Design Thinking as an innovation tool
One of the biggest challenges in business is to gain a deep understanding of unfamiliar markets and target groups. Whether I want to dive into a new market or understand the changes of a market that I’m already in, the issue is the same: Users are usually not very good at communicating their needs upfront, they only respond to offerings, and they often do it with criticism. You often only know a product fails when nobody buys it. The reasons are often false assumptions we make in the early stages of product design and development.
Design Thinking came about as a method to address exactly this problem. As a process of systematic creativity for mixed project teams, it focuses on two things: exploration and experimentation. It has become kind of a buzz word and its exact definition is sometimes difficult to grasp. So, let’s start with a quick answer to the question: What is Design Thinking exactly?
The history and nature of Design Thinking
Design Thinking was originally an attempt at describing the thought processes and work methods of modern designers. Its development is closely connected to the product design company IDEO and the design school of the University of Stanford, where many of the senior IDEO designers were (and still are) teaching. During its transition into the wider business world – helped along by Hasso Plattner of SAP and his funding of the design school of the University of Potsdam – it took on many other aspects. The original mindset is still an important issue for many companies that try to change their culture and achieve a more “user-centric” approach to business. At the same time, Design Thinking is often connected to a more open and experimentation-friendly physical space, usually in the form of flexible workshop rooms and open space offices.
At the core of Design Thinking, however, is a method of systematic creativity that incorporated many aspects, principles and tools that were developed in the field of creativity studies (a subset of psychology). Typically, a cross-functional team moves collaboratively in workshop-like settings through a six-step process: Understanding of the challenge; gaining new insights into the users’ motivation; synthesizing these into directions for innovation; generating various ideas on how to address them; building first prototypes; and testing them again with users. This process can take anywhere from around ten days to three months, depending on the scope of the project, the time constraints of the team and the number of iterations.
Incremental and radical innovation
Could Design Thinking be used on a “smaller” scale? Yes, but then elements of the process must be left out. The most time-consuming part of Design Thinking is the exploration of user needs and motivation; but that it also its greatest strength. It makes the method most useful for challenges of radical innovation. Incremental, step-by-step innovation is essentially a form of continuous improvement and should be part of the core business. Radical innovation means leaving the constraints and restrictions of your core business behind to uncover potential for new business models and offerings. You are, in a way, trying to find new potential core businesses. In this uncharted, uncertain and risky environment, Design Thinking can provide a structure for good, effective team work. And it can greatly increase the odds of innovative results.
The strength of Design Thinking
As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, users are typically bad at expressing their specific needs. Henry Ford is often credited with saying: “Had I asked my users what they wanted, they would have demanded faster horses.” Whether he actually said it or not, chances are he thought along those lines. As did Steve Jobs and many other great innovators. It is not the user’s job to tell you what you should offer him. But you still need to understand the users’ needs to make them an offer they can’t refuse. Design Thinking provides a way to explore user needs that users might not be aware of themselves. It then connects the exploration to a creative, collaborative process that ends in tangible prototypes that can be tested and verified. The development process doesn’t end there, obviously, and there are many potential obstacles and challenges along the way. Design Thinking can make sure that you don’t start your innovative work heading off in the wrong direction.