Faculty of
Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology

19 February 2019

Wake up to Design Thinking

If you think you already know the solution, chances are you haven’t yet found the right problem.

That’s because our own narrow perspective can blind us to what’s going on around us. And it’s often the little thing we miss that could make the biggest difference to a project’s outcome.

No matter where you work or what you do, Design Thinking will open your eyes to what users truly want, and lead you to create a product or service that brings them satisfaction. With that, your competitive edge will soon follow.

The concept of designing to satisfy human desire goes way back. In the early 1900s, husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames shaped chairs to fit our bodies for maximum comfort. Several decades later, Milton Glaser conceived the iconic I ♥ NY logo on a scrap of paper while riding in a Manhattan taxi. He once famously said, “We’re always looking, but we never really see.” Glaser believed that truly paying attention lies at the heart of understanding.

One of the first models for this creative process came from Nobel Prize laureate Herbert Simon in 1969. He lay the groundwork for the standardised system of Design Thinking, which academic institutions worldwide, including The University of Queensland, now teach as a formal method. Employers, too, recognise its value. That’s why more than 60,000 Australians list ‘Design Thinking’ in their LinkedIn profiles.

How does Design Thinking work?

Although Design Thinking has a few variants, let’s break down its framework into these six phases: empathise, define, ideate, prototype, test and implement.

  1. Empathise: Engage with users to understand their needs.
    Step outside yourself. Spend time with actual users of a product or service to find out what they think and feel. Abandon all preconceptions! What motivates them? What frustrates them? What do they really want? Watch them perform a task, or interact with an object. Do this in their home or workplace, somewhere that’s relevant to the activity. Encourage them to talk you through each step. Above all, listen. And make sure to ask them why. A real conversation can foster empathy, as well as bring surprising and powerful insight.
  2. Define: Review what you’ve learned to find the right problem to solve.
    Review the observations you’ve gathered and try to make sense of them. Put stuff on a wall. Photos of users, quotes on sticky notes, whatever visually communicates your impressions. Then look for common threads amongst users. Define the human-centred problem you wish to solve – state exactly what you seek to improve. The narrower this is, the better. You can never develop a concept that means all things to all people. A specific goal will generate more ideas of higher quality.
  3. Ideate: Explore all sorts of possible solutions then pick a few.
    Now let yourself go. Bounce ideas off team members. No matter what the problem, remain open to all sorts of crazy solutions. Don’t overanalyse. Make mistakes. Don’t try to come up with the right idea, but go for the broadest range. (No judging! The best solution will come later.) As a team, vote for a few categories, such as ‘most fun’, ‘most practical’ and ‘most surprising’, and take all the winners into prototyping. That way you’ll keep the innovative juices flowing.
  4. Prototype: Create things people can interact with
    Create some quick and cheap prototypes. Things people can interact with. A gadget. A role-playing activity. A storyboard. Whatever you do, don’t get too attached to any one idea. Share all options within the team, or even with small groups outside the team. Remain open to feedback. This is your chance to discover what works and what doesn’t. Make changes and try again. By the end of this phase, you’ll have a clearer idea of how real users might engage with the product or feature.
  5. Test: Get feedback from users.​
    First think about how to test. Best to set this up in the context of a user’s life where you’re most likely to get true spontaneous reactions. For example, a user may try out a gadget as part of their normal routine. Don’t immediately explain how a prototype works. Simply note how the individual interacts with it. Again, listen to what they say. Does it meet their needs? Is it easy to use? Does it give them pleasure? Also let them compare different prototypes. Testing gives you an opportunity to come up with a better solution. Even if this means going back to the drawing board.
  6. Implement: Execute your idea. Make it real.
    Make your vision a reality. You’ve come up with a solution to improve the lives of others. Now’s the time to execute it and get your innovation out into the world. Maybe it’s not perfect, but no doubt it’s better than what came before.

A framework with flexibility

Design Thinking may appear to have a set sequence, but in practice it’s actually quite flexible. You can use the system in whatever way works best for you. Shuffle the order. Get different team members to carry out different phases at the same time. Repeat a phase until you’re totally satisfied with the outcome. Or go back to a previous phase once you’ve got more information. You can even add a twist. Each project has its quirks so always be prepared to adapt.

Whether you play by the rules or break them, Design Thinking will give you the focus and freedom to make things that matter.