Design Thinking

Today, design competency will be expected just as core analytic skills are required; it is the realm of differentiation for all individuals and organizations. Success is measured by the ability of an organization to continuously innovate and delver new customer value. Some examples:

  • New detergents with half or less the water content (imagined and launched by a chemical engineering student) and completely upended the market and large established suppliers.
  • History of the high jump competition, inflection of jumping with back to pole was utterly new and unexpected that re-shaped the rulebook


  • Design with purpose is about creating something new to meet the needs of people.
  • Design Thinking starts with the idea of a deep understanding of people as the best foundation.
  • It is possible that an unknown outcome is feasible; confidence is required to pursue this strategy, comfort with a high level of uncertainty.
  • Generating lots of ideas is perhaps 1% of the journey.
  • A management discipline to deal with high levels of uncertainty, a process of discovery that is as efficient as practical.

Design Thinking is a problem solving technique, optimized for challenges involving moderate to significant uncertainty, and where collaboration across multiple domains-a key attribute of the value of project management-is the only effective method.

Conventional:  Traditional linear problem solving of clear problems with accurate definitions that have established alternative solutions is often best; solutions can often be seen in advance with reasonable definition. In this class of problems, often a derivative of a current solution can be extended to develop a short-term resolution.

  • Established solution pattern or method for a class or type of problem
  • Lots of clear sources of relevant data
  • Routine problem well characterized in a single functional domain
  • Traditional analytic ROI based market research will likely yield success based on historical data
  • No one is especially excited about the problem challenge or potential opportunity
  • Limited influence or ability to depart from conventional thinking or existing systems or processes

N.B. A risk with this approach is to dismiss ideas and opportunities before their potential has been explored and tested, by forcing rigorous analysis often expected in an operational environment designed to reduce variability.

Non-Conventional: A better fit for Design Thinking methods

  • Human beings involved
  • Large amount of uncertainty, potentially many unknowns
  • Future is difficult to predict or imagine fully
  • Influences may emerge without prior knowledge or early signal
  • Complexity with many interdependent parts
  • Uncertainty is a key characteristic; need to eliminate as much uncertainty as possible before full commitment
  • Need for resilient solution with flexibility
  • Not a lot of meaningful data; relevance of data may not be clear; likely need additional data
  • The definition of problem may not be complete; stakeholders may be early-on in their thinking and may have difficulty providing a high resolution presentation of the systems behavioral requirements
  • Every stakeholder may have their own definition
  • Definition may be fluid and change over time
  • Collaboration will be required to solve
  • Defining the problem is difficult and critical
  • Managing risk is important
  • Cannot prove without testing
  • Must step away from the familiar to learn
  • Limited time-sense of urgency
  • Time will be required and is available to learn more about the context of problem in their environment
  • Experiments are the only way to resolve (small and fast often with partners or customers)

Individual DT tools can be applied for linear problems.

For this type of facilitated process to work, the project design team needs to understand and believe in the model, and senior management needs to see the likelihood of a tangible benefit.

Journey Outline:

  • Review checklist: Anyone care? Can move outside current process?
  • Prepared for a design process journey in uncharted waters
  • Must be prepared to accept the idea of  living with potential for longer than is typical
  • Trust in ability to explore, to observe
  • Confidence to sustain effort as new learning introduces new concepts that must be evaluated
  • Passion for research, learning,  and to digest a great deal of information (potential for too much, potential to go off track-navigation is important)
  • Challenges from other departments to ideas that are floated for consideration
  • Anxiety can grow or spike at different stages
  • When are we done or done with a particular phase? Define a set of phases or milestones early on that everyone accepts as reasonable.


Design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity. Tim Brown, IDEO

“The application of design methods by multi-disciplinary teams to a broad range of innovation challenges.” Seidel & Fixson

“An approach that frames problems creatively and generates innovative solutions, strategies, systems, and paradigms at the nexus of domains.”, Banny Banerjee, Stanford

“A human-centered innovation process that emphasizes observation, collaboration, fast learning, visualization of ideas, rapid concept prototyping, and concurrent business analysis” Thomas Lockwood, DMI

  • Design Thinking is an innovation method.
  • Design Thinking is a problem solving technique


  • Many fields and problems can benefit from applying Design Thinking tools and techniques to produce better results
  • A project by definition should product something unique where design skills and methods may contribute
  • Increase organizational agility and resilience
  • Overcome constrained thinking due to risk aversion (create an enclave where a team can practice exploration in a different environment)
  • Create the future (leadership) vs. managing through unexpected changes and shifts as they come along

Key Points:

  • Framing the right design challenge is essential (strategic framing)
  • Team collaboration must take place during each stage
  • Must include people with diverse backgrounds and skills
  • It is an adaptive, iterative, and variable journey (creative roadmaps)
  • Moves away from traditional arguments based on points-of-view, and experiment to learn which way is best (hypothesis)
  • Contributes to a learning organization with enhanced team learning and decision making.
  • It is a way of working and requires a focus on people and teams
  • Continued learning and testing of hypothesis may reduce risk and lead to differentiated innovation


High Level Summary:


  • Insights are the fuel; they can come from extreme users
  • Empathy for their viewpoint
  • Design culture is key


  • Building to learn about your ideas (prototyping)


  • Try a lot of little experiments to get failures out early
  • Don’t wait until the solution is complete and totally finished (Agile principles)

Process Models: “Design is a Process, so is Design Thinking”

  • Understand | Observe | Define | Insights | Synthesize | Ideate  | Concepts | Opportunities | Prototype | Test | Solutions

Summary of tools and techniques used during each phase:

Understand: Research, Expert, Experience to uncover insights that may not have surfaced previously.

  • Value mapping

Observe: Immersion, Observations, Personal Engagement and test the problem assumptions, and be sure the team is solving the right problem that is aligned with the organization’s strategy and worthwhile.

Ideate: Visualization, Stories, Personas to generate many alternative solutions, many different approaches, sustain ambiguity.

  • A stakeholders perspective as a hypothesis, not an absolute position.
  • Identify signals in patterns that emerge from collected insights.
  • Reframe what the problem is
  • Create narratives to test understanding and validity of signals.
  • Identify what resonates beyond the basic function to be sure we’re solving the deeper problem: “Yes the help system is frustrating, but what I really want is for someone to listen to my request/feedback/ideas”
  • Cluster and prioritize discoveries
    • Affinities and dependencies
    • Mapping

Test: Business Models, Production, Scenarios and prototype to share with others very quickly (low resolution) and move to test with real users. (Before going through an entire process of development, testing, legal, marketing, training with all of the associated cost and time required.)

  • One of the most important factors for a successful solution is an understanding by all stakeholders, common problem, and shared understanding of the best solution (that could evolve further).
  • Prototyping as a mechanism to test the most promising ideas, and begin to filter out less viable options.
  • Explore further by creating a simple simulated environment (scene, roles, props) with real consumer/user interactions