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Published on: Mar 2022
The Importance of Design Thinking
Amidst the slew of frameworks and methodologies that regularly flood the world of strategy, once in a blue moon comes along an idea that revolutionizes the way we look at and understand problems. In the early 1900s, the 'Assembly-Line' system for manufacturing automobiles revolutionized manufacturing. A few decades down the line, the concept of 'Total Quality Management' brought about a change in the way we viewed bottlenecks.
A 21st-century idea that has arguably made a similar impact has been the idea of 'Design-Thinking.' Walk into any strategy class today, and you're likely to come across the phrase. Design-thinking was first introduced by the design-consulting firm IDEO in 2008; more specifically, the then Chief Executive Officer of IDEO, Mr. Tim Brown, penned down an article for the Harvard Business Review documenting the various use cases of design-thinking in a business context.
But what exactly is design-thinking, and why has it garnered such widespread attention? More importantly, why is it an indispensable tool today in every facet of business? Let's try and understand.
What is Design Thinking?
To understand design thinking, let’s first understand how problem-solving has been approached traditionally. Historically, problem-solving has been viewed as a unidimensional, linear process involving identifying a problem and drawing a one-way path towards its solution(s). However, with increasing innovation and a growing focus on the customer, a newer and radically different way of thinking emerged, which we know today as design-thinking. Design-thinking is based on five key ideas:
1. Prioritizing Customer Needs: Design-thinking places customer requirements at the forefront of every innovation. Customer feedback is crucial and is regularly collected to ensure customer-centric development.
2. Empathetic Observations: Empathy plays a crucial role in design thinking. The innovator must develop the product or service, keeping in mind the sensitivities of the customer segment that it targets. It's vital to look at customers holistically and view the product or service from their perspective before proceeding with the development.
3. An emphasis on Reframing Problems: Once the design-thinker begins to view the problem with an eye for customer needs, it becomes easier to narrow the problem down to the specific human condition the product or service aims to solve.
4. Human-Centered Approach: Design-thinking aims to view customers as humans first and not mere numbers on a spreadsheet. Doing so is critical since design-thinking involves understanding customer motivations, their journeys and pain points, and how the product or service developed can solve that pain point and provide a more wholesome experience.
5. Diversity and Inclusion: A design-thinking team is incomplete if it isn't diverse. Diversity of thought is a fundamental facet of design-thinking that is brought about with people from various socio-economic backgrounds and active participation from women and the LGBTQ+ community.
Famous examples of design-thinking can be found in products and services such as Airbnb, Uber Eats, Oral-B electric toothbrush, and the Good Kitchen. Moreover, companies that have implemented design-centric approaches have been proven to have maintained significant stock market positioning and to have outperformed the S&P 500 by a substantial margin, as the graph below depicts.
Steps to Design Thinking
1. Empathize: The designer needs to put themselves in the users’ shoes. Doing so will enable the designer to tap into user needs previously unthought of.
2. Define: In the next step, the designer must use the observations gathered in the first step to develop a well-defined problem statement that helps address the core customer need.
3. Ideate: To ideate is to brainstorm ways to tackle the customer needs defined in the earlier stage.
4. Prototype: In this stage, the designers develop a working prototype that implements the solution arrived at in the previous step.
5. Test: Finally, the testing stage is when the prototype is put out to gather feedback. Since design-thinking is an iterative process, customer feedback is crucial to tweak the solution to better address customer needs.
What's important to note is that the steps aren't necessarily sequential. The entire process is iterative and works based on constant tweaks and reconfigurations. Such a mechanism allows for more flexible problem-solving approaches.
The Need for Design Thinking
We have spoken at length about the benefits design-thinking has to offer. However, one may wonder why it is required in the first place. In other words, what do traditional modes of thinking not have that design-thinking possesses? Let's look at a few reasons why we need design thinking.
1. Inherent Biases in Humans: Our worldview is shaped by our surroundings, which often leads to inherent biases in our psyche, ones we're usually unaware of. To ensure that such biases don't creep into the service we're aiming to provide, design-thinking allows us to incorporate multiple stakeholder perspectives, thereby minimizing the effect of discrimination.
2. Difficulty Challenging Assumptions: A consequence of our inherent biases is that we tend to operate based on assumptions. Such assumptions may not be conducive to inclusive product development since the assumptions aren't representative of the user pool, and hence, misleading. Design-thinking allows the designers to move beyond their assumptions by enabling iterative brainstorming and feedback gathering, enabling a more user-centric product.
Drawbacks and Future Scope
We’ve covered all the positive aspects of implementing design-thinking in one’s problem-solving approach. However, there are a few drawbacks that are worth mentioning.
1. A Sense of Uncertainty: Given that design-thinking is an innovative or "out-of-the-box" approach, it brings along a sense of uncertainty about the result and whether it'll correlate with the desired outcome or not. The designer(s) must be comfortable with this feeling of not knowing or have a high-risk appetite to be fluent design-thinkers. However, if comfort is what one seeks, design-thinking may not be the best approach.
2. Chaos: One of the fundamental facets of design-thinking is its strong emphasis on implementing multiple stakeholder perspectives. While such an approach is inclusive and helps foster creativity, it can also lead to a chaotic atmosphere where it's a challenge to account for multiple opinions in contrast to each other. However, for a team of forward-looking and optimistic designers, such a circumstance can be trodden easily with more vigorous collaborative efforts and brainstorming sessions. But if one seeks to minimize tension, design-thinking may not be the right approach.
These ‘drawbacks’ may not be so for a team of thinkers if they are comfortable in challenging circumstances and strive for unique solutions.
Given the strong call to action for design thinkers today, it’s prudent to visualize exciting areas of implementation in the future, a few of which we can already see evolving, such as:
1. Scalability of the startup ecosystem.
2. Personalized healthcare products and services.
3. Integration of Artificial Intelligence in providing inclusive and forward-looking services.
4. Impactful innovation in tackling global issues such as food shortages and poverty.
With the numerous areas for positive growth in the design-thinking sphere, one can visualize its integration across every facet of human development in the coming years. Here's hoping that it leads to a sustainable and inclusive era for all of humanity.