Solving complex problems with Design Thinking

You know it: you are facing a big challenge, with a problem that no one understands and a solution that everyone has an opinion about. But how often is the problem really understood? And do we understand what the needs of our target group really are? Design Thinking is the process where you creatively determine the problem, valuable insights and ideas and the best solution.

Design Thinking is a process for creative problem solving. It helps to sharpen the problem in complex situations and to form an effective and proven result through a creative process. Design Thinking has a people-oriented core. It encourages organizations to focus on the people they create for, leading to better products, services and internal processes.

Design Thinking can help you and your organization to:

  • Better understand the unmet needs of the people you’re creating it for;
  • Reduce the risk associated with launching new ideas, products and services;
  • Generate solutions that are revolutionary and not just incremental;
  • Create a faster “test & learn” cycle.

Design Thinking applies to more than you think. It is not tied to a specific role or industry. It is extremely useful in addressing complex problems that are poorly defined or unknown. By understanding human needs, by re-shaping the problem in a people-centered way, by creating many ideas during brainstorming sessions, and by taking a practical approach.

The Design Thinking model

In his groundbreaking 1969 text, called “The Sciences of the Artificial“, Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon outlined one of the first models of the Design Thinking process. In the 21st century there are many variants in circulation. In this article I focus on the “5-phase model”, which consists of:

  • Empathizing:understanding the human need;
  • Defining:reformulating and defining the problem in a people-centered way;
  • Creating ideas:coming up with concepts during an “ideation session”;
  • Forming prototypes:researching and improving prototypes through an iterative process;
  • Testing: further testing of the best solutions, with the aim of starting the final construction or redefining (new or sub) problems.
The 5-phase model

1. Empathize

The first stage is to gain empathetic insight into the problem you are trying to solve. This involves consulting experts to learn more about the topic. You can observe your target group, in order to understand their experiences and motivations. Experiencing the physical environment (in which the problem takes place) also helps to gain a better understanding of the problems involved. Empathy is crucial for a human-centered design process such as Design Thinking. It is very important to set aside assumptions and thus gain objective insight into your users and their needs.

Depending on the limited time, you collect a considerable amount of information in this phase. You use this in the next phase to get the best possible understanding of the users, their needs and the problems that underlie the development of that specific product.

2. Defining (of the problem)

During the Definition phase, you compile the information you created and collected during the previous phase. Here you analyze your observations and process them to define the core problems. You should try to describe the problem in a people-centered way as a problem statement. A typical business problem statement such as“We need to increase our market share in food among over-50s by 5%” then becomes“over-50s need to eat nutritious food to stay vital and reduce the likelihood of age-related diseases”.

Designers in your team should also collect ideas in this phase. In doing so, they identify relevant characteristics, functions and patterns. This allows them to solve problems or (at least) allow users to easily solve problems themselves.

3. Creating ideas

During the third phase of the Design Thinking process, your team is ready to generate ideas. With the help of a clear understanding of your users, their needs and the people-oriented problem definition, your team can now look “out of the box” for new solutions. Many alternative methods are available for this, in which so-called “Ideation techniques” can help. The most well-known techniques are:

  • Brainstorming:generating ideas together without an interim value judgment;
  • Brainwriting: writing down ideas and then sharing them with others;
  • Worst Possible Idea:coming up with the worst solutions together and then translating them into good ideas;
  • SCAMPER: approaching the problem based on 7 different angles.
Generating ideas together is not only valuable, but also fun and gives a lot of satisfaction.

Brainstorming and Worst Possible Idea sessions are typically used to encourage free thinking and expand the problem space. It is important to get as many ideas or problem solutions as possible at the beginning of this phase. You can choose a number of other Ideation techniques at the end of this phase to help you research and test your ideas. This will help you find the best way to solve a problem.

4. Forming prototypes

In this phase we proceed to “prototyping”. The designers will now produce a number of cheap, scaled-down or simplified versions of the product or its specific features. With this you investigate solutions that were created in the previous phase. Testing and reviewing prototypes can take place within the team, but also in other internal departments or, if necessary, a small group of people outside your organization.

Realize that this is still an experimental phase, where the goal is to find the best possible solution (s). If it concerns multiple problems (and therefore solutions), these should be investigated and improved one by one. You may need some iterations (of researching and improving) before you’ve found a possible solution. At the end of this phase, the design team will have a better idea of the limitations of, and problems within, your product. In doing so, they gain valuable insights into how real users would behave, think and feel when interacting with the final product.

5. Test

Designers and/or test engineers rigorously test the entire product using the best solutions identified during the previous phase. This is usually the final stage of the 5-phase model, followed by implementation of the product or specific functionality.

If you apply Design Thinking as part of an iterative process, this phase does not have to be the last. Results generated during the test phase are then used to redefine one or more problems. In addition, the behavior of the users and their conditions of use can also be reviewed. Even during this phase, changes and refinements are made. Here, solutions can be excluded in order to gain the deeply possible understanding of the product and its users.

Successful application of this model

I may have outlined a direct and linear Design Thinking process in which one phase seemingly leads to the next. In practice, however, the process is carried out more flexibly and non-linearly. For example, different groups within the design team can perform more than one phase at a time, or the designers can gather information and prototypes throughout the project to bring their ideas to life and visualize the problem solutions. Also, results from the test phase can reveal some insights about users, which in turn can lead to a new brainstorming session or the development of new prototypes.

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