Practical tips for design thinking

When I first heard the term “design thinking,” I didn’t get it. I’m a designer, and thinking has always been a big part of what I do. Any field with “thinking” in the name suggests that thinking isn’t part of the parent discipline, which just isn’t true. I wondered why design thinking is considered not only a legitimate discipline, but also a very important one that has been established and is still growing.

So I did some digging. I quickly learned that the practice of design thinking is not meant to appeal to me as a designer. In fact, it’s meant for people who aren’t trained in design, like business managers, marketing managers, engineers, and others. Design thinking is about applying a designer’s mindset and methodologies to business activities, such as developing a new product or rolling out a new strategic initiative. And in that context, the name makes perfect sense. I realized that I’ve been practicing design thinking all along while helping clients tackle their communication challenges.

At its core, design thinking is a way to understand users and develop solutions that meet their needs. This seems like a pretty simple concept. So why are some of the world’s leading companies investing in acquiring resources and training their organizations in design thinking? Because putting the user first—validating their needs before considering historical data, instinct, or business priorities—isn’t the way companies have traditionally operated. As a result, they can’t keep up with the increasing pace of change, innovation, and development. Global enterprises are finding that they need to transform the way they work. And design thinking can be the backbone of this transformation.


The four great benefits of design thinking

Employing design thinking can benefit companies large and small, in all industries. Here’s why:

  • It places a focus on creating value. Through user research and user feedback, we solve a real problem in a meaningful way. That leads to buy-in and adoption.
  • It uncovers new, original ideas. Ideation benefits from combining multiple perspectives. The juxtaposition of two ordinary ideas can give rise to an even better idea.
  • It empowers individuals. Contributors develop a sense of ownership in the ideas and outcomes. We are also armed with essential knowledge for making smart decisions that benefit the team and the solution.
  • It takes an idea to the next level. Iteration enables continuous improvement. We learn something with each interaction and find new criteria to deliver a stronger solution every time.

Design thinking probably sounds like something that works well in developing products or improving digital experiences. That’s true, but this process can actually be applied to almost any business challenge. ThoughtForm often uses design thinking with our clients when we’re developing business strategies and launching new initiatives. In some cases, the users are end buyers or consumers; in others, they are employees or partners of the company we’re working with.


Practical tips for design thinking

No matter who your users are and what business challenge you’re grappling with, you can use these tactics to apply design thinking to your own business challenge.

Start with the problem.

Really examine the issue, and resist the urge to jump to a solution. The first answer that comes to mind is often the most obvious. If you go with it, you risk overlooking an opportunity to deliver more value to users. Imagine a workshop that begins with the challenge, “We need to create a logo for our organization” and one with the challenge, “We want everyone to know who we are and how we can help them.” Those workshops would produce very different ideas. Let the challenge guide you instead of assuming you know how to solve it.

Understand your user.

Let go of your assumptions and biases and collect evidence to develop a real understanding of your users. Observe them in their environment and talk to them. You will build empathy for your users and how the challenge affects them, and considering their perspective will let you explore possibilities you might have otherwise ignored. The user’s perspective can also serve as a source of truth and rallying point for stakeholders to build alignment and buy-in. 

Assemble diverse teams.

Great ideas often come from the group. Channel the collective knowledge and experience of people with various backgrounds and different roles in bringing the idea to reality. Include users on the team if possible, too. Leave all egos at the door. Create an environment in which all team members are comfortable participating and are heard.

Separate exploration and analysis.

Give your team permission to imagine the possibilities at the beginning. Generate a wide variety of ideas and put them all out there. Encourage creativity by making sure you don’t evaluate ideas right away. When you’re ready to narrow the list of ideas down, establish clear criteria and make them visible. Not coming up any truly extraordinary ideas? Repeat the exploration and analysis pattern until you do.

Make, test, repeat.

Sketch ideas and build prototypes. Get them in front of users, stakeholders, and leadership, and observe them and ask questions. Collect as much feedback as you can. Adjust your ideas and prototypes based on what you learn. Do this in continuous cycles. Roll out the solution once the prototypes are refined enough to share or take it to market with little risk. Collect more feedback. Even after a solution “goes live,” there’s room for improvement.

Use storytelling.

Explain your idea from the user’s perspective. Tell your audience who the user is and how your solution solves a problem for them. It’s easier for people to connect to ideas if they can see and feel the user’s experience. Help your audience put themselves in the user’s shoes and think about how the solution will solve their problem.

Applying design thinking to your business challenge will empower your team to develop solutions that solve real problems for real users.