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What is Design Thinking?

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Design thinking applies the elements and processes developed over centuries of creative design work to problem-solving in business. Although people often use the term “design thinking” in different ways, the original definition stems from the four principles of Design Thinking as laid out by Christoph Meinel and Harry Leifer of the Hasso-Plattner-Institute of Design at Stanford University:

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.

Based on these principles, working outward in concentric circles, innovative design thinkers like Steve Jobs at Apple, Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia, and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings have made radical innovation both practical and profitable.

5 Steps in the Dance of Design

Fortunately, a wide swath of US professionals are already familiar with the basics of design thinking from the oversimplification of it on TV shows from Bewitched to Mad Men. It starts with an impossible challenge, plunges into wild and unpredictable ideation and emerges with something shockingly new through collaboration. Often hilarity or heartbreak are stops along the journey. In the real world, design thinking projects move carefully and predictably along a well-defined 5 stage pathway:


Designers practice empathy in getting to fully “grok” the user’s desires, goals, and pain points. This requires careful observation and note-taking, combined with active engagement and psychological analysis.


Only when the designer sees the world from behind the user’s eyes can the true problem be defined with accuracy. The problem statement should be clear, specific, emotionally inclusive and framed from the user’s perspective.


Too often companies want to start here with brainstorming or mindmapping before doing the essential work in the two steps above. Weakly grounded ideas will not connect with the user, no matter how brilliant they might seem to the designers. The other important point to keep in mind here is that this must be a free ideation environment, with no constraints around practicality or common sense. If common sense could have found an answer, the team wouldn’t be here. Designers need uncommon sense to see the world not as it is but as it should be. The end of this step is the most important moment of the entire process. Great ideas are plentiful. Selecting the one that deserves resource dedication should be a very careful and intentional project.


Many designers see this as the funnest, most fulfilling part of the journey. Ideas become objects or services. Experiment to find the minimum viable product (MVP) or minimum billable service (MBS) that will answer the problem defined in step 2. Keep the drawing board up because you may go back to it several times before introducing a prototype to users.


Many companies fail at design thinking because they think the prototype is the goal. It’s not. The prototype is a conversation starter. The scientific method is based on coming up with explanations that fit the data and then testing if they are built on solid assumptions. Maybe the assumptions were wrong, or the problem definition was incomplete. Only real world testing will answer that. Steps 4 and 5 combined are an iterative process that may go through several cycles to reach the true goal of a useful and desirable solution. The Lean Startup methodology defines this stage as the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop, with an emphasis on the iterative refinement of prototypes. There should be only true measure of how good or bad an idea is: does it solves a problem effectively in the real world?

Design thinking is challenging because it defies many of the basic principles about “the way things get done” in a traditional business. That is its strength but is also the biggest challenge for those new to the process.

Design Thinking Sparks Successful Innovation

Poorly defined problems always result in poorly designed answers. That’s one of the few certainties of the business world. If a project starts before everyone knows exactly what they are trying to fix, you get team splintering, conflicting priorities, scope creep and a cobbled together solution that nobody wants. Bring your chess skills and think two moves ahead.

That’s how innovation happens, and evidence abounds of the correlation between design thinking and innovative solutions.

A good example is Uber. Before 2009, everybody knew that the two cardinal rules of common sense security were: 1) Don’t trust random strangers on the Internet; and 2) Don’t get into a car with someone you don’t know. Now millions of Americans do both every day. Most people don’t even know what their assumptions are, let alone have the motivation to question them. This is the hardest stage of the design thinking process, and the most storied. In reality, truly innovative and disruptive ideas don’t come in flashes of inspiration, but in the persistent application of a repeatable ideation process.

While profitability is important in the long-term, short-term metrics linked to ROI are not very useful when it comes to evaluating radically new and disruptive concepts. Leaders, stakeholders and customers may need a great deal of training to adopt something that challenges their prior way of thinking. When iPhones were introduced in 2007, many analysts agreed that the would only appeal to a few “gadget freaks” and the big phone makers like Blackberry had nothing to worry about. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that smartphones became one of the technologies with the fastest adoption rate in history. The cloud-based app ecosphere, the widening availability of wireless, acceleration of supply chains and the tightening of global markets made mobility a necessity. Still Apple got there first by aligning management with Genius Bar workers in a singular vision of what this device could do for customers.

Overcoming Inertia

You may already see why design thinking projects remain so rare, comparatively. There are many people within organizations who are entrenched in existing work structures and comfortable with outdated processes. They are at every level and they will tend to resist, delay and disengage from the project because they are certain it will fail. To be successful, a team of design thinkers must include collaborators who have both confidence in their own powers of creative production, but also a facility for diplomacy in gaining consensus up and down the management chain.

Great ideas everywhere are languishing in production limbo right now because they just don’t have the support of either the management team or the front line workers who will have to see the project through to execution. Even Walt Disney needed film studio backers and an army of cartoonists on his side.