Design Thinking Guide: What, Why and How

A quick look at the markets can tell us about how the design thinking approach and design process can help to build successful strategies for your business.

As a result, companies are now integrating these design process and design thinking strategies. Such companies include Apple, Microsoft, IKEA, Lego and Google.

For many companies, the design process is still locked inside a small creative room. Designers do not effectively contribute to building the business. For this reason, the design is a tool rather than a strategy.

Design managers make a high-level contribution with the executive body leading to strategic decisions that can contribute to product success.

So, what is the difference between design-driven companies and other companies? And what can design do for a companies product development? How does it impact other factors such as achieving innovation and business success?

We investigate the term “design thinking” highlighted in the last few years. Helping you build a holistic understanding of the design processes inside companies.

Also, we look at the benefits of applying design thinking inside companies.

What is Design Thinking?

There is notable confusion about the meaning of design thinking thus it is present inside and outside the design body. It is from the way we define design to its own components and the other fields of human knowledge. With this in mind, science and art are included.

So, before moving to define design thinking, we should have a clear definition of what design is.

Everything we have around us has been designed. Design ability is, in fact, one of the three fundamental dimensions of human intelligence. Design, science, and art form an ‘AND’ not an ‘OR’ relationship to create the incredible human cognitive ability.

Professor Nigel Cross
Book: Designerly Ways of Knowing
  • Science – finding similarities among things that are different.
  • Art – finding differences among things that are similar.
  • Design – creating workable ‘wholes’ from infeasible ‘parts.’

What is Design?

Based on the above, design is a process that created the “wholes” from the “parts.” Those parts include not only the look and the feel of the designed product but also how it works. This process is the design process, also known as the design thinking process.

Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011)
Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and Co-founder of Apple Inc.

Design thinking is a user-centred method used by designers to solve problems for the purpose of finding a desirable solution for consumers. A process based on a consumer-driven strategy that aims to ensure the user is at the heart of the design process.

Starting by defining the problem and ending by delivering the solution therefore getting user feedback is crucial. It will be part of a continuous iterative process used to improve the product or service in the future.

Design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.

Tim Brown
Chief Executive Officer of IDEO

Mini case study: Democratic Design at IKEA

IKEA is one of the leading companies in the field of home and furniture product design industry. IKEA’s strategy integrates different principles into the product development process. This in return achieves “good design.”

Each of IKEA’s products achieves the following five principles:

  1. Form: the look and the feel of the product should be desirable and beautiful.
  2. Function: the product should be usable and solve one of the consumer problems. The product should consider human factors such as how the consumers use the product.
  3. Quality: the quality of the product. Includes choosing the materials in designing its products.
  4. Sustainability: products should be eco-friendly by reducing waste and carbon emissions. It should also reduce the consumption of the Earth’s resources.
  5. Low price: the product should be available at an affordable price for as many people as possible.

The above case study provides a successful example. Because IKEA has a clear understanding of the design process. For many companies, design has a very narrow definition. This minimises the value expected in the final product or service.

Why do we Need to Apply Design Thinking?

The last few years have shown an increased perception of the design thinking process.

McKinsey&Company is one of the world’s leading product development advisory firms. They published a report in 2016 on the importance of building a design-driven culture.

There are some mini case studies in this article. They provide successful examples of applying the design thinking process.

So, what are the values that we can achieve through applying design thinking? Below is a list of the benefits you can achieve through applying design thinking.

Focus on the User Experience

As highlighted above, the design thinking process is having one ultimate goal. The goal is to address people’s needs and problems to achieve a user-centred product design.

This approach takes into consideration the emotional experience besides other factors.

Jon Kolko provides a clear example of emotional experience. He also described the link to the product value proposition.

If you buy a Lexus, the automaker promises that you will receive safe and comfortable transportation in a well-designed high-performance vehicle. An emotional value proposition is a promise of feeling: If you buy a Lexus, the automaker promises that you will feel pampered, luxurious, and affluent.

Jon Kolko
Harvard Business Review

This emotional value proposition can be only achieved through adopting the design. Thinking to create the so-called empathic design. The empathic design aims to put the designers in the shoe of the end-user. Done so by giving them the chance to see how they feel and respond to the product.

Marcus Engman highlights the design process in IKEA starts at people’s homes to find out what they need. This step is part of the emphasis phase in the design thinking process.

Mini Case Study: Design Thinking at Microsoft

The world’s leading supplier of systems software was always a technology-driven organisation. Currently, Microsoft is using design thinking to focus on user experience.

Subsequently, Microsoft adopted a strategy to focus on user experience. Integrating designers with the product development teams and delivering practice methods to designers.

They now apply design principles across the business and extend user research methods. This then helps to improve the user experience.

To achieve this strategy, Microsoft adopted a user-centric design process of five stages.

  1. Understand
  2. Envision
  3. Specify
  4. Implementation
  5. Maintain

These stages are like the design processes highlighted earlier. Microsoft also involved the design at different phases, such as the following:

  • Project management – periodic meetings to follow up with the progress to meet goals.
  • Using evaluation methods – to learn about the users’ satisfaction and their experience.
  • Testing the prototypes through adopting user-testing and evaluation methods.

Design Thinking Fuels Innovation

In his article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Tim Brown highlighted that:

Design thinking is scalable and can be applied incrementally to improve existing ideas (such as how a service is delivered or how a product performs for the user) or it can be applied radically to create disruptive solutions that meet the needs of people in entirely new ways.

Tim Brown
Stanford Social Innovation Review

These characteristics of design thinking promote contribution in different types of innovation. Including disruptive, sustaining, and breakthrough innovation.

The nature of the design thinking process contributes to fuelling innovation. However, achieving innovation requires the consideration of three main factors:

  1. Technology
  2. Business
  3. Human values

Achieve these three factors by targeted the below by targeting the three goals below:

1. User desirability

The product should stratify the consumer’s needs. Solving everyday problems using a user-centric approach.

2. Business viability

Consider an integrated business strategy to ensure product success in the market.

3. Technology possibility

Consider technology as an essential part of the new product development process (NPD). It is a powerful tool for designers to achieve innovation.

Mini Case Study: Design Thinking at Apple

We investigated the footprints of the dramatic shift of Apple products. We then looked at how it related to design thinking.

After Steve Job’s return to Apple in 1997, he initiated a new design thinking process. He helped Apple pass its hard time during the period 1985-1997 and reach market success.

His strategy gave birth to the slogan “Think Different!” Based on applying design thinking goals above the product process.

He focused on the following:

  • Focus on the user needs rather than the business needs.
  • Build an empathic relation between the users and their Apple products.
  • Focus on the design rather than the engineering. Designers are able to consider both the form and the function in the product design.
  • Create simple products that target user needs rather than complex and hard-to-use products.

Find Solutions for Complex Problems

Design thinking has different stages that help the design teams brainstorm solutions. Especially for complex problems that were not solved before.

During each stage, the use of creative tools helps find uncommon solutions. In the Define stage, you can use tools such as affinity diagrams to organise collected data. Or you can use the cause and effect diagram to investigate the causes behind a specific problem.

Though other advantages include increasing company profits and market competitiveness. There is a positive correlation between design thinking and achieving innovation.

In either case it has proved to be a success in company profit and improving market competitiveness.

In Profitable Innovation, a book by Dr Georg Tacke, David Vidal, and Jan Haemer. Five options were prominent to improve the market position of the product or the company.

Firstly, at the top of the list is the introduction of new, innovative, differentiated products. 77% per cent considered an extra advantage of applying the design thinking process.

How to Apply Design Thinking Models

Design Thinking Guide & Strategies

There are many suggestions of different models to define the design thinking process. These models vary based on their approach and the number of stages.

Stanford D.School Design Thinking

One of the common design thinking models is the D.School design thinking. Consider it a straightforward process consisting of five stages described below.

  • Empathy: this stage aims to find and solve the problem through the product or the service. The problem usually presents a gap between what consumers need and already have. Accordingly, this is where you apply the user experience research. To collect information about the users’ demographic, behaviour, environment, and needs.
  • Define: at this stage, analyse and organise the collected data. Have a clear picture of the problem and user needs.
  • Ideate: designers deliver a solution for the problem in a form of a product or a service to the end-user. Define and follow the solution in written format in the following prototyping stage.
  • Prototype: consider this the core of the design thinking process. It presents a transformation of the idea into a prototype for the suggested solution. This visual prototype allows them to test the idea and determine whether it meets the need.
  • Test: this is the first iteration stage in this model. Test the prototype and get feedback until it reaches the final product.

Iterations Between Stages of Design Thinking

The Hasso Plattner Institute in Germany introduced a continuous iteration between the stages. After finalising, the iteration process ensures the initial design strategy is still valid. Then it checks if it meets the requirements.

With this in mind, if there is a problem or specific failure, it’s easy to spot the stage where the problem occurred. It enables the designer to return to this problem area to fix the failure.

The simplicity of this model is both an advantage and a disadvantage. The simplicity ensures designers understand the different stages of the process.

But it does not define some other essential stages such as the delivery of the product. The feedback from the user is also left out. This is necessary to improve future versions of the designed product or service.

ZURB Design Thinking

The ZURB Design Thinking model is an interesting model that shares the D.School’s simplicity although it includes five stages; Define, Ideas, Prototype, Build and Analyse.

The last two stages represent the build of the final product, missing in the Stanford D.School model. As well as an analysis of the market impact and the user’s feedback.

This model presents two types of iteration cycles. The design treats ion, and the product reset (pivot).

The first type includes the iteration between the stages: Ideate, Prototype, Build and Analyse. If something goes wrong then the team can iterate between the four stages. This makes it easy to file problems and improve the product.

The second iteration process is a hard reset. Used if there is a major failure or the product does not meet the requirements. The product resets and immediately returns to the ideate stage to repeat the process. It then tries to define the problem again.

Double-Diamond Design Thinking

Next, we look at The Double Diamond Diagram, developed by the British Design Council in 2005. Built as part of their in-house research. To identify how leading companies manage the design process.

The Design Council process includes four main stages: Discover, Define, Develop, and Deliver. The first two stages define the project strategy. While the third and fourth represents the executive solution.

This process starts with a trigger point which can be an idea or a problem that influences the team. The key is to “understand” and research available knowledge about the targeted problem.

This is a research stage that utilises methods such as:

  • marketing research
  • user research
  • managing information
  • design research groups

Following the “Understand” stage, the “Define” stage represents defining the primary objectives. Methods used during the “Define” stage: project development, project management, and project sign-off.

The second part of the Double Diamond Diagram includes the “Develop” stage. This stage includes developing the prototype, iterate and tests it to ensure it meets the project goals.

This stage involves multidisciplinary work: visual management, development methods, and testing. The last stage is “Deliver” where the final product completed and delivered to the market. The methods in this stage involve:

  • final testing
  • product approval
  • evaluation
  • and feedback

The Double Diamond Diagram by the Design Council research included eleven case studies. It featured leading companies such as LEGO, Alessi, Microsoft, Sony, Starbucks, and others.

It’s modelled on many different types of companies. Its variety of discipline resulted in its adoption by a wide range of companies.

IBM Design Thinking Process

One of the recently published design thinking models is IBM design thinking.

In 2013, IBM started a project to build a design-driven culture. The project took around three years. It involved more than 750 designers and affected over 10,000 employees in the company. IBM has more than 385,000 employees.

The project aims to improve the design process and consequently making it clearer to understand consumer needs and build empathy. The project aimed to correctly understand the consumer needs and build empathy.

This new model was quickly accepted due to its speed and scalability. But more importantly, it meets the demand of modern companies.

Finally, previous models were more biased towards small and medium enterprises (SMEs). IBM’s model targets larger scaled companies including enterprises such as IBM.

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