your consumer/user. If you are working on a product, start by observing how people interact with it, what do they do with it. If it is a process, understand how people feel while going through different stages of the process and what do they want as the outcome of it. In this part, you will talk to a range of potential users. Do not just focus on the average user, but also go to the extremes – people who use your product more or less often or who fall outside of the target group as these groups are more likely to have a clear stand about a product/process features.

A potential trap could be to orchestrate the surveys in a way that you focus on answers that you want to hear. Therefore, it is essential to go beyond questioning your users, but also show empathy, walk in their shoes and understand their daily motivations and frustrations while using your product/service.

Possible useful tool: customer journey mapping

     3) Define

Now that you have gathered insights from your customers take a step back. Combine the data that you have collected to organize your observations in buckets, draw parallels and start identifying relationships. This will allow starting pinpointing opportunities for innovation and identifying hidden customers’ needs.

For example, if in the Empathize phase, consumer A said he gets bored playing a game app alone and consumer B said he wants to be able to share his results with his friends, the underlying need here is social interaction.

Possible useful tool: mind mapping

     4) Ideate

“The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”

– Linus Pauling


Now that you have gathered some nontrivial consumer insights, it is time to brainstorm! How can you address these unmet needs? Give yourself freedom for thought – you need to have multiple ideas, and no idea is too scatter-brained. Work on your ideas both individually and in groups, discuss, give feedback and build on others’ opinions. So don’t just sit with your pen and a blank page – imagine, draw, engage with others, improvise!

Possible useful tool: brainstorming

     5) Prototype

From the previous stage, choose a few ideas (1-3) and get your hands dirty! The aim here is to evaluate on the one hand the feasibility to realise your thought and on the other hand its potential to respond to the original problem. Your prototypes should be tangible, even if they are done just with pen and paper. It can be a diagram or a sketch, a few lines of code or a miniature model.

Possible useful tool: rapid prototyping tools, e.g. mock apps or landing pages websites like Balsamiq or Mockingbird

     6) Validate

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

 Thomas Edison


Test your ideas with different groups of people, including a few users at the very early stages. Listen to their feedback and ask them what did your prototype change for them. Did it make their life or job better?

Possible useful tool: customer co-creation

     7) Iterate

The first point here is to integrate the feedback you get from the stage before into your prototype and start over. The advantage of the rapid prototyping method is that it allows you to fail quickly and eliminate non-viable options before investing more resources. The second point is that design is not a linear process, but a collaborative one and it is going to take more time to get the work done. Last but certainly not least: implement your solution

Possible useful tool: learning launches


4. Design Thinking. A Few Case Studies When It Worked.

  • Airbnb

Upon launch, Airbnb sales remained low and flat. As founders were reviewing property listings in one of the American cities to try and figure out what wasn’t working, they noticed the following pattern. The pictures were taken mostly with phone cameras which meant poor quality. Perhaps, customers were not booking rooms because they could not see what they were precisely booking. They decided to travel to the city, rent some professional photography gear and spend some time with the property owners to replace their pictures with high-resolution ones. It was a turning point for the company, which doubled its weekly revenues following this trip.

Lesson learnt: don’t be afraid to go out there to meet your customers and to experiment with ideas (even not scalable ones). You can read more about Airbnb case here.

  • Oral-B

IDEO was once asked by Oral-B to design a new toothbrush for kids. IDEO wanted first to observe kids brush their teeth. It seemed like a strange request, as everyone seems to know how to brush their teeth. However, it turned out that kids brush their teeth differently than adults. Given the differences in hands’ morphology, kids hold and manipulate toothbrushes with the palm of their hand, while adults use predominantly fingers. This simple observation led to designing new toothbrush handles, which are flat and squishy. Nowadays, if you look at kids’ toothbrushes in stores, a lot of them have such handles.

Lesson learnt: Walk in the shoes of your customers and verify your assumptions.

  • PepsiCo

Indra Nooyi, the PepsiCo current CEO, has led a long campaign to give a voice to design in every critical decision the company makes. The road has been a long one as she describes:

“Every time I tried to talk about design within the company, people would refer to packaging: “Should we go to a different blue?” It was like putting lipstick on a pig, as opposed to redesigning the pig itself.”

Yet, their Pepsi Spire soda fountain machine is more than merely a change in external design (which features a touchscreen and is quite futuristic) or addition of a few functional buttons. Pepsi has rethought the way a customer interacts with the vending machine so that now you can get personalized flavour suggestions based on your previous choices and observe how your drink mix is prepared.

Lesson learnt: design in product development is not just about packaging and labelling. It spans from product creation to how it looks in space and how customers interact with it.

If you want to read the inspiring interview with Indra Nooyi (and learning that designing a product for women is more than putting some pink on the package, you can find it here.)


 5. Design Thinking. Some Final Words to Spark Your Mind and Get You Cracking.


“I don’t think that anyone has really told (people) what design is. It doesn’t occur to most people that everything is designed — that every building and everything they touch in the world is designed. Even foods are designed now. So in the process of helping people understand this, making them more aware of the fact that the world around us is something that somebody has control of, perhaps they can feel some sense of control, too. I think that’s a nice ambition.”

–  Bill Moggridge


In conclusion, design thinking is a problem-solving method that encompasses elements of art, science and design. Some of its fundamental principles are not new and can be reminiscent of quality management theory (e.g. the WV model that favoured an alternation between the thought and experiment level to iterate and test solutions to find those that respond best to users’ needs). It can be applied to a variety of businesses, products and processes. By encouraging multidisciplinary collaboration, exploration of multiple solutions and focus on uncovering user’s needs, design thinking has proven to be useful to innovate, reshape and simplify not only products or processes but organizations as a whole. And as we are living in a world where modern technology and business are becoming more and more complex, this may be a sufficient argument to start experimenting with this tool.




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