What Is Design Thinking?

A few years back when Shreya A. was in 8th grade, she visited India with her family. “We were at the Taj Mahal and it was very hot,” recalls Shreya, now a junior at Mansfield High School in Massachusetts. “I saw how the heat was taking a toll on so many people. This idea popped into my head to create a wrist device that can regulate the temperature of the person who is wearing it.”

And thus began Shreya’s patent journey, a three-year process that is still ongoing. Shreya’s parents connected her with patent attorneys to help her file a patent for her invention, and they immediately sent her to the design table.

“The attorneys said I had to design the device and bring it to a final paper prototype,” notes Shreya. “When I was designing the patent, I had to think really creatively to make sure all the pieces fit together…I asked the people around me such as my parents’ friends, older family, and my peers about what they thought of my product and what they would want if they were using it. I made sketches of the product and of the idea. I used Tinkercad to make 3D models online. I faced a lot of obstacles doing that because some things didn’t make sense. The key is that it must be a unique idea. Google has a patent search engine where you can search all the patents. I liked different designs and then formed them together to create my own patent. The unique part of my wrist device is that it’s solar-powered.”

Engaging in New Ways of Thinking

Through the development of her detailed design, Shreya began to see the experimentation and market research involved in creating her patent as design thinking. Design thinking is a creative problem-solving process that companies use to contemplate and discover innovative solutions to problems of all kinds, from products and services to the overall strategy of the business. Major companies like 3M, Apple and PepsiCo have even created chief design officer roles in recent years to integrate this process more deeply into the company culture.

While Shreya was folding aspects of design thinking into her patent creation, she could have focused even more extensively on one particular measure of effectiveness: her customer.

“People who use design thinking see a problem and want to create a solution.” — Laura Ceccacci, Wharton Innovation & Design Club

Design thinking, says Laura Ceccacci, is centered on human behavior. It takes the needs or problems of everyday people and matches them with technological solutions that have a viable business strategy. “Understanding the user is at the heart of the design-thinking process,” notes Ceccacci, co-president of the Wharton Innovation & Design Club and a master’s student in integrated product design in the Penn School of Engineering. “First, you identify a problem, then you do research to better understand the user, finally you begin crafting a solution that fits the user needs. When you apply design thinking, you do research to thoroughly understand the user and key stakeholders,” explains Ceccacci. “What I love about design thinking is that it has a bias toward action. People who use design thinking see a problem and want to create a solution. One of the things that distinguishes design thinking from traditional marketing user research, is having empathy for the user and seeking to truly understand the user needs.”

IDEO, a product design consulting firm that is considered a leader in design thinking, describes the process like this: “To think like a designer requires dreaming up wild ideas, taking time to tinker and test, and being willing to fail early and often. The designer’s mindset embraces empathy, optimism, iteration, creativity, and ambiguity. And most critically, design thinking keeps people at the center of every process.” After all, many of the problems that the world faces are “dynamic, multifaceted, and inherently human.”

Hijabs and Heat Stroke

While many companies have embraced design-thinking principles to improve innovation – PepsiCo, Airbnb and Capital One, to name a few (see related links), Nike is among Ceccacci’s favorite recent case studies. In 2017, the company launched its first ever made-for-athletes hijab – a “performance hijab” – for Muslim female athletes. The company developed the garment for a year, drawing on the experiences and recommendations of such athletes as Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari and Egyptian runner and mountaineer Manai Rostom. In an article in USA Today, Rostom said, “It means the world to have the leading sport brand in the world come up with a product like this.” Successful corporate innovations like this have prompted companies to begin using design thinking methods in other domains, notes Ceccacci, like improving the process for promoting women into leadership positions.

Whether it’s a multi-million-dollar business process or a wrist device that harnesses solar power to help prevent heat stroke, the key is to better understand the human behavior driving the innovation, Ceccacci stresses. “Many projects with design thinking involve starting with an idea. You may have one experience, and that’s great, but you can’t just base a product or something you create off one experience. You shouldn’t be afraid to get outside the classroom and talk with people who may have the same experience.”

Shreya agrees that you need to be patient when it comes to building on your original idea in order to create a design that will be both unique and useful. “I definitely got really overwhelmed at some points,” she admits, recalling that more than once she set unrealistic deadlines for her paper patent prototype. “I would advise to not cram everything into a certain timeframe. Take your time with things, do your research, and develop it as much as you can until you reach something you’re happy with. It is a complete journey of learning something new almost every day.”

Conversation Starters

What is design thinking? How does the Nike example illustrate this concept?

What are some of the specific ways that Shreya thought like a designer?

The article alludes to design thinking principles being applied to other processes, like promotional practices. Using the related links, explore exactly how this is playing out in the business world. Discuss other areas that you think could benefit from design thinking and then do some research to see if it is already happening.

2 thoughts on “What Is Design Thinking?

  1. Shreya Ahuja and I have a similar formula for solving problems, which I am only now, after reading this article, able to describe as design thinking. However, the problem I aimed to solve was a social one involving activities.

    Imagine a lounge with a view of the rolling hills of a golf course, a black baby grand piano, a flat-screen TV, and twelve cheetah-print armchairs. Now, imagine this lounge filled with six senior-citizens snoring, three staring into space, and one singing, all while “10 Hours of Peaceful Music” is blasting from the speakers. Welcome to the sixth floor of Fox Hill, an Alzheimer’s-care senior-living community where I volunteer every Friday afternoon as an activities assistant.

    During my first month of volunteering, I immersed the residents into the world of fairytales through my vivid storytelling. But, every week, I always ended up reading to a room full of sleeping residents. That was when the problem became clear: the activities were not interesting to the residents. To solve this, I followed my routine problem-solving process: identify the problem, brainstorm solutions, then choose the best one.

    The brainstorming came easy, but I ran into a roadblock when choosing the best solution because I didn’t understand the residents. Suddenly, I had an indescribable urge to learn more about the disease that is omnipresent in the residents’ lives. At that time, my knowledge of Alzheimer’s was minimal. I wanted to learn more about the impacts of Alzheimer’s on daily life so I could really connect with the residents and empathize with them. It was during this search that I stumbled upon a video introducing Glenner Town Square, an Alzheimer’s Disease treatment center that resembles a 1950s town to provide a familiar environment for its patients. From this video, I learned that they find comfort in this environment because it matches the memories they can recall best — ones formed between the ages of ten and thirty. Drawing inspiration from Glenner Town Square, I concluded that I had to choose an activity that was familiar to the residents so they could feel comfortable participating.
    For the next two weeks, I visited the Alzheimer’s Association website and numerous other Alzheimer’s Disease-related websites and scrolled through countless lists of activities, many of which I had tried or were infeasible, like baking or watching family videos. My hope for a solution was dwindling. That is until I stumbled upon a list that had “solve a crossword puzzle” — an activity that was especially popular throughout the mid 20th century — as its number one activity. It elegantly combined my desire to find an activity that was familiar to them and to intellectually-stimulate them. I was set on trying it with the residents.

    The next week, I pulled up the crossword on the computer and began solving it with the residents. Most of them were snoring within minutes. This was a situation far too familiar — me talking to a room full of sleeping residents. One resident, Mrs. D, was still awake but not interested in the crossword. I began to see her staring off into space. Pretty soon, she would be dozing off. I had to act fast. I immediately stopped the crossword and brainstormed other activities that could reignite her interest. However, after the failure of the crossword puzzle — the activity I thought would be the holy grail —it seemed no other activity would suffice. Time was running out. I resorted to what I enjoy most: talking with others.

    As soon as I sat down next to Mrs. D and said, “Hi,” she became alert and awoken from her trance. She gave me an appreciative look, replied with a “Hi” of her own, and we began talking. I quickly learned that she was a proud Bucknell alumna, a retired journalist, and used to live in Hawaii. I asked her thought-provoking “would-you-rather questions” like “would you rather live in Maryland or Hawaii?” to which she responded eagerly and at length. When I left that day, Mrs. D was beaming and even asked for my name, something she was never previously interested in. Taken aback, I told her and realized the huge impact listening and connecting with Mrs. D had on her.

    The week after, I did the same with all of the residents, not just Mrs. D, creating a room discussion. It was filled with smiles and laughter as the residents shared their stories and I shared mine. This was the day that I saw most of the residents smile for the first time, heard them laugh for the first time, felt them enjoy themselves for the first time.

    That was my eureka moment. The residents were surrounded by caretakers, chefs, and managers, but even in this sea full of people, they still had no one to talk to. I realized that the residents were not interested in doing any fancy activities. They were happiest when they talked about their lives and had a form of social interaction. That was when I realized that discussions are a simple, yet powerful activity. The “3:00 Friday Discussion with Abby” was the solution that was five weeks in the making.
    While my solution did not end with a physical product as Nike or Ahuja did, it was still a solution that can be argued to have a “viable business strategy” since the environment became friendlier and happier, thus increasing the appeal of Fox Hill.
    Only now do I realize I enhanced my problem-solving process by subconsciously practicing the design thinking process: identifying a problem, performing research “to better understand the user”, and “crafting a solution” that fits their needs. But I am not the only one who does this subconsciously. Many people do. Shreya Ahuja, for example, didn’t realize she was following this process until she was one year into it during her freshman year of high school.

    In order to achieve maximum utility and the best success rate, people must actively and consciously seek to practice design thinking. Had I consciously used the design-thinking process, I would have researched differently to, as Ceccacci put it, “truly understand the [residents’] needs.” I would have inquired with the residents’ caretakers or children about what Alzheimer’s is and how it affects people. I would have asked them what the residents enjoy doing and talking about instead of blindly searching online for a generic solution that did not work. If I were actively practicing design-thinking, I would have been brought to a solution much before the five-week mark.

    Only when people are consciously making an effort to apply design thinking, as “many companies” are, will their problems be solved relatively quickly and effectively. They will then be positively reinforced to continue wanting to better understand the other person or “user”, creating a cycle of empathy that will benefit us all.

  2. Empathizing with consumers is indubitably very important, though I’m not sure whether traditional marketing research takes that into account indirectly.

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