Why is Design Thinking Useful?

Design-thinking is a popular topic among product developers and entrepreneurs. I think that’s because there are a lot of similarities in the processes that designers, developers, and entrepreneurs use. Whether we’re developing apps, services, or physical products, we’re all in the business of making new stuff and saying to a group of people, “This will solve your problem.”

Some of what you’ll read here will sound familiar. I’m a designer, so this post is phrased in a design-thinking vocabulary. But it’s a useful vocabulary for anyone, especially for folks who work with team members and users from different disciplinary backgrounds.

Design-thinking is a combination of anthropology and art. It’s anthropology because design-thinkers study how groups of humans interact with one another and how tools mediate those interactions. And it’s art because design-thinkers make stuff that other people will see and use. Artists call other people the “audience,” but design-thinkers call them “users” and more recently “co-creators.”

Design-thinking is useful in several ways: 

Design is often understood as how a product looks, but that’s because form and color are the visible edge of design. But there are several other elements of design. Design-thinkers don’t start their projects with a technology or a product idea. Instead, they start their projects by finding problems that humans have. Then they study those problems where they occur like an anthropologist in the field. Finally they prototype and test product ideas that address the problems they’ve identified.

TIP: Start your project by observing and talking to people with problems.

Design-thinkers never assume that the problem they start with is the problem they’ll end up solving. They spend a lot of time at the beginning of a project making sure they are addressing the right problem. They constantly revisit the problem statement and if they stray from it they do one of two things: revise the prototype to address the problem more clearly or reframe the problem. Here, they are both anthropologists and artists: the former interacts with humans to understand the problem and the latter is  iterating.

TIP: Revisit your problem statement early and often. It should evolve over time.

Design-thinkers know the difference between divergent and convergent thinking. And they know when in a project timeline it’s appropriate to engage in one or the other. Divergent thinking is exploratory, like what we do when we’re brainstorming or sketching. And critique is convergent, honing in to make decisions. The entire product-development process goes back and forth between these two types of thinking. For example, once you hone in on an idea to develop it further (convergent), you put your divergent hat back on to explore all of the options.

TIP: Be conscious of when you’re engaging in divergent or convergent thinking. It will help you control your development process.

Design-thinkers value critique. They don’t consider their ideas precious; they just want to find the best one. And if that means sharing ten ideas to find that most of them fail, then so be it. Here, they are like artists who have a complex relationship with their work. Work is painful and they accept that. Critique hurts at first, but after a few of them you develop a thick skin.

TIP: Talk to other people about your ideas, even your bad ideas. If you don’t, then you’re missing out on valuable feedback.

Design-thinkers don’t have all of the answers before they start designing: they prototype. This practice is similar to that of making art. Sure, artists think about what they will do and make sketches, but the best discoveries happen as they start the work.

TIP: Build prototypes, test them with users, take note of where the prototypes break. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Part of what makes designing so challenging is that it requires you to navigate ambiguity. Design-thinkers accept this. They are “at home” with uncertainty and know that it can be frightening, but they rise to the occasion because they accept it as part of the design process. If someone had the problem figured out already, it wouldn’t be a problem, right? Design-thinkers recognize that the problems they are working on are problems for a reason and that their job is thus appropriately difficult.

TIP: Understand that the design process is difficult. This understanding can help us get through the sometimes arduous or frustrating design process.

One of the reasons design-thinkers often struggle with ambiguity is that they are challenging the status quo. If they see a problem they don’t like, they never say, “I can’t do anything about that. That’s just the way it is.” Like artists, they make stuff to promote change. If you’re developing a new product, you had better believe that you’re in the business of promoting change.

TIP: We must be discerning artists. Artists introduce something new to the world and declare “This is better than that.”

That’s not to say that design-thinkers don’t appreciate users’ comfort zones. They know that their own vision is often too radical for users, so they put their anthropologist hats on and work on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is their vision; at the other is users’ comfort zone. The trick is to find that sweet spot on the spectrum where people are pushed out of their comfort zone, but not so much that they are scared away. Once we find that sweet spot, we’re in a position to nurture early adopters.

TIP: We must be realistic artists and know that without adopters our work has no meaning.

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