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What Is Design Thinking and Why Should I Care?

Imagine being at the tail end of a project in 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 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 as co-creation ("design with, not for, stakeholders") and a tolerance for failure, to guide discovery and the collaborative crafting of innovative solutions.

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

1. Discover Conduct research to develop a deep understanding of what your stakeholders (customers, employees, volunteers, etc.) are trying to accomplish and the barriers they face. This phase is also where you learn more about the context and nuances of the problem and explore who else might have already solved a similar challenge.

2. (Re)Frame Clearly articulate the problem you're trying to solve and identify both real and perceived constraints. (Re)Framing is about ensuring you don't build a great bridge only to learn it is over the wrong river.

3. Ideate Generate a wide range of ideas, from the obvious to the ridiculous. Then, evaluate for desirability, feasibility, and financial viability to determine which ideas are worth developing further.

4. Prototype Create visual representations of concepts so that others can understand and provide feedback on concepts while they are still in the early stages of development.

5. Test Design and conduct experiments to test concepts and learn what works and what doesn’t. As author and MIT Research Fellow Michael Schrage put it, "What's better than a good idea? A testable idea."

6. Launch At some point, you have to release your new or improved product, service, or process into the wild. However, prior to Launch, you have to consider how you might address barriers to sustainable adoption and bake those ideas into the design.

It is important to note that although the graphic above may imply that Design Thinking is a linear process, it is anything but. As new insights emerge at different stages, practitioners 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.

There is one more way to think about Design Thinking – as a process that embraces ambiguity and failure on the front end to help you get to an effective and sustainable solution. It's an approach that says, "Let's find out what DOESN'T work as quickly as we can so we can discover what DOES work."

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, (again, using the principle of "design with, not for"), they created an inviting and delightful experience that increased patient satisfaction scores by 90%. They also significantly reduced the number of kids who required sedation, which provided additional benefits to patients, families, and hospitals.

Hopefully, the preceding paragraphs sufficiently answered the first part of our question, “What is Design Thinking?” But why should you care? Considering the wide applicability of this discipline in (1) solving complex problems, (2) developing innovative new products, services, and processes, and (3) 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:

  1. How would my organization benefit from integrating Design Thinking into how we operate?

  2. 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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