A Beginner’s Guide to Design Thinking

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What is design thinking, and how can you implement it in your projects? Design thinking is a series of phases in which each aspect of a creation is thought through carefully, as each step impacts the following. 

Design thinking stems from a desire to fully understand the people you’re creating products for. It’s a more creative way of working through the collaboration process and allows for independent input while still considering the needs of the entire group and end-user. The process works in a loop. Once you reach the testing phase, you aren’t necessarily finished. It might be time to start the steps over with a narrower focus.

🚀Read: Customer Experience Guide: How to Put your Customers First? 🚀

Out of the 31.7 million small businesses in the United States in 2020, manufacturing falls right in the middle for the number of employees and payroll. Retail brands rank second on the list. Whether you make your own products or just sell them, you’re up against quite a bit of competition nationally and internationally. Using a process focusing on the needs of your audience is smart business.

5 Phases of Design Thinking

To remain competitive, you must refine your processes and think outside the box. There are five distinct phases in design thinking. Here is how to implement each, as well as some examples of companies using this process in their work.

1. Empathize

At the core of your company should be the experience of your users (UX). When you start every project with your customer’s needs in mind, you’ll automatically empathize with them. Start by digging deep into who your target audience is. Create buyer personas based on demographics, internal information and surveys. Think about the problems your user faces, and you’ll automatically move toward solutions to those issues. Put your clients first and your fixes will make an impact.

design thinking - One solution example

Picture 1. One Solution example

One Solution presents a final product on its website. It’s clear it knows its users well and thought through some of their pain points. One of these comes from clients who aren’t candidates for dental implants but have missing teeth. It explains the problem and then goes right into how it solved things for customers. It does this respectfully and shows it understands the embarrassment and concern people have over this issue. 

Read Can AI Provide a Solution to Your UX Design Problems?

2. Define the Problem

Once you have an idea of the problem users face, set out to clearly define the pain point. The second phase isn’t a place to write anything generic. Put yourself in the shoes of your customer, and look at the UX of the product and the way you present the solution. Keep UX design principles in mind, such as knowing your users and how best to improve their lives. Throw out any details not crucial to the customer. Add additional observations about the pain point. 

At this point, you aren’t worrying about how to solve the problem. You just want to understand what the issue is and how it impacts your target audience. You need a lot of empathy at this point in the process. If you don’t fully grasp how your user feels, pull in some of your customers for input. 

3. Ideate

By the time you hit phase three of the design thinking process, you should have a firm grasp of the problem you’re trying to solve. It’s time to start brainstorming and figure out how to fix things for your audience. Try various techniques in this phase, such as cluster brainstorming, having people turn in ideas, asking for solutions from a focus group and cloud outlines. The more ideas you have, the more chance you’ll come up with something truly unique.

Blueprint Studios design thinking example

Picture 2. Blueprint Studios example

Blueprint Studios worked on #OneTeam2020 and needed to develop an experiential environment for 4,000 Twitter employees. It required unique opportunities for presentations and places to create meaningful conversations. At the same time, it had to keep the branding of Twitter in mind throughout each display. 

Notice the unique additions geared to a social media company, such as pedal-powered charging stations for devices. These solutions came from people bouncing ideas around until they hit on the perfect combination of immersive displays.

4. Create a Prototype

Stage four is one of the more exciting phases of design thinking. You’ve brainstormed ideas and narrowed the choices to one or more. Now, you’re ready to create a prototype and see if the finished product gives you the look and experience you want. This is your chance to dig into the UX and make sure the item meets users’ needs. 

Today’s 3D printers are ideal for creating one-off prototypes on the fly. You can also use computer-aided design (CAD) to try different solutions without spending money building a real prototype until you’re ready. Make tweaks to ensure things function correctly. 

Making a prototype isn’t a one-and-done deal. You’ll likely go through several variations of a product before settling on a final design. Remain open to additional brainstorming and suggestions.

Read Customer Experience Design: How to Meet Customer Expectations?

5. Test Everything

How can you know if the finished project is the right one for your users? You have to put your prototype in front of your target audience and see how they respond. Ask for insight into improvements. 

AJ & Smart shares its process for conducting a simple user test. It uses positive and negative cards and finds out when something doesn’t make sense to the user. After a basic idea of how well the product is doing, it presents the prototype to an actual person and gets additional feedback.

Benefits of Design Thinking

What are the benefits of using design thinking at work? 

Offers Different Perspectives

Since you start by looking at the needs of your users, you use a different perspective than simply figuring out how to get a product to market. First, figure out the problems your audience faces and then look at how to solve them. The focus on fixing pain points gives you a different angle than you’d otherwise have.

Uses Collective Expertise

Because design thinking uses teams, the members often come from different backgrounds and disciplines. You can think outside the box and learn from everyone’s experience. A salesperson may offer insight into what consumers really want because they have daily contact with clients, while an engineer shares what will and won’t work from a physical perspective.

Avoids Future Problems

Because one of the later phases of design thinking is testing, you’ll avoid some of the issues of rushing a product to market without fully vetting it. More functionality means your customers will be happier with the solution you present. 

Solves Serious Challenges

You can use design thinking for more than just product creation. If your business faces a serious challenge, be it financial or reputational, use the same process to come up with solutions to the issue. By using the collective brain of the company and having empathy for your buyers, you’ll find solutions you otherwise would not have thought of.

One example might be a business struggling with cash flow and facing potentially laying off employees. What if you could find empathy for the workers and come up with a solution that keeps all jobs? Once your company got past the cash flow issue, you’d be in a good position to spring forward with growth. 

Read How Employee Engagement Can Keep Your Business Alive and Kicking

Creates Visual Opportunities

Some people learn better with images than discussions. With design thinking, employees can present charts, PowerPoint slides or show sketches of their ideas. Even the brainstorming sessions might use clusters or a whiteboard to jot down words. These visual elements help trigger more ideas for many of your team members.

Let’s Walk Through a Project

So, what does design thinking look like at work? Let’s walk through the steps of a project from start to finish, so you can see this process in action. 

ABC Mattress Co. realizes consumers have trouble sleeping, and it wants to find a solution. Here’s what it does:

  • It gains an understanding of the problem and collects information on potential customers. The team develops a buyer persona.
  • After looking at all the angles of the pain point, the company comes up with a definition of the issue.
  • Team members spend weeks brainstorming, researching solutions, tossing around ideas and keeping only the best ones.
  • It finally has an idea or two to run with, so it creates a prototype of the product. This phase may take a bit of time as the company tries different prototype variations until it finds one it’s happy with.
  • ABC Mattress Co. gathers a focus group and lets them look at the prototype. It collects general impressions. Then, it tweaks the product again and puts it in the hands of the testers, asking for improvements.
  • Once the product is perfect, it ramps up production and starts the marketing phase of the process, which requires repeating all the steps again but from a promotional angle.

Design thinking has a specific and ordered process and keeps everyone on the same page.

ABC Mattress design thinking example

Picture 3. ABC Mattress example

Why Design Thinking

There are other methods for project management, such as Agile or Sprints. You can use these ideas in conjunction with design thinking for a well-rounded approach. You aren’t limited to one style of planning — it’s fine to switch between project management modes or interweave them together. The key is getting everyone using the same structure to drastically reduce the time from concept to market. 

Lexie is an IoT enthusiast, digital nomad and web designer. She enjoys hiking her goldendoodle and creating new fudge recipes. Visit her design blog, Design Roast, and connect with her on Twitter @lexieludesigner.

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A Beginner’s Guide to Design Thinking was last modified: February 8th, 2021 by Martina Pranjic
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