a white curved design

In the same way that the Agile methodology has changed the way we work, Design Thinking was created to change the way we solve problems. These solutions all have one thing in common: they’re totally focused on the user’s needs.

Through brainstorming, iteration, and testing, design thinking helps ensure you’re solving the right problems, and validating those solutions before expensive development and design occurs.

The key to Design Thinking is approaching the process with the goal of finding actionable results—uncovering unexpected ideas you wouldn’t have otherwise considered, to get new, creative solutions.

How Design Thinking Works

“Design Thinking may sound like a buzzword that design firms use to upsell their clients, but in actuality it’s an extremely valuable tool to make sure you’re solving the right problem, generating innovative ideas, and validating those ideas before making expensive commitments.”

-Jonathan Cofer, Senior Creative Director, Upwork

Design thinking is different than other ways of brainstorming in that it’s less about analyzing; it’s more about creating. You probably remember using the old, tried and true scientific method with a hypothesis, theory, feedback and iterations, which is all based on analysis. Design thinking is about synthesis—thus, creating new things is where the energy goes.

It’s not meant for every kind of problem. But to be effective, design thinking has to be applied to a problem that’s focused on end users and their values. For the design thinking journey to be a success, the destination has to be relatively uncertain, and there should be no roadmap to lead the way. It could be a UI-focused problem, or it could be more abstract like the creation of a device designed to help kids move more to fight childhood obesity.

Jonathan also adds, “Oftentimes Design Thinking is described in abstract terms that are hard for newbies to grasp. At its core, it’s actually incredibly simple—first define the problem you are trying to solve, next come up with ideas and narrow down to the best one, and finally validate that it solves user’s problems before you build it—that’s it. What Design Thinking provides is a process and exercises to accomplish the above.”

So what is that process? There are quite a few variations on the steps of design thinking, which is ok because at its core it’s meant to be less structured, thus yielding more innovative results. You can find an array of books that explain the process with a different step here and there, but generally, it involves the following steps:

  • Understand and empathize. With observation and qualitative data, create stories that help define the problem. Understand the context and culture of the people involved, and you’re better able to empathize with the problem. If you don’t put yourself in the users’ shoes, it can be difficult to create a solution that takes them into account—or one that misses the mark altogether.
  • Define. Research and find patterns in these insights, or “needfinding,” then diagnose the problem. Translate the diagnosis into a defined plan.
  • Ideate, prototype and test. Here’s where the creativity comes in. The first round of “solutions” should really be treated as a jumping off point for more in-depth iterations. Create simple prototypes that test possible outcomes, so mistakes are noted and fixed early on.
  • Implement and learn. The entire process can be cyclical, especially when it comes to ideating, prototyping, and testing. After implementing the solution, feedback facilitates the refining of ideas.

Now, think about how this can be applied to a specific field like UI and UX design, which are already totally focused on the user’s needs. It requires designing a UI with the user’s interactions and thinking in mind. So if user testing of a UI reveals difficulty accomplishing something, or shows that certain predicted behaviors aren’t happening, design thinking can be used to creatively address those issues. Sometimes, the solutions can be used along with efforts to change behaviors (like nudging users to try out a new feature), reinventing something, adjusting for usability concerns, or making tweaks that make it easier to find or use a feature that’s underused.

Rooted in Design, But Applicable to More Than Just Design

Designers have to brainstorm solutions to problems just like any other profession, whether that’s business, engineering, social work, or logistics. And the design thinking process itself isn’t focused on just design—it can be applied to architecture, urban planning, web development, education, and more.

Take an architecture firm that’s been asked to build an after-school center for children. In trying to imagine what that building would look like, you start with the children’s needs and wants, what they will be doing there, and how to facilitate that. What does the building look like? And the grounds around it? How many rooms will there be, and how are the rooms laid out? The design of the building should solve the problems of encouraging the children to be engaged, to foster fun and socializing, facilitate certain activities, and keeping children safe.

To get the insights necessary to start using design thinking in this scenario, the architect can observe kids playing, and interview them about what they like, and what makes fun “fun.” Asking teachers about challenges and what value they hope the children will get out of the space helps them learn about any goals for encouraging behavior (e.g., being active and athletic and in nature vs. inside and sedentary).

Design Thinking Agile Methodology

It should come as no surprise that both of these iteration-centric methods work very well together. The Agile manifesto, in particular, is a flexible, team-centric, iterative approach to lean development. Instead of handling all the planning upfront, teams are focused on producing minimum viable products (MVPs) over set periods of time while improving with each iteration. There’s an emphasis on constant user feedback, continuous improvement, and the ability to adapt to changing requirements.

In the same way that Agile allows teams to adjust with iterative cycles and short sprints, design thinking is an especially great way to pivot in order to meet the ever-changing needs of customers. Many companies like IBM have paired the two when it comes to design and development.

Putting Design Thinking Into Action

Ready to get started? Upwork’s Senior Creative Director Jonathan Cofer says “The best way to incorporate Design Thinking into your process is to just start scheduling workshops with other team members and learn how to run these types of meetings as you go. You will fumble through your first 3–5 sessions, but nothing will bring up to speed quicker than hands-on experience leading Design Thinking workshops yourself.”

Before you kick off your Design Thinking process, it’s important to know that to properly implement it for your business and get real ROI, design thinking can’t be a one-off thing. It’s not a one-time workshop or a half-baked way to get to a prototype stage—it’s a commitment to a new logic that, when used properly, can help businesses to innovate, grow, and find new successes.