What Is Design Thinking and Why Should I Care?

Imagine being at the tail end of a project on which you had invested over two years of your professional life. And now imagine discovering that it’s a spectacular failure in ways you never considered. That was Doug Dietz, an Industrial Designer for GE Healthcare, who shared his story at TEDxSanJoseCA. Dietz, after wrapping up the design and delivery of a new MRI scanner, was like a “proud papa” as he went to see his “new baby” in action. Only then did he discover that the MRI experience was terrifying for children, and by extension, their parents. To make matters worse, he learned that hospitals often had to sedate pediatric patients prior to an MRI scan, as their fear-induced trembling kept them from lying still for the procedure.

So what does this have to do with Design Thinking? Everything, because that’s what Dietz and his colleagues employed to address the issues they found. Design Thinking is fundamentally a proven and repeatable methodology for solving problems and exploring opportunities. But more than just a process, it’s a way of thinking and working that is deeply human-centered. Design Thinking is a mindset and a toolset that embraces a set of principles, such empathy for stakeholders and a tolerance for failure, to guide discovery and the collaborative crafting of new and innovative solutions.

Although it seems that every consulting firm, academic, and author has their version of a Design Thinking framework, ranging from three to eleven steps, here is one that we at Faster Glass think illustrates this approach quite well.

1. Discover Conduct research to develop an understanding of stakeholders' needs and wants.

2. (Re)Frame Clearly articulate the objectives and identify both real and perceived constraints.

3. Ideate Generate a flood of ideas, then filter for desirability, viability, and feasibility.

4. Prototype Create visual representations of concepts, seek feedback, and refine.

5. Test Conduct experiments to test hypotheses and learn what works and what doesn’t.

6. Launch Design launch to address barriers to implementation and sustainable adoption.

It is important to note that although the graphic may imply Design Thinking is a linear process, it is anything but. As new insights emerge at different stages, practitioners will often jump back and forth to revise hypotheses, conduct additional research, refine prototypes, and retest concepts with customers and other stakeholders. This approach also uses divergent and convergent thinking to examine an issue or opportunity from multiple perspectives. This zooming in and out gives teams permission to explore a wide range of possibilities before homing in on what's realistically doable.

Let's turn back to Doug Dietz's story. After seeing the MRI experience through the eyes of a young patient, he and his team immersed themselves in learning how to apply Design Thinking. They did so with the expectation that new tools and methods would help them come up with ways to make MRI scans less frightening for children and their families, which is exactly what happened. By seeking out insights from experts at a children’s museum, as well as doctors and staff from local hospitals, they created an entirely new, inviting, and delightful experience that increased patient satisfaction scores 90%. They also significantly reduced the number of kids who required sedation, which provided additional benefits to patients, families, and hospitals, as well.

Hopefully the preceding paragraphs sufficiently answer the first part of our question, “What is Design Thinking?” But why should you care? Considering the wide applicability of this discipline in solving complex problems, developing innovative new products, services, and processes, and designing customer (and employee) experiences that attract and retain loyal followers, we believe you’d be hard pressed to find someone who shouldn’t be embracing Design Thinking. However, there are situations where adopting this approach may be of little use. For example:

  • Your business model has no expiration date and your industry is disruption-proof.

  • You have all the information and perspective you need to address complex issues.

  • You feel that engaging your employees and/or equipping them with the skills and confidence to innovate is an unnecessary expense.

  • Your customers (and/or employees) have no other options, so there's no need to waste time and energy worrying about their experience.

If any of the above statements describe you or your organization, then feel free to carry on with business as usual. For the rest, consider these two questions: How would my organization benefit from integrating Design Thinking into how we operate? And what does our future hold if we focus solely on maintaining the status quo? As W. Edwards Deming, the father of the quality revolution said, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

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