What is Design Thinking and how to apply it in your business

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As a designer, it is inevitable to hear about Design Thinking. In addition, it is also impossible to work in a technology company and not use the method day-to-day.

What is Design Thinking, however? What does it do? What is its relationship with a business?

Well, these questions are not difficult to answer. First, however, I will introduce some Design Thinking concepts and then explain how it works and how it can help us. Let’s talk about Design Thinking itself, not when it is applied to other methodologies.

To write this article, I used the book Design Thinking — Innovation in business, by MJV. MJV is a global company that sells Design Thinking and that, in 2011, published the first version of the book. With this book, it is not necessary to know about Design or Design Thinking deeply, since its purpose is precisely to teach about the method.

Innovation

The world is constantly changing. In the technology field, these changes are very fast, with the potential for great impact on society and the market.

Companies are looking for new ways to innovate, now more than ever. When I talk about innovation, I don’t mean something unusual or never seen before, but, rather, a search for new ways to solve an issue.

Innovating is risky and predicting results is difficult, but not innovating is even riskier, or even harmful, in some cases. Waiting to see what will be the ideal path or staying in our comfort zone is a mistake. As MJV said in her book, quoted here earlier:

“It was seeking new paths for innovation that created what is now known as’ Design Thinking’: an approach focused on the human being who sees, in the multidisciplinarity, collaboration and tangibility of thoughts and processes, paths that lead to innovative solutions for businesses”.

What is Design Thinking?

The word “design” is constantly linked to the quality and/or aesthetic appearance of products, however, design is much more than that. Its main objective is to promote the users’ well-being, that is, to unite form and function in products.

Thus, design is not simply based on appearances. I bet you’ve stopped using an app because its usability was horrible, even though you really like its look and had invested time in learning how to use it.

We also have the reverse case, of apps that, aesthetically, is horrible, but that meets your needs like no other. This happens because, most likely, these apps did not go through a design project. That is, it was designed considering either usability or aesthetics (which is different in thinking about the interface).

When we unite the two — usability and interface — the user is gets the whole thing and isn’t between them. Then, the chance of the app being recommended is higher, generating even more engagement. That is why applying design tools and processes correctly makes a great deal of difference to the final product, allowing it to attract users by its aesthetics and keep them for its practicality.

The way a designer perceives and solves problems was what resulted in the expansion of the design as a whole and it entering other fields, such as, for example, business. Recognizing problems and generating solutions is the main task of a designer — that is, identifying what harms or hinders a user’s experience and removing this obstacle.

Design Thinking is nothing more than the way designers think, using abductive reasoning — an unconventional way of thinking in the business world.

Abductive reasoning consists of elaborating questions through the apprehension or understanding of phenomena — that is, coming up with questions that must be answered with the information collected during observations of the problem. Thus, when thinking abductively, the solution comes from the problem, eliminating products that do not solve any problems. When I say products, I mean the end-product developed in a Design Thinking project. It can be an app, a website, mobile phone, service, or even just an idea.

Thinking abductively causes designers to challenge their standards constantly, pushing for innovation. Seeking to unravel obvious thoughts, they can get out of their comfort zones and stays out of the box. In the book, MJV explains that:

“You cannot solve problems with the same kind of thinking that created them: abducting and challenging business norms is the basis of Design Thinking.”

By focusing on development or integrating new technologies, both in stating and serving new businesses, innovation, guided by design, manages to complement both market and technological factors to solve society’s problems.

Design Thinking has phases that can be used in a nonlinear way, meaning that the process can be shaped according to the needs of the project. This flexibility also allows Design Thinking to be used in conjunction with other methodologies in a complementary way, further customizing the processes.

An example of a complementary methodology, which works similarly to Design Thinking, is Double Diamond. It is a methodology that consists of diverging and converging ideas, adapting to any field and project needs. Double Diamond is also an example of a methodology that can be applied both to project development and to solving turnover problems in companies.

Double Diamond can be used in conjunction with other methodologies — it is very commonly used with Design Thinking, but it can be combined with other methods — and it can also be used by itself. Thus, it is important to collect data and understand the problem, organize that data to generate relevant information, and ultimately build a solution that solves real problems in a creative or innovative way.

Therefore, Design Thinking results in innovation — because products, services or relationships gain new meanings in this process, identifying problems and bringing solutions. Design is about dealing with meanings.

In short, Design Thinking is about how designers can help solve an issue, be it within Design or in other fields — such as Project Management (with Scrum and Agile methodologies, among others), new business development and even human resources problems. When these methodologies work together, it is possible to have faster and more effective results, for example.

Immersion

Design Thinking is divided into 3 phases. The objective of first phase, called Immersion, is to bring the team closer to the project’s context. To this end, the project team analyzes the point of view of the company (customer) and the end-user (audience to be reached).

Immersion is divided into two phases, Preliminary Immersion and Deep Immersion.

In the Preliminary Immersion phase, we try to understand the problem, getting closer to the project, since it is the initial contact between the members of the team and the subject of the project. The Design team does superficial field research, listening to different perspectives on the problem. This variety of sources of information helps the understanding of the subject.

The Deep Immersion step involves an in-depth research of the end-user’s context. It tends to focus on the human being, raising information about users: how they speak, act, think or feel. The purpose of this is to map patterns and possible needs, to find extreme behaviors — totally opposite behaviors or preferences found in the different subjects’ profiles, for example, a person that loves apples and another who hates them.

When the extreme profiles are raised, it becomes possible to create solutions that meet all identified profiles. The inclusion of extreme profiles means that these solutions cater to groups that might not be considered if differences were not observed.

Analysis and synthesis

Looking more deeply into the problem’s context can sometimes generate a large amount of information, which can, in turn, make it difficult to identify opportunities and overcome challenges. Thus, this is the moment where we gather the information and organize ideas: in the analysis and synthesis stage. This stage can happen during immersion, serving as support to the next phase, which is Ideation.

The objective of this step is to organize the data collected visually, generating insights and finding patterns that will help form a bigger picture and identifying possible opportunities and challenges that will guide the understanding of the problem. It is in this phase that we raise hypotheses to solve the problem or its parts.

The tools used in this step will help in the next stages. Like the other phases, analysis and synthesis doesn’t need to be taken as a linear step of a process, but as a step that permeates the other stages.

Ideation

Ideation is the second phase of the Design Thinking process. At this stage, the aim is to generate innovative ideas regarding the project subject. To do this, synthesis tools — used since the analysis stage — are employed. They stimulate creativity and can generate solutions that have the same context as the project’s subject. In addition to these tools, there must be a variety of people with different profiles involved in the process of generating ideas, because these differences make the end result more assertive and problem- focused.

Prototyping

After selecting the ideas that meet the business objectives, technology feasibility and human needs, we proceed to the Prototyping stage.

Prototyping is the third and final stage of the Design Thinking process. This step assists in the tangibility of ideas, stimulating continuous learning and possibly validating the solution. It can occur in parallel to the first and second phases.

Prototyping makes real and tangible, even if in simplified form, what, until now, were only ideas. Thus, it allows us to really see which parts of the project are successes and which are mistakes, cutting down on costs that could be big if the project had been produced right away.

Prototyping can be different according to their purposes. This specificity allows us to draw the conclusions we need to validate ideas or discard them. For example, if I want to test only the flow of my digital interface, I am more likely to make a low-fidelity prototype, since the purpose is precisely to validate how the user navigates the interface. To validate the idea, the user interacts with the prototype and, from that interaction, we collect insights for product improvement. The high fidelity prototype is used when the purpose is to test the concept of the digital interface. That is, whether the hierarchy of information is correct, the colors were used properly, the words used are understood as expected and what else can be observed. With all of this information, we validate and perfect the final product.

Design Thinking in business

To succeed after a Design Thinking process has taken place, the team should not consider the creative side alone, the essence of the ideas must remain before and after the process. That is, there is no point in creating a product and, when it is implemented on the market, the findings of the process are not applied. If it has been identified that the audience of your product love apples, the ideal is to focus on apples, even if it is not your desire. The best results are found thought what has been mapped through the research.

An example of Design Thinking that we can use as a case study is Natura, a Brazilian beauty company. Natura used Design Thinking to develop new solutions, focusing on consumer experience, both physical and virtual. To do this, Natura partnered with Media LAB — an innovation, design, science and technology company —  and, jointly, they held a Hackathon, inviting researchers and students to participate in the development of products and services. The experience made the final product much more grounded in their consumers needs, as Natura called on them to participate. This made the audience feel heard, bringing the brand even closer to their consumers.

Conclusion

Design Thinking is about how designers can help solve an issue, be it in Design matters or in other fields. This methodology is carried out through a process. Initially, the team uses tools to understand the context of the problem, generating a large amount of information. Then, this data is organized and the creative process begins, in which ideas are generated and validated thought tests. The goal is to have a different perspective on the subject, because allows the team to find an innovative solution.

Although the steps in the Design Thinking process have been presented sequentially, it is possible to apply them in versatile and nonlinear ways. That is, the phases can be shaped according to the needs of the project and the problem in question. It’s okay to start a project through the Immersion stage and do Prototyping cycles while the context is studied, for example. Therefore, we can also start the project from the Prototyping phase, which is the last step. In short, it all depends on the project’s needs and goals.

It is more common for Design Thinking to be used along other methods than for it to be applied alone. An example of this is HCD (Human-Centered Design), a methodology applied to product development processes, which places the needs of users as the center of the solution.

In addition to HCD, we also have the Double Diamond, an example was mentioned previously. The mix of methods is possible because innovation, along with design, has transformed the area of technology. Additionally, Design Thinking is not only applied to the field of Design, it can also be applied to other fields as well, such as Project Management (Scrum, Agile among others), development and many other areas of interest.

The world is constantly changing and Design Thinking can help you and your business keep up with these changes in a light, assertive and innovative way.

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