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What is Design Thinking and why is it useful?

Design thinking is an ancient concept that became popular after 1996 through a set of principles described by Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize laureate. Design thinking is an iterative process that puts the user and the user’s needs at the centre of problems and opportunities. Design thinking is a way of thinking and working that redefines problems to find alternative strategies and solutions that may not otherwise be apparent. Design thinking is opposite to the “analytical approach” to problem solving. It is not necessarily better or worse than the analytical approach. It is different and better suited for solving certain types of problems.

Design thinking has also become popular with leading brands such as Apple, Google, Samsung and GE who have rapidly adopted the approach. It is also being taught as a subject in leading Universities such as Stanford, Harvard, MIT, etc.

Design thinking is useful as a problem-solving approach to solution design. It can be applied by everyone, not just traditional “designers”, regardless of their background and specialization. The approach leads to better outcomes and solutions by employing different ways of thinking compared to the traditional and time-tested way to solving problems. Design thinking is not a myth or another fad but it is a non-linear process that leverages the power of intuition, subconscious and conscious thinking, subjective and objective thinking, tacit and explicit knowledge and embraces learning by doing.

The key elements of design thinking include quick iterations, early and regular interactions with customers, agile process with minimal hierarchy, a learning by doing approach that involves building prototypes and creating mock-ups of any kind as early as possible in the process.

5 Phases of Design Thinking

The 5 phases of Design Thinking are;

  1. Emphasise – with users

  2. Define – User’s needs, their problem and your insights

  3. Ideate – by challenging assumptions and creating ideas for innovative solutions

  4. Prototype – to start creating solutions

  5. Test – Solutions

The five phases do not have to be followed sequentially. They can occur in parallel and iteratively. As such these phases are not a step-by-step process.

The diagram below illustrates the non-linear nature of Design Thinking;

Design Thinking

Design Thinking: A Nonlinear process

Three examples of Design Thinking in action

While there are literally thousands of examples from organizations that have applied Design thinking to solve problems or create products or introduce innovation, the following three diverse examples show how the approach can be applied in any industry to any scale. All three examples show how the concepts of empathy, problem redefinition, ideation, prototyping and testing have been successfully applied and has made a difference to organizations.

  • Redesigning of the Toyota Customer Contact Centre

The call centre was having a lot of issues handling customer calls for three major brands – Toyota, Lexus and Scion. Customer satisfaction was poor because of wait times averaging 20-40 minutes just to get someone on the line. And then to find answers to customers’ questions, service reps needed to access 13 different applications and often talk to Tech Support or even walk to filing cabinets to find hard copy information.

The company employed design thinking to solve the problem. Service reps were specifically asked what their primary frustrations were and what they needed to do their job better. Service Reps participated in the development of solutions and therefore had ownership over its success. They invested keenly as they immediately saw the benefits of the proposed changes. With training, modified internal process and better software tools, Support Reps could solve customer problems with two fewer calls, faster response times and a saving of millions of dollars. The project became a model for problem-solving and change management within the entire organization.

  • Procter & Gamble (P&G)

P&G, one of the world’s largest FMCG companies, observed consumers in store and realized that by primarily targeting women over 50, the skincare industry had overlooked the key segment of women in their thirties and forties. P&G then tested prototypes, pricing models and instore displays with these consumers, ultimately leading to the launch of a new product range designed to meet consumer needs.

  • Sanitation in Vietnam and Cambodia

This is an example that shows Design thinking is not just confined to big businesses but can be successfully applied to social contexts too. In a TED Talk, Jeff Chapin describes how he and his team could develop toilets and handwashing systems that truly met villagers needs, through design thinking.

The team observed the villagers in context to gather important cultural insights which influenced the decision to create sanitation systems that could be upgraded over time: the same approach taken by villagers to improving their own homes. The team also tested prototypes with the villagers, initially in traditional focus groups and later asking villagers to live with the prototypes in their homes over a period of weeks. This allowed the team to optimise the sanitation systems and identify use cases. They soon found out that what mattered most to the villagers was being to wash their hands in the kitchen to prevent illness through contaminated food.

Challenges in applying Design Thinking

  • Changing focus from internal processes to customer experience

Organizations tend to focus on internal processes to improve efficiencies. As such they find it challenging to shift that focus towards the customer to improve effectiveness.

  • Drag of Internal politics

Organizations find it difficult to focus on customers and align people and teams from across the organization around common challenges and work collaboratively. This is usually because of the absence of a clear vision, poorly designed structures, vested empire building and misguided incentives.

  • Quest for perfection

Despite the repeatedly proven benefits of Prototyping, teams and organizations tend to choose the “not quite ready” option in their futile desires for perfection. It is not easy for teams (and mostly their Managers) to accept that something that is working for the user but not complete yet is far more valuable than anything that is complete but not wanted by the user.

  • Management paradigm of command and control

The Managerial paradigm of “command and control” tends to treat people like machine rather than innovative and cognitive human beings. Current Management thinking in many organizations favour control over speed and enforces centralized decision-making both of which are anti-Design thinking.

  • Strategy, Vision and fuzzy goals

The typical annual cycle of business planning and forecasting that most organizations follow does not reflect reality and yet they indulge in it year after year. It seems so obvious that the world will not fit an organization’s planning cycle and the organization needs to fit the world’s needs. Yet this simple reality escapes most senior Managers. Customer needs evolve, projects become irrelevant and new challenges emerge. The ability to “sense and respond” to challenges is far more important in the current world but is also rare.


Design Thinking, as an ideology, has been practiced for many decades but has become popular in the last 20 years. Design thinking asserts that a hands-on, user-centred approach to problem solving can lead to innovation and innovation can lead to competitive advantage. Design thinking consists of the five phased, iterative but non-linear process. The phases are Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. There is a sixth and important phase “Implement” which leads to Design doing from Design thinking. There are many similarities between Design thinking and Agile and both approaches are complementary. Design thinking can be incorporated very effectively in any Agile approach to product development.

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