How to explain design thinking in plain English

Design thinking - a popular approach in organizations pushing for innovation, as well as in agile teams – often confuses newcomers. Here’s how to break it down in simple terms
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Design thinking has been around for decades, starting out in such domains as architecture and product design. In recent years, however, the concept gained traction in the enterprise as a method for achieving innovation, as well as bolstering agile and DevOps efforts. IT leaders in particular find that design thinking approaches can help teams developing new business systems and processes.

Design thinking can help you frame strategy, design, and development around the end user or customer.

However, design thinking can be a fuzzy concept to those who have not been exposed to it before. Because it is more of a mindset than a standard set of processes, it can be difficult to describe to the uninitiated.

At its core, design thinking is about “challenging underlying assumptions and getting underneath things in new ways,” says Blade Kotelly, a senior lecturer at MIT and co-instructor of the MIT Professional Education course Mastering Innovation & Design Thinking. Within corporate IT, it can be a way to frame strategy, design, and development around the end user or customer.

[ Want to learn more? Read also: Design thinking: 5 must-watch TED Talks. ]

Design thinking: A structured method for innovation

When Kotelly introduces the concept to the executives he trains he calls design thinking a structured method for innovation – one that anyone can learn how to do. “So many companies have gotten out of the habit of truly innovating,” he says. They’re good at taking existing systems and structures and improving them in some way or offering them to a new set of users, he says. However, with design thinking, organizations can be more disruptive and that’s what leaders today at the executive level want to do.”

A number of key attributes of design thinking make this possible:

  • Design thinking encourages radical thinking. For example, if someone wanted to come up with a better can opener, they could simply improve upon the existing design that fits within legacy systems and structures. However, if they were taking a design thinking approach, they would question those assumptions can take a more expansive view of the problem. Is there a way to open the can in a new way? Is the can even the ideal container – or could they design an entirely different one that is more easily opened or does not require a can opener at all?
  • Design thinking enables deeper stakeholder understanding. Most IT leaders understand the importance of identifying and involving key stakeholders in a problem space, says Kotelly. “With design thinking it’s even more critical,” he says. Who’s involved in the sometimes complex network of people that could solve the problem? What roles do they play?
  • Design thinking reduces risk. The traditional IT approach to new systems development was intended to reduce risk. But those methods fail to keep up in rapidly evolving business and technology environment. The good news is that design thinking can not only enable IT to become more adaptable and responsive, it can reduce the risk associated with transformative innovation. These approaches can enable IT leaders to create a clear vision that gets buy-in from senior leaders and deliver solutions that users or end customers are more likely to adopt, says Kotelly.

IT leaders can use design thinking to envision better experiences for users or customers and build technologies and processes around that. Given a number of variations on the design thinking theme, CIOs will need to figure out which works best in their organization.

10-step method for design thinking

Kotelly likes to teach a 10-step method for design thinking:

1. Identify needs: The most important, but often painful step is understanding the problem and how it connects to users, customers, existing technologies, businesses, and even society as a whole. Context is key.

2. Gather information: At this stage, IT leaders research how people currently work or behave in the problem area they’re exploring and identify analogs that might prove instructive to a new solution.

3. Stakeholder analysis: This is not just about understanding users, but the complex network of stakeholders with an interest in the problem and solutions.

4. Operational research: Next, IT leaders would explore constraints like money, time, and resources along with techniques to either overcome those limitations or balance trade-offs.

5. Hazard analysis: Exploring risks is important not only in developing good solutions; it can itself yield innovation. Kotelly points to the banking industry’s development of “overdraft protection” to help customers better manage the risk of bouncing checks that itself became a money maker for the business.

6. Specification creation: Creating specs is nothing new to IT. They key here, says Kotelly, is creating them with the right level of detail – too much can stifle new ideas, while too little can lead to uncertainty and inertia.

7. Creative design: Next, it’s brainstorming time as IT leaders and their partners spend time exploring the problem space in a directed way with the goal of coming up with all new solutions.

8. Conceptual design: At this stage, IT leaders narrow down the various concepts, weighing them against the research done up until this point, until they zero in on the best solution.

9. Prototype design: One idea in hand, the penultimate step is creating a testable model of the solution.

10. Verification: Finally, usability testing is done to further refine the idea, re-prototype it, and test it again, reducing uncertainty over time.

Design thinking takes time and practice to do well. One of the biggest limiting factors to full adoption of design thinking in IT: The organization is so focused on day-to-day work that little time is left to develop these approaches. “You need to give yourself time to do it” Kotelly says.

But those that do invest the time find it valuable, he says. “Design thinking is a rich and deep set of structures, principles, and tools that can enable anyone in the organization to be able to be more innovative,” Kotelly says.

[ Want advice on leading teams toward an innovative culture?  Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation, by Jim Whitehurst. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.