Beyond the Hype: Putting Design Thinking to Work

Editor’s Note: Design thinking is a hot topic right now, observes Tucker J. Marion, associate professor in Northeastern University’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation Group. 

Professor Marion integrates design thinking into his product development classes and has worked on projects with design firms for 20 years. He sees design as a fundamental core skill that can be learned, improved, mastered, and engrained in the innovation process, as he explains in the following post, excerpted from the May/June 2018 issue of CMR.

Design is not just for designers. Health care, IT, defense, government, law firms, and more are seeing the value of design thinking, but unfortunately it does not yet pervade all industries and employees.

At its core, design thinking is a methodology designed to truly understand users, uncovering non-obvious wants and needs from their life. It requires empathy to put yourself in the shoes of your customer or client. It’s a skill complete with tools and frameworks designed to guide you through the process. In other words, it’s an effective process to ultimately provide you with better opportunities at the front end of your innovation funnel.

Steve Jobs famously stated that “customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.” If that’s the case, what’s the point of involving customers in innovation? The key is not asking but observing them. In developing training software, for example, consider how valuable it would be to observe people using the training tools and learning the steps, not to mention how the time each user spends on each screen, and so on. Or better yet, observing them using the original software to see where they encounter bumps.

The real impact of design thinking is discovering the details of people’s motivations, behaviors, and approach to life. It’s through these observations that insights can be drawn and turned into concepts and opportunities.

Fortunately, there are methods to drive this process. First introduced by the design firm IDEO and the Stanford University design school, an entire suite of tools and methods have been developed to implement this process. Depending whether you subscribe to IDEO’s process or others, there are three fundamental pieces that combine to form a skill set. In “Design-Thinking for Non-Designers: A Guide for Team Training and Implementation,”

PDMA book on design thinking, authors Victor P.Seidel and Sebastian K. Fixson call these need-finding tools, brainstorming tools and prototyping tools. Here are some points to consider regarding each step:

Collecting Information and Extracting Value From It

Voice-of-the-customer, focus groups and surveys can provide value. But as Steve Jobs implied, getting customers to reveal their specific needs is difficult and often of limited value to true innovation. However, observing people in their natural environment and capturing underlying needs that are not obvious can be a path to success. And this takes fieldwork involving in-depth interviews, photographing users and observing behaviors.

Think about how much ethnologist/anthropologist Jane Goodall learned by living among the jungle chimpanzees, immersed in their culture. Such research is what teams need to do, systematically observing people in their natural settings. Ethnographers collect all the small, seemingly insignificant things they see because such details can prove important—details such as people’s reluctance to touch the dirty side of a broom, which ultimately led to Procter & Gamble’s development of the Swiffer.

Such social science is not new; Xerox hired its first anthropologist in the late 1970s to help improve the usability of its copiers. What is new is the interest in teaching it to employees at all levels. Just look at Ford, whose new CEO, Jim Hackett, is spearheading efforts to propagate design thinking throughout the organization.

Once an organization has collected valuable data, it needs to extract important observations that reveal key pain points around which to develop a potential solution. Since this process can be challenging, specialized training can help. In 2013, IDEO partnered with the simulation training company ExperiencePoint. Together, they developed an excellent design thinking training simulation called Design Thinker. This simulation focuses on understanding the transition from observation to the development of low-cost prototypes.

This first phase of the design process is all-important and can be a challenge for people new to design thinking. We’re all trained to go right to solutions. Instead, we need to take a step and try to understand “why” the critical skill to be developed. We don’t need solutions yet. Although this initial phase can take time to do right, it sets the stage for better solutions to come from the subsequent conceptual phase.

Structuring Ideation 

Put 15 of your best people into a small conference room for four hours and come up with an amazing concept — works everyone time, right? Wrong! In fact, in my experience I’ve found that managers rely too much on free-for-all brainstorming.

One of the most important steps in design thinking is to delay the solution, as mentioned earlier. Going back and forth between wide-open divergence of thought to convergence is important. But don’t cut short the divergence. Once you’ve observed the overall issue/opportunity space in detail (Phase 1), you need to develop opportunities for concepts (solutions) from insights. And to do this, structured brainstorming helps.

Push for the maximum number of ideas from the brainstorming team but limit time to no more than 15 or 20 minutes per session! Draw, write and post (Post-it® notes required here, of course). Have a facilitator and encourage all ideas, no matter how outlandish, as long as they can be drawn and/or explained quickly. These types of short brainstorming sessions can be used for all projects and readily taught to all employees.

Validating the Concept Through Low-Cost Prototyping 

How can you validate the concept with almost no resources? Can a wireframe mock-up work? Or a PowerPoint slide schematic? Or a process and flow visualized with some sticky notes? Finally, what kinds of tests can you conduct to validate core functionality? It’s at this point that the linkages between design thinking and lean startup methods become clear. So think about core functionality and what resources you can deploy to get that all-important feedback and iterative learning essential for refining and vetting your concept.

You can limit the tools your people use here. You can have them prototype during a session, right after concept selection. Again, time and material constraints are important. Think about how the engineers developing the CO2 scrubbers for Apollo 13 were constrained on time, materials and communication. It works. And don’t be too focused on producing a perfect prototype. A quick hand sketch of an interface is a prototype, as is the rearrangement of desks to simulate a process change.

For more complex projects, or if there is more time and resources, this is the perfect part of the process to incorporate lessons from The Lean Start-up ( and the concept of the minimally viable product. Overall, this process can lead to better opportunities, improved concepts, and some validation before these concepts enter formal stage gates.—Tucker J. Marion



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