What Is Design Thinking?

By Joanne Morrison, HGS Head of North American Marketing

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”
-- Shunryu Suzuki

When it comes to design thinking, there’s no shortage of info, gurus, and books all proposing different methods, tools, and languages. But if we focus on what’s common among definitions, design thinking is a human-centric approach to complex “wicked” problems that involves learning by doing and using design language.

According to Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO and the person credited with coining the term, “Design thinking brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable.”


Traditionally business schools taught planning and execution but not search and discovery. As uncomfortable as it may be, doing business in today’s dynamic environment requires solutions with uncertain outcomes. Practitioners of design thinking need to be comfortable knowing they don’t really know what the problem is. Design thinking involves “learning to dance with ambiguity” and is often used to gain insight into customers’ behavior patterns, wants, and needs.

According to Dr. Steve Gedeon of Ryerson University, a design thinking mindset involves three things:

  • Visualization method for diverse teams to gain insight into problems/needs
  • Attitude of proactive experimentation
  • Continuous learning and improvement

According to Liedtka and Ogilvie in “Designing for Growth,” design thinking involves moving from objectivity to subjectivity, analysis to experimentation, planning to doing, numeric models to experiential models, and discomfort with uncertainty to dislike of status quo.

The two-stage divergent-convergent process to design thinking involves 1) understanding the problem, and 2) creating the solution. In the context of customer experience, you can empathetically observe, interview, and conduct research to understand the problem facing a particular customer personal, then create a solution by ideating, brainstorming, researching, testing, collecting data, and analyzing. Understand, however, that rather than creating one solution, you’ll be continuously iterating to create multiple solutions.

Dr. Gedeon explains the design thinking inquiries framework as follows:

  • What inspires you? (understand)
  • Who are the affected stakeholders? (observe)
  • What are their unmet needs (synthesis)
  • What are your ideas? (ideate)
  • What might a solution look like? (prototype)
  • How can the solution be improved? (feedback)
  • What resources are needed?

As part of your goal of understanding your customer, stay up-to-date, create a common “group understanding” within your team, find out what’s already out there, who’s buying it and why, understand the industry language, reframe the question, and become a mini expert.

As part of the observation phase, get out of the building and talk to users, especially extreme users of your product and develop empathy with them. Collect compelling stories and find archetypes for major customer segments.

Remember that when conducting customer interviews and focus groups customer behavior it’s important to discover what people actually do, not what they say they do. It’s not uncommon for the two to differ and this difference can easily lead companies astray. A classic example is the launch and failure of New Coke. Back in 1985, Coca Cola launched the new Coke formula after conducting extensive taste tests. Time and again, during blind taste tests, focus group participants indicated a marked preference for the sweeter taste of the new Coke over the original formula. So, why did new Coke fail in the marketplace? It failed because buyers did not consume Coke in small sips. They consumed Coke by the can. And while consumers preferred the new Coke formula in the context of small samples, the formula was thought to be too sweet when consumed in larger quantities, which was how people consumed it outside of the contrived focus group/laboratory environment.

How do you know whether customers are telling the truth in interviews and focus groups? Ask open questions and ask “why?” a lot. Ask questions neutrally without leading customers to a certain conclusion. Watch for body language and inconsistencies and most importantly, listen to people’s stories and then share those stories with your internal team. Compare notes and where customers have found workarounds to problems. These workarounds may serve as fodder for your solutions. Share stories that were most surprising to you. Read between the lines when listening to customers, understanding what really moved the users, what their mood was like, how the interaction with users felt, what the overall context was, and what information could be grouped together.

The final step in the design thinking framework is to synthesize and make sense of the data you have collected from customers and develop a point of view. A helpful technique is to cluster similar observations, differentiate between clusters, organize data into timelines and segments, create customer journey maps or mind maps, and create customer personas (e.g., Mary Mom).

Most importantly, don’t assume you know your customer, the reality will always surprise you.




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