DESIGN THINKING: What is it, really?
For many years now, the term “Design Thinking” is heard left and right in workshops, trainings, conferences, and project proposals. We have heard people saying that the term is used by innovation and creativity companies to generate a certain mysticism in order to justify their high prices. Sometimes this is probably true, but Design Thinking is a term with a serious methodological background and much more than a passing fad.
In this article we will explain what this Design Thinking deal is all about, so that you can finally distinguish between those who know what they are talking about and those who do not.
Table of content
1. The Origins of Design Thinking
Up until mid-20th century (and a little beyond that too), the design of new products was determined almost exclusively by the technology available. Basically, the reasoning was: “We have this technology, let’s see what products we can develop with it”.
The paradigm shift came in the 1950s and 1960s, when business, engineering, and design schools began to explore creative methods for developing new products. This gave birth to a new current of thought that positioned the human factor as a central piece in design and innovation methodologies. As a result, intuition and artistic expression were recognized as necessary to face highly complex and uncertain scenarios, such as those faced by our industry every day.
These ideas continued evolving and being refined, resulting in what we now call Design Thinking.
2. What is Design Thinking?
When making strategic decisions about future products and services, many companies focus almost exclusively on gathering quantitative data about the past. Meanwhile, other companies choose to ignore this data and base their decisions purely on instinct. Design Thinking deals with these problems. It relies on hard data about people’s behavior and uses robust design tools to imagine new futures.
The goal is to solve problems in a practical and creative way, placing the human being at the center of its philosophy. The method understands that the design of a product or service determines the person’s experience. In this way, it considers essential to empathize with the audience in order to develop products or services that meet their needs. By recognizing the patterns of behavior and decisions that develop in us as we accumulate information about the world, Design Thinking manages to understand what motivates our actions and what our true needs are.
But before describing the methodology (the “thinking”) in detail, let’s understand the importance of the “design”. Why is design central to this methodology? How does design impact people’s experience? How is it used by different brands to beat the competition?
3. Design: Determinant for the Experience
Question: Does this door open by pushing or pulling?
Normally, it would open by pulling, since otherwise the metal handles would have no reason to exist. However, the door is open by pushing. A classic example of bad design that causes frustration in users.
This example highlights a key concept in design: Affordance. The affordance of an object is a property that gives a person the ability to perform an action. In other words, the affordance signals how the object should be used. In the case of a door, the handle means “pull”, while a flat surface “push”.
The Importance of the Affordance in Design Thinking
The concept of affordance is key to good packaging design, for example. Some designers make the mistake of believing that verbal communication can replace a good affordance, as is the case with this milk carton:
Nobody reads instructions. The physical attributes of an object always communicate more than written words. If the package is opened from the other side, the wrong side should not be the same as the right one! As we will see, these types of errors can be avoided by following the Design Thinking methodology.
We could talk much more about affordance, but this concept is not the only thing that determines the experience. Other types of modifications in a design, as well as its spatial arrangement are also decisive.
For example, have you ever wondered about the different designs of public benches? Although all the ones we show are designed to sit, there are differences. The first has some added handles to prevent people from lying down and the second prioritizes privacy. Meanwhile, the spatial arrangement of the third encourages socialization.
This simple example shows how small variations in design can have a big impact. Have you thought about the design of your workspace? Does it encourage collaboration or individual work? A formal or relaxed setting? Socialization breaks or uninterrupted work? Design Thinking helps us to discern between these cases, understand the client’s needs, and design accordingly.
4. Thinking: Methodology Step by Step
Having understood the importance of the “design”, it is time to delve into the “thinking”. That is, the methodology per se for the development of a product or a solution. Design Thinking is implemented by thousands of different companies, and therefore has thousands of variants. That said, the methodology has a basic structure made up of 5 stages.
Every problem is subjective. Therefore, to satisfy a desire or need, it is first essential to understand our target. A first step is to collect hard data, but we must also talk to people, interview them, and empathize with them.
The only way to imagine what our audience might want, but does not yet have, is to know their behavior and their way of thinking as if they were ourselves.
After putting ourselves in people’s shoes, we must define exactly what they need or want. For this, we have to find a factor common to all the members of the target. For example: during confinement, one person might say that he wants to go to the bar to watch a soccer game, while another would say that she needs her salsa classes. In this case, a common factor is that both people need to socialize more. The correct execution of this stage is extremely important. It requires a deep understanding of human behavior and psychology. Otherwise, if we take people’s word at face value without interpreting the needs and desires behind their demands, we run the risk of designing a product that has everything but solves nothing.
It is now time for the famous “brainstorming”, characterized by the avalanche of Post-It notes stuck in the most unusual places.
Once the problem is defined, the goal is to note all potential solutions that cross our mind. Like the previous ones, this stage is collaborative: the idea is not to repress a single idea, since even the silliest concept can inspire great solutions.
After generating tens and hundreds of ideas, these are discarded and merged, until a select group of potential solutions is left to present to the target in the form of sketches. In other words, this stage has two phases. First, one of divergence that consists of imagining as many options as possible. And second, one of convergence that consists of making decisions regarding all the imagined options.
Based on the conversation with the target about the sketches that we present to them, we need to understand: how do our ideas fit into people’s lives and how do they complement other existing products or services? Based on this, we select the best available idea and build a prototype.
The final stage is to test our prototype: use people’s feedback to understand what works and what does not work, and how willing our target is to use or purchase the product.
Like the rest, this stage should flow with relative speed. Design Thinking is an agile method. In other words, it is based on iteration and fast testing. When discovering what does not work in our prototype, we must ideate again, prototype and test. We continue repeating until we strike the right balance for our product design.
5. Difference in Results Thanks to Design Thinking: Apple vs Microsoft
In the mid-2000s Apple launched “Get a Mac,” one of its most successful ad campaigns. In it, a character representing a PC and another a Mac argued and tried to persuade the public about their superiority.
Throughout 50 short commercials, Mac, represented by a super cool character, displayed a design oriented to the user experience. Meanwhile, PC, represented by a rigid and clumsy character, tried to convince the public of its “superior” functionalities. However, in all the commercials it was evident that the PC functionalities were useless, complicated to use, or simply absurd. Meanwhile, Mac exhibited simplicity, good taste, and utility.
The “Get a Mac” campaign was on the spot. Microsoft had always been criticized for adopting a product development methodology that responded to the “we have this technology, let’s see what product we can develop with it”. The company, critics said, was not focused on optimizing user experience. It is no coincidence that MS Excel is one of Microsoft’s best products and that Apple has not developed its own version of it. MS Excel is basically a super powerful calculator designed to optimize businesses, not experiences. However, Apple did develop Keynote, a presentation software that competes with MS PowerPoint.
This case highlights the difference that Steve Jobs’ Design Thinking can make compared with a methodology less focused on design and experience such as that chosen by Bill Gates.
Design Thinking is a method for the innovation and development of products and services. It relies on design to integrate people’s needs, technological capabilities, and business needs.
By placing the human being at the center of its philosophy, Design Thinking understands that design is decisive in people’s experience. Because of this, it considers essential to understand and empathize with the audience.
The method does not propose a strict recipe and therefore provides a high degree of freedom when implementing it. Because there are no rules that clearly define each stage of the process… Running a project based on Design Thinking requires a lot of experience! Like a chef with thousands of ways to prepare a dish, the person in charge must implement the techniques that best suit his team and the project at hand.