Design Thinking

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Recently Radio 4's In Business had a programme on design or more precisely how Design Thinking has become a business philosophy. So what is it? How does it work? And what are some practical examples?

We mostly think about design in terms of objects and products that have a use. And designers as the people who design those objects. Recently designers have been moving into other areas and businesses have been listening to their ideas. The process has come to be known as design thinking.

"As a style of thinking, design thinking is generally considered the ability to combine empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyse and fit solutions to the context."

What's unusual about Design Thinking is that it is saying a whole business models can be a unit of design. One of the core philosophies behind it is to always ask "who's the end user, and what do they want?", as opposed to "what do we have, and how are we going to sell it?"

The show described how a lot of the time designers work in isolation. Although businesses realise the importance of design, designers are relegated to the lab or the small back room.

One of the flag wavers for Design Thinking is design consultancy IDEO, who described their ideology:

When setting out on a project

  • there should be real empathy for the customer/consumer
  • have a detailed profile of the person the product is aimed at. Is it the right person? It's easier to develop empathy for a person you can imagine and have thought about in some detail.
  • find the question that the client needs addressing
  • build something that can be used, and discussed, and tried out

They suggest that companies have lost the ability to empathise with their customers, they say that there's value in human stories that can bring different values than the usual clipboard surveys which are data and by that fact dehumanised.

So what does this all mean in practice?

An example is the winner of this years Design Of The Year Award. It was the British Government website (it replace 2,000 different websites!). When people go to government web sites they are trying to get things done. So the design thinking approach asked "how can we make this simpler?" rather than say "we have the information and this is what we are going to do about it". The focus is on users needs, to find out what they were trying to do and then designing around that, rather than designing around the government organisation. The designers should do the hard work to make it simple for the users. You shouldn't have to understand government to find something out from government. They have made the user experience more consistent across all the departments of government

They took many factors into consideration. Like considering the fact most journeys start on a search engine, so they needed their results to link to the outside world in a usable way. Was what the user searching for what the search engine results returning? They adjusted their site architecture and SEO so that it was.

Making booking experiences consistent. Governments sites involve a lot of form filling, it's really confusing when all those forms are different styles! So make them consistent, so that the user is familiar with the look, feel and method needed to fill out those forms successfully.

If something is designed well you might not even notice it. And in terms of using a government website this would definitely be a bonus.

Another company they talked to was Sugru started by Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh. She got the idea while studying for an MA in Product design. Her "Ah ha" moment came with the thought that she didn't want to keep buying new stuff all the time, why not try and adapt and hack old stuff to work better? And then there was old stuff we get attached to that has just broken, why can't we fix it? It's not only designers can design stuff, owners can fix and design too.

So they designed a silicon putty, that starts off soft and moldable like Play-Doh but it dries into a hard flexible rubber that bonds to almost anything. This video explains what you can do with it:

I think the point is that the idea of Sugru covered the Design Thinking criteria. It started from a pain point: the need and desire to mend objects; and from a point of empathy because it was a real problem that the designer had herself experienced. So in effect the profile of the end users was largely based on the the designer herself. And finally it could be made, used and feedback given fairly quickly.

While Sugru was being developed there was a lot of interaction with the users. When the idea was first put out in a magazine article, lots of people got in touch and wanted to find out more. And by the nature of the product that made it possible for prototyping to take place over and over again. And the users were excited about their product and eager to share thier fixes. It was possible to get to know the customers really really well.

When pitching for investors companies didn't get it: "People do not love glue" was one response. But trial users DID love it. Its about the user experience and designing for that. So that is what they did, and were successful, launching and surviving through the start of the recession.

The programme suggests that in the past the relationship between design and manufacturing was much closer than it is now, but that over time it separated to the detriment of industry. But things are changing again and Apple has shown the way.

And design studios are trying to use the Design Thinking principles, for example London invention studio Vitamins. When travelling with a wheelchair it needs to pack small for trains, planes and cars. They invented a wheelchair that folds flat with collapsible wheels.

In another project they were asked to tackle a phone design for older people. A typical response would have been to create a phone with big numbers. But Vitamin, instead, created an engaging manual because the big number option was stigmatising, and completely the wrong approach. Usually there is a tiny little manual that hardly tells you anything. It's not been designed to use. Their approach was to re-frame the problem and provided a manual that was of much more use. The lesson being that you don't always need to stick to the brief, take a step back and sometimes you find where the interesting stuff is hiding.

Another product that was designed with the user in mind is the Raspberry Pi, a minimal tiny computer - designed for school children to help them learn programming. It's cheap costing around £30, so that the consumers, the kids are not going to be worried about breaking it.

So design is moving back into engineering, and private companies leading the way, but what about government. Well as we saw earlier changes are being made and positive examples are happening as with the , award winning websites. And Design Thinking is also being applied to public services. Designers are having to ask themselves questions like: What is a library? Where as in the past government might say this is how we do it take it or leave it, the public is coming to expect more. I hope that continues!

Private companies do, though, have that profit incentive. Another example given was picking up contact lenses. The Post Office said they could be delivered before 12 o'clock but Amazon said they could be picked up from the local supermarket at any time.

An area of government that need redesigning is the British judicial system. At present it is designed for the convenience of judges, instead of the benefit of the people who have to use the court service. For example relatives of a murdered person have to wait in same room as the murderers family. Something should be done about this and the suggestion is that more good British designers should design services instead of products. Its about rethinking the service. I'm not sure if you need designers or a change of culture? Maybe if designers have the authority they can change the culture.


The ideas sound sensible and common sense really, I don't think there is anything new there, or anything unique. It sounds very similar to the ideas of Lean Startups and Lean Manufacturing just with a different name.

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Mike Nuttall

Author: Mike Nuttall

Mike has been web designing, programming and building web applications in Leeds for many years. He founded Onsitenow in 2009 and has been helping clients turn business ideas into on-line reality ever since. Mike can be followed on Twitter and has a profile on Google+.

  1. david999

    Jul 02, 2014 at 03:27 PM

    yep, I agree every designer must think by considering it's user's wants and needs, and targeting those needs will help him to make a perfect design