top of page

Design Think(ing) to Innovate

by Sakshi Chavan

Design Thinking is about taking a human-centred approach to innovation that draws from a designers toolkit to integrate the needs of the consumer. Simply put, it is about thinking about a business problem with sensitivity, and not basing the innovation process solely on numbers, adding a touch of human intuition.

Commonly referred to as creative thinking, this process plays a pivotal role in shaping the products and experiences that you hope to translate in the customer experience. Integrating Design Thinking into development processes unlocks business potential. It adds a layer of assuring that the products intended for customers is not only meeting a consumer need, but also economically viable in terms of feasibility and profitability.

The approach is a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. Involving five phases—Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test—it is especially useful in open-ended and abstract problems.

Some of the most successful organisations such as Google, Apple and Airbnb have employed it to notable effect. Design-led companies such as Apple, Pepsi, Procter & Gamble and SAP have outperformed the S&P 500 by an extraordinary 211%.

As per IDEO, an organization who is often credited with inventing the term “design thinking” and its practice, believes that the concept of design thinking is such that: “Give someone a fish, and they’ll have food for a day, teach someone to fish and they’ll have food for life”. Similarly, if you launch a product, it may give you temporary success, but if you learn design thinking, you would have cracked the code to pushing out successful products consistently.

Design Thinking and the Process

Design thinking’s value as a driving force in business makes it a popular subject at leading international universities. With design thinking, teams have the freedom to generate ground-breaking solutions. Using it, a team can gain hard-to-access insights and apply a collection of hands-on methods to help find innovative answers.

The process involves the following 5 stages:

Stage 1: Empathize—Research Your Users' Needs

This step involves obtaining an empathetic understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve, typically through user research. Empathy is crucial to a human-centered design process such as design thinking because it allows you to set aside your own assumptions about the world and gain real insight into users and their needs.

Consult experts to find out more about the area of concern and conduct observations to engage and empathise with your users. You may also want to immerse yourself in your users’ physical environment to gain a deeper, personal understanding of the issues involved—as well as their experiences and motivations. Empathy is crucial to problem solving and a human-centred design process as it allows design thinkers to set aside their own assumptions about the world and gain real insight into users and their needs.

Stage 2: Define—State Your Users' Needs and Problems

Next you accumulate the information gathered during the Empathise stage. You then analyse your observations and synthesise them to define the core problems you and your team have identified. These definitions are called problem statements. One can create personas to help keep your efforts human-centred before proceeding to ideation.

The Define stage will help the design team collect great ideas to establish features, functions and other elements to solve the problem at hand—or, at the very least, allow real users to resolve issues themselves with minimal difficulty. In this stage, you will start to progress to the third stage, the ideation phase, where you ask questions to help you look for solutions.

Stage 3: Ideate—Challenge Assumptions and Create Ideas

Next, you’re ready to generate ideas. The solid background of knowledge from the first two phases means you can start to “think outside the box”, look for alternative ways to view the problem and identify innovative solutions to the problem statement you’ve created.

There are multiple ideation techniques we can use—such as Brainstorm, Brainwrite, Worst Possible Idea and SCAMPER. Brainstorm and Worst Possible Idea techniques are typically used at the start of the ideation stage to stimulate free thinking and expand the problem space. This allows you to generate as many ideas as possible at the start of ideation. One should pick other ideation techniques towards the end of this stage to help you investigate and test your ideas, and choose the best ones to move forward with—either because they seem to solve the problem or provide the elements required to circumvent it.

Stage 4: Prototype—Start to Create Solutions

This is an experimental phase. The aim is to identify the best possible solution for each problem found. A team should produce some inexpensive, scaled-down versions of the product to investigate the ideas you’ve generated. This could involve simply paper prototyping.

Stage 5: Test—Try Your Solutions Out

Evaluators rigorously test the prototypes. Although this is the final phase, design thinking is iterative: teams often use the results to redefine one or more further problems. So, one can return to previous stages to make further iterations, alterations and refinements – to find or rule out alternative solutions.

In the Define stage, you will organize the information you have gathered during the Empathize stage. You’ll analyze your observations to define the core problems you and your team have identified up to this point. Defining the problem and problem statement must be done in a human-centred manner.

In employing design thinking, you’re pulling together what’s desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. It also allows those who aren't trained as designers to use creative tools to address a vast range of challenges. The process starts with taking action and understanding the right questions. It’s about embracing simple mindset shifts and tackling problems from a new direction. When done right, design thinking will help you understand the mindsets and needs of the people you're creating for, surface opportunities based on these needs, and lead you to innovative new solutions starting with quick, low-fidelity experiments that provide learning and gradually increase in fidelity.

The Four Principles of Design Thinking

There are four principles of Design Thinking as laid out by Christoph Meinel and Harry Leifer of the Hasso-Plattner-Institute of Design at Stanford University, California, are:

  • The human rule: No matter what the context, all design activity is social in nature, and any social innovation will bring us back to the “human-centric point of view”.

  • The ambiguity rule: Ambiguity is inevitable, and it cannot be removed or oversimplified. Experimenting at the limits of your knowledge and ability is crucial in being able to see things differently.

  • The redesign rule: All design is redesign. While technology and social circumstances may change and evolve, basic human needs remain unchanged. We essentially only redesign the means of fulfilling these needs or reaching desired outcomes.

  • The tangibility rule: Making ideas tangible in the form of prototypes enables designers to communicate them more effectively.

Design is transforming the way leading companies create value. The focus of innovation has shifted from being engineering-driven to design-driven, from product-centric to customer-centric, and from marketing-focused to user-experience-focused. For an increasing number of CEOs, design thinking is at the core of effective strategy development and organisational change.

The Takeaway

To conclude, Roger Martin, former Dean of Rotman School and author of The Design of Business, asserts, “Design-thinking firms stand apart in their willingness to engage in the task of continuously redesigning their business… to create advances in both innovation and efficiency – the combination that produces the most powerful competitive edge.”

Learn more about Design Thinking in Startup Design 101 module, part of the WorkEx Bootcamp.


bottom of page