What is design thinking?

What is Design Thinking?

Put simply, design thinking is an iterative process whereby we seek to intently understand the users of our products, look to redefine problems or pain points, and find ways of solving them. Some of these problems may not be inherently apparent initially but expanding our thinking around them and identifying alternative solutions form part of the design thinking process.  

Much more than simply product (or service) design, this outside-the-box style thinking process invites us to think differently, explore options, develop and execute innovative ideas and get to the root cause of problems.  

Design thinking is not an exclusive process for designers - more so it is for everyone to get involved with to some extent. Often when companies sit down to design new products, there will be input from people across a variety of different teams and departments. By doing this, design ideas and creative direction can be accessed from various backgrounds. Encouraging design thinking throughout a business helps team members to understand more about why they are completing a task and gets them thinking about the end product and the user it is designed for.  

Design thinking is a core component of product or service design. The process has become increasingly popular in recent decades and has been adopted by many global organisations. It is also taught in many leading universities worldwide.  

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Why use design thinking?

The main reason for using this process is to observe and understand user behaviour and learn about any issues or problems. The learnings and information gathered can then be used to design products that ultimately solve those problems or pain points.  

When beginning the process, it is easy to assume that a problem exists, but it may not necessarily be fully understood, and that can lead to creating a solution that doesn't meet the consumers' needs, using valuable time and resources. Challenging those assumptions and doing the research is vital in determining the most effective design path to take.  

How to implement design thinking

A product design team needs to fully understand their users, question existing methods of operation and investigate existing problems or issues. They will actively observe users' practices in different locations, such as in a controlled environment like a lab, and/or in their own homes. For example, there are many insights to be gained by observing a user's interaction with a kitchen appliance in their home, such as frequency of use, setup/location, cleaning/maintenance, storage, etc. The design team will also look at groups that may be directly or indirectly impacted by factors such as noise and the location of the appliance. Groups may include family members, kitchen designers, their power company, and more.

Design thinking is a non-linear process and at its core consists of five separate phases. The phases can be executed and then repeated as necessary throughout the design process. The five phases can be defined as:

  • Empathise
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

The process involves a number of exercises which are to be carried out with users. One key method involves conducting interviews, including one-to-one sessions asking what they think about a particular product, its usage, similar products, and more. Other exercises include completing a study or team members carrying out particular tasks themselves. The process also involves a large amount of observation of users interacting with the product, what their thought processes are, etc.  

All the information gathered is recorded and collated in what is known as a 'journey map'. This helps the design team to find insights and formulate additional questions about how to help the user in certain ways.  

It also helps to determine if the product is being designed for the right reasons and with the features that are needed. The consumer should not be misled in any way, and additional features shouldn't be added for the sake of it. Additional features may be appropriate in some instances, however, they may simply waste time and provide little benefit overall. It is more beneficial to refine existing features and solve any underlying problems before adding more complexity to the product.  

Prototyping and Testing

The prototyping phase is a chance to experiment by way of creating several scaled down versions of the product and to investigate and analyse solutions that have been derived from the previous phases. The objective here is to select one solution that best fits each problem that was previously identified.  

This phase provides the design team with a good understanding of the problems and potential solutions, along with a better idea of how users interact with the product in a simulated real-world environment.

Once the ideal solutions have been identified in the prototype phase, it is time for testing. The prototypes may be tested within the immediate team, the extended team, or further afield outside of the company.  

The results gained from rigorous testing of the complete product validate learnings and assumptions. They are often used to redefine previous problems, or in fact lead to looping back to a previous stage in the process and proceeding with another iteration.  

User-centred design (or human-centred design)

A key part of the design thinking process includes user-centred design, (or human-centred design). UCD is a process whereby we ensure the product is effective in carrying out the tasks for which it was designed for, is usable, and most importantly, meets the needs of the consumer and that their experience of the product is a pleasant and positive one.  

When designing a new product, an effective design needs to meet a host of requirements and concerns. The UCD process needs to address these concerns, which include, but are not limited to; reliability, usability, cost and efficiency, aesthetics, etc. Overall, effective design contains two key components - finding and solving the right problem and meeting the consumer's needs and capabilities. From here, teams need to use the UCD process to both find the right problem and then find the right solution. When doing this, they will likely use the 'double diamond' approach.

The Double Diamond approach

The 'Double Diamond' is a universal symbol and is a visual representation of the design thinking process. While there are many different versions and similar kite shaped process diagrams date back to the 1960s, the Double Diamond symbol was popularised by the British Design Council in 2005. The two merging diamond shapes represent the convergence and divergence in both the problem and solution spaces.  

Today, the Double Diamond is widely recognised and used in design work circles and often used as a starting point or framework to base design thinking around for a project.

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Any new product or service design should incorporate a design thinking process. This problem-solving approach intends to improve products and ultimately satisfy end users. The process can be used by those in both design and non-design backgrounds and is an important part of the product development process. Using a tried-and-true non-linear process, a design team is able to redefine problems, then identify alternative solutions and improve the overall user experience. Using the widely recognised 'Double Diamond' method, design teams can map out an exact framework for their work, from initial problem or assumption, through to creating new solutions to solve existing problems.  


Rob Keating

Rob is a content creator and copywriter for Fisher & Paykel Technologies. His work includes the Knowledge Hub, email, website and social media copy, along with customer communications.
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design thinking, human centred design, user centred design, double diamond, product design
October 10, 2022
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