What is Design Thinking?
In the past decade, thousands of companies, governments, and nonprofits have turned to the “new”—but actually very old—problem-solving technique called “design thinking” or “human-centered design.”
The rapid growth of design thinking (DT) has annually doubled the number of times the term has shown up in academic, governmental, and business journals with continued astronomical numbers projected for 2017. Hence, if your organization hasn’t already added DT to its problem-solving toolkit, you may be living in a disappearing past; DT appears to be the best method of staying on top of the massive changes and innovations roiling today’s—and predictably tomorrow’s—society.
In addressing these changes, most think of technological innovation, but the largest barrier to creating any new future is human behavior and attitudes—exactly what human-centered design is all about. Even the best new toys have difficulty arriving in human minds—and hands—when change agents fail to address consumers’ and employees’ realities.
Why Use Design Thinking?
DT’s process of “explore deeply, empathize continually, ideate rapidly, prototype simply, and iterate constantly” provides organizations with a solid toolkit for addressing change in this uncertain world—one which has stood the test of time long before professionalism led humans into ever-tighter silos to the point that today, some specializations like rocket science are so intense that the brilliant brains behind them often have difficulty communicating with each other.
Consequently, organizations as large as Intuit and IBM, and as small as individual grade schools, are now embracing DT, as are U.S. governmental agencies like Office of Personnel Management, the Veterans Administration and—more and more—the armed forces. Across the Pacific, New Zealand has installed DT operations in all of its bureaucracies to ensure that future policy changes “work” for both other agencies and, most importantly, citizens.
Under the concept of “making doing the right thing easier,” New Zealand’s government has seemingly tipped since discovering DT a couple decades ago in a project which decelerated the chase for tax cheats and adapted DT’s deep exploration to encourage and educate confused taxpayers. Today, after collecting more taxes for much less expense, New Zealand has even adapted a DT solution to help teenagers get drivers’ licenses.
For traditional managers, the most difficult aspect of DT is staying in the problem space until the “explore deeply” and “empathize continually” present the possibility of “ideating rapidly.” Through specialized instruction over their lifetimes, MBA’s, engineers, and other professionals have generally learned to work backward from proposed solutions and, therefore, they often solve the wrong problem, while design thinkers dig into the often unarticulated emotions and attitudes of clients to discover human realities before coming forward with potential solutions.
No researched woman said, “bring me a throwaway mop,” for example, when design thinkers at Proctor and Gamble re-invented floor cleaning a decade ago. Research observation did find, however, that mopping took too long and, from that deep human insight, P&G developed “The Swiffer”—today a half-billion dollar industry in itself. Cleaners today peal the dirty pad off from Swiffer and throw it in the washer, rather than spend as much as half the time cleaning the cleaning instrument called a “mop,” and in the process, save water, detergent, and—most importantly—time.
Simply put, P&G’s design thinkers dug down to discover unarticulated needs and found a better and more lucrative solution.
How to Approach Design Thinking
Another area where traditional managers struggle with DT is in presenting unperfected solutions. Through “prototyping simply,” design thinkers take unfinished ideas back to consumers and stakeholders to get “co-creation” feedback, intentionally leaving parts of the prototype “empty” to help stakeholders engage with the solution. The DT prototype, unlike most traditional organizational thinking, is a “play ground, not a dress rehearsal,” and design thinkers work hard to seek the bad news from consumers before getting any dress rehearsal—called a “learning launch” in DT—underway.
With feedback around the prototype, design thinkers either “iterate” the idea to solve whatever issues co-creators identify or, to borrow the words of one change agent, “call the baby ugly” and shelve the once promising idea.
Rather than investing in big, well-promoted pilots, the design thinker, in short, does everything possible to test all of his or her assumptions about the “baby” before rolling out a new future which may or may not actually solve real human needs and which may or may not make a dent in the marketplace.
While there are hundreds of DT consultancies around the world today—many and maybe all doing outstanding work—perhaps the best methodology for learning and understanding DT is presented by the University of Virginia Darden School of Business’s Dr. Jeanne Liedtka and her co-author, Tim Ogilvie. Designing for Growth is their “why” book in that it illustrates why entities should consider adding DT to organizational toolkits and The Designing for Growth Field Book is D4G’s “how” companion because it underlines Dr. Liedtka’s easily learnable four-question, 15-step “how to” for everyone, even managers who consider themselves uncreative.
Dr. Liedtka and other co-authors (including the writer of this blog) are presenting another work in a series of human-centered-design books later this summer. Primarily, a “why” manuscript for nonprofit and governmental employees and managers, Design Thinking for the Greater Good is due out in August 2017 through Columbia Business Press.
About the Author
Randy Salzman is a 20-year communications and creativity professor with a background in journalism and broadcasting. The co-author of Design Thinking for the Greater Good, he presently teaches human-centered design to corporate, nonprofit, and governmental clients.