Design thinking is a simple practice that describes how to approach and resolve a problem in a way that puts the needs of the end user of the solution first and relies on a set of prescribed skills. While many people associate design thinking with solving an industrial or manufacturing-related challenge, the approach is very effective in solving business and strategy problems and leads to solutions that are significantly more sustainable and successful than other approaches.
When we say ThoughtForm is a strategy and design consultancy, what we mean is we help our partners create viable and desirable solutions to business challenges using design thinking.
While the formal practice of design thinking follows a rigorous methodology, the various skills of design thinking are a natural part of human behavior. So natural, in fact, that one can find them anywhere — even in a children’s story like Winnie-the-Pooh.
The first job of design thinking is to understand your end user and build empathy for their situation. This may involve reading source material, conducting research or interviews, or including your end user on your project team. Your job is to immerse yourself in your end user’s needs, wants, feelings, and pain points so that you can see the world through their eyes.
Winnie-the-Pooh, as you may recall, is a stuffed bear who was introduced to us in Winnie-the-Pooh, written by A.A. Milne and illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. He lives in the Hundred Acre Wood with Christopher Robin and animal friends Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Rabbit, and Owl. Pooh describes himself as not very smart, but he is very empathetic. In Winnie-the-Pooh, he is concerned that Eeyore seems gloomy. Pooh asks Eeyore questions so that he can understand him better. He discovers that Eeyore’s tail is gone—much to Eeyore’s surprise. He determines this is the likely source of Eeyore’s unhappiness.
“Somebody must have taken it,” said Eeyore. “How Like Them,” he added, after a long silence.
Pooh felt that he ought to say something helpful about it, but didn’t quite know what. So he decided to do something helpful instead.
“Eeyore,” he said solemnly, “I, Winnie-the-Pooh, will find your tail for you.”
Pooh’s empathy pushes to not just sympathize but take action. When he finds Eeyore’s tail—being used by Owl as the bell-pull—and returns it, Pooh is quite happy to have restored his friend’s good humor.
Design thinking requires us to be both interested in serving others and to put ourselves in the shoes of those who require our service.
Defining the problem
An important part of design thinking is to be sure you are solving the right problem. Have you ever had a friend tell you about a problem he’s having in his life and, as he describes it, it becomes clear that the problem he has is very different than the one he thinks he has? Design thinking requires that teams consider the presumed problem closely and deeply, keeping an open mind, before feeling confident they have identified the correct one.
When Pooh is walking one wintery day, he runs into Piglet, who asks what he’s doing.
“Hunting,” said Pooh.
“Tracking something, said Winnie-the-Pooh very mysteriously.
“Tracking what,” said Piglet, coming closer.
“That’s just what I ask myself. I ask myself, What?”
“What do you think you’ll answer?”
“I shall have to wait until I catch up with it,” said Winnie-the-Pooh.
Pooh, though curious, is not ready to come to a conclusion. He wants to examine the evidence first. Then Piglet notices the paw-marks in the snow that have captured Pooh’s attention.
“Oh, Pooh! Do you think it’s a—a—a Woozle?”
“It may be,” said Pooh. “Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. You can never tell with paw-marks.”
Even in light of Piglet’s suggestion, Pooh continues to keep an open mind. Both, of course, are quite concerned about meeting what turn out to be a “Hostile Animal.” But until they define the problem (What animal is this?), finding a solution (How will we protect ourselves?) remains elusive.
In fact, Pooh has been walking in circles around a grove of trees, and the tracks he’s following belong to him. When Piglet joins him on the walk, the number of tracks they see increase.
“Pooh!” cried Piglet. “Do you think it is another Woozle?”
“No,” said Pooh, “because it makes different marks. It is either Two Woozles and one, as it might be, Wizzle, or Two, as it might be, Wizzles and one, if so it is, Woozle.”
Pooh is bringing some structure to the definition of the problem, albeit an incorrect one, but he still recognizes that more than one potential definition exists. Fortunately, Christopher Robin intervenes and explains the situation to Pooh.
“Wait a minute,” said Winnie-the-Pooh, holding up his paw.
He sat down and thought, in the most thoughtful way he could think. Then he fitted his paw into one of the Tracks . . . and then he scratched his nose twice, and stood up.
“Yes,” said Winnie-the-Pooh.
“I see now,” said Winnie-the-Pooh.
If only we all were as open to new evidence. With Christopher Robin’s explanation, the problem (“What animal is this?”) has been correctly defined. The answer is Pooh and Piglet, which means there is no longer a problem, so no solution is necessary.
In design thinking, team members much challenge each other’s assumptions and search for relevant evidence. Generating ideas for solutions is exciting, but that work needs to wait until the right problem has been identified.
Testing and iterating
Once a problem has been defined, potential solutions have been generated, and one has been identified as the one likely to work best, the team needs to test and iterate. Testing must be quick enough to enable the team to learn from the test, adjust the solution, and try again. Iterating gives a team the information they need to adjust and improve.
Testing can be as simple as writing the idea on a piece of paper and sharing it with end users. Does this idea make sense? Will it solve the problem? But teams can also develop more real-world solutions—rough enough to be made quickly, but realistic enough to prove whether the concept is workable.
Winnie-the-Pooh is a bear who likes honey. Hearing the buzz of bees atop a tree one day, he decides to climb the tree to get their honey. Unfortunately, Pooh weighs more than the branches can hold, and he ends up tumbling to the ground. Undeterred, he goes to Christopher Robin for help with a revised idea. Pooh asks him:
“I wonder if you’ve got such a thing as a balloon around you?”
“A balloon?… What do you want a balloon for?”
Winnie-the-Pooh looked round to see that nobody was listening, put his paw to his mouth, and said in a deep whisper: “Honey!”
“But you don’t get honey with balloons.”
“I do,” said Pooh.
If you understand the ways of fictional bears, you have probably already guessed that Pooh is planning to float to the honey. Having failed to conquer the problem by climbing, he has adjusted his approach—iteration #1.
Pooh tells Christopher Robin that the color of the balloon will be critical.
“It’s like this,” Pooh said. “When you go after honey with a balloon, the great thing is not to let them know you’re coming. Now, if you have a green balloon, they might think you were only a part of the tree, and not notice you, and if you have a blue balloon, they might think you were only part of the sky, and not notice you, and the question is: Which is most likely?”
“Wouldn’t they notice you underneath the balloon?”
“They might or they might not,” said Winnie-the-Pooh. “You can never tell with bees.”
Pooh strengthens his revised solution by rolling in the mud so that he might pass for a small black rain cloud under the “blue sky” of the balloon.
Christopher Robin’s balloon carries Pooh skyward, and as Pooh struggles to maneuver himself closer to the tree, a small complication occurs: the bees leave the tree to investigate the cloud. Fearing what will happen if they are not persuaded that he is a cloud, Pooh urges Christopher Robin to aid in the deception.
“Have you an umbrella in your house?”
“I think so.”
“I wish you would bring it out here, and walk up and down with it, and look up at me every now and then, and say ‘Tut-tut, it looks like rain.’”
Having learned there’s a hole in iteration #1, Pooh has decided to improve it with a second iteration and try again. But he wouldn’t have learned about the hole unless he tested his idea. Without too much bother, Pooh has been able to test and iterate twice—moving from a climbing approach to a balloon/rain cloud approach to a balloon/rain cloud/umbrella approach.
Unfortunately, Pooh did not anticipate that the bees he has targeted are in fact not honey bees at all, and, at Pooh’s request, Christopher Robin shoots the balloon so Pooh might float safely back to the ground.
Few test solutions fail completely like this one did. But when they do fail, it can be for many reasons, including some the team would never have anticipated. Testing and iterating teaches teams what works and what doesn’t. A solution that grows out of testing and iterating will be stronger than one that is launched based solely on a team’s gut instincts.
Design thinking: an everyday tool
A design thinking approach to business problems requires a team to use empathy to build understanding of the end user, seek data and keep an open mind when defining the problem, and test and iterate on solutions. The process is rigorous, but the skills are commonplace, doable by anyone—even a bear of, in his own words, “very little brain.” As you go through your day, consider the ways you are already employing design thinking in your activities and interactions. And when you’re ready to apply it to the next big business challenge in your company, like organization transformation and future thinking, know that ThoughtForm is here to help.