by Abhimanyu Bhardwaj
“I know what’s Design Thinking.”
You probably do. You’ve certainly heard the term “Design Thinking”. You would’ve heard it in passing at a UX conference or from people in black turtlenecks, with macs under their arms, talking about unicorns. In fact, Design Thinking is such a catchphrase now that it has overtaken User Experience Design in Google searches.
Why is it so popular? Because it puts a proven problem-solving ideology within reach of everyone. IDEO-U defines Design Thinking as-
“Design thinking utilizes elements from the designer’s toolkit like empathy and experimentation to arrive at innovative solutions. By using design thinking, you make decisions based on what future customers really want instead of relying only on historical data or making risky bets based on instinct instead of evidence.”
This “utilizing” of tools from a “designer’s toolkit” has made Design Thinking so accessible that with one nanodegree from Stanford or apparently even a 3 minute video on Youtube, anyone can become a practitioner. Armed with empathy and the willingness to experiment, even you can put “Design Thinker and Doer” in your LinkedIn bio.
But I have news for you. That’s not what Design Thinking is.
“Okay, so what is Design Thinking actually?”
None of us agree on a singular definition. We all have our own models, ideas and approaches. But those of us in the know agree that-
Design thinking is widely misrepresented.
Design thinking is NOT a one day workshop.
Design thinking is NOT an algorithm.
Design thinking is NOT a process.
The Design world (especially IDEO) is complicit in making DT seem like a 5-step process. It’s infinitely easier to propagate an idea if you can express it as steps and bullet points. To reduce how a designer thinks to a prescriptive, 5-stage process is almost criminal. Want to know how profound this problem is? Try doing a Google Image search for Design Thinking…
Designers (those with actual backgrounds in Design) know that how we work is a combination of several essential factors- a broad framework that gives you a platform of creative freedom and a mindset that comes with years of immersion in the craft, a deep understanding of people and a willingness to experiment and dance with the unknown.
You know how enlightenment works right? If you have to say you’re enlightened, you probably aren’t. Empathy works the exact same way. Experimentation without fruitfully learning from your mistakes is an unacceptable waste of time and your company’s money.
“I use 100 Post-its a day, own a Macbook and have participated in design sprints. Can’t I call myself a Design Thinker?”
Unfortunately for you, it takes a little more than a “pocket full of post-its”. However, there’s a great way of utilising Design Thinking in your work… and I’ll tell you about it. If your goal is innovation, this approach will get you there.
First, find a problem worth solving.
DT values the right question more than the right answer to the wrong question. Hence, “How Might We” questions are the cornerstone of DT. They allow you to solve for SMARTgoals as a team of stakeholders (we). A good HMW is a seed that is broad enough that there are a wide range of solutions but narrow enough that the team has some helpful boundaries and may follow the structure – “How might we *action* *what* for *whom* in order to *change something*”.
Next, start thinking.
The Penrose Triangle is a curious geometric shape- it exists only in 2 dimensions despite its 3D appearance. Run your finger along any edge and you’ll end up going over all of them. This infinitely recursive platform embodies one of the core principles of Design Thinking- continuous iteration.
I call this the Tris Framework. The three main vertices of the framework are research, synthesis and building/designing. Moving between these vertices allows you to respectively frame a “How Might We”, answer it and then improve it.
Research – gather information and data without judgement. Look at the people you’re trying to solve for, listen to them, and question all assumptions and givens.
Synthesise – externalise this information, assimilate what you’ve seen and heard, and look for patterns. Look for common problems, unexpressed needs and prioritise the problems worth solving.
Build – bring your solution to life and test it… without attachment to your ideas. It works? Improve it until you can scale it. It doesn’t work? Pivot and retry.
Understanding that Design Thinking is built on such a non-prescriptive framework is both liberating and frightening. I mean, you could be moving around infinitely on this platform… and that’s why it works. It gives you creative freedom, asking you to solely respect the phases and be mindful of a set of behaviours that facilitate Design Thinking.
Finally, follow the Strategic Behavioural Mindset.
Design Thinking, or thinking like a designer occurs when you are aware of, and using a deliberate set of behaviours of theirs. Thanks to my Product Design experience at SPD and my internship at EY working with 24 clients, I was able to identify a set of behaviours for each phase of the Design Thinking Process that can make innovation happen for you and your company.
“I follow the framework and am mindful of the mindset. Now am I a Design Thinker?”
Unfortunately not yet, but you’re further along than where we started. Design Thinking requires hours of practice and self-discovery. This is the only way to save Design Thinking- by giving it back its original meaning and taking away the idea that it’s easy to do for everybody and anybody. So what if it isn’t? With a fair amount of effort, you can get there.
When you get to the stage where the pillars of DT occur to you naturally and simultaneously, you’ll know. You’ll see innovation everywhere, and when you don’t see it, you’ll manifest it. You’ll probably even be able to come up with your own framework and mindset, just like I did.
And I think that’s beautiful.
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