Design Thinking in the Digital Age
Updated: May 21
There was once a too-tall truck that drove into a too-short bridge,
and the truck got stuck underneath.
It immediately caused a traffic jam on the road.
Police, emergency responders, and firemen arrived on the scene. They debated whether they should remove parts of the truck or the bridge to solve the situation.
A boy who was passing by saw what happened and said:
"Why don't you let some air out of the tires?"
And so they did and the truck got through with no further damage to the vehicle, or the bridge.
This story illustrates not only the danger of ignoring the vertical clearances on bridges, but more importantly of getting stuck in a certain way of thinking when solving problems. While the professionals were debating between seemingly sensible solutions, a fresh perspective on the situation yielded the most efficient and effective solution, and this is "Design Thinking" - a fresh perspective on problems.
This article will broadly discuss "Design Thinking", the alternative way of addressing problems that result in "out-of-the-box" solutions in our rapidly changing world, how it can be applied, and what can be derived from it.
I. What is Design Thinking
We all have a default way of thinking through different situations ranging from crossing the road to solving a Sudoku puzzle. This default setting is helpful so that we don't have to learn how to cross the road, speak with colleagues, or drive a car every day. Re-learning basic tasks on a daily basis would not only be inefficient but also detrimental for progress. Our default setting is the most efficient tool to deal with simple problems with repetitive steps for solutions.
There are complicated and complex problems however, that require more thoughtfulness and creativity than our default settings. This is when "Design Thinking" can be most useful. It does not rely on following predetermined steps to achieve a goal; rather, it questions the assumptions in the problem, creates multiple solutions, and relies on feedback for continuous improvement. It is also overwhelmingly user-focused, and requires a great deal of empathy for the end users.
A good example for this situation would be how to stand out in the digital marketing space when many competitors already exist in your market. The solution is not simple or clear, but the start and end points are well-defined: your relationship with your target clients. Here you will start with who they are, how they discover you, and the process that follows.
"Design Thinking is firmly based on generating a holistic and empathic understanding of the problems that people face, and that it involves ambiguous or inherently subjective concepts such as emotions, needs, motivations, and drivers of behaviors."
-Tim Brown CEO of IDEO, in his book "Change by Design"
II. Basic steps of Design Thinking
While referred to as "steps", the actions below do not need to be followed in a particular order. While thinking through the problem, you may receive input that is more applicable in one area than the other, and you should pursue that line of thought. Design Thinking is about creativity and testing, so engage with your users first and foremost.
The five "steps" are:
Empathise – with your users
Define – your users’ needs, their problem, and your insights
Ideate – by challenging assumptions and creating ideas for innovative solutions
Prototype – to start creating solutions
In the digital marketing case above, going through the design process may look as follows:
Empathise – discovering that clients are on checking social media on their mobile phones during meal breaks
Define – peer reviews matter the most, followed by convenience in payment
Ideate – reviews from everyone are equally weighed, sites that do not accept certain payments earn less, video ads work better
Prototype – create different ad campaigns
Test – execute different versions and iterate
While going through this process, you may find out more about your clients, what they are looking for in specific products, and their pain points while going through your landing page. All of these are useful data points, and should influence your next solution. The process does not end after one test!
III. Outcomes from Design Thinking
Focusing on and designing for your end users can significantly redefine how you approach and interact with them. Beginning with the end in sight can be more challenging, but it will certainly be productive. From the example above, by fully understanding who you are reaching out to, and how they discover you, you can design advertisements that will reach your target audience in the right way, at the right time, and in the right place. This outcome cannot be achieved by a simplistic step by step procedure; rather, it comes from empathizing with your customer's needs and motivators, and designing the process so it is easy for them.
Design Thinking is out-of-the-box, and certainly more labour-intensive than a predefined method; however, its user-centered approach means that you are addressing a real issue at every step of the way.
Start applying the steps within Design Thinking for your next project, and see the benefits for yourself and your team!