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An Overview of Design Thinking

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The writer has a Master's Degree in Economics. She enjoys researching and writing about economic and business issues.

Overview of Design Thinking

Design is not something new, but design thinking is a relatively new concept. As the world becomes more complex, issues also change and evolve constantly, making traditional solutions and even problem-solving framework and decision making process become obsolete. There emerges an urgent need for a new way to do things and a new approach to generate impactful and meaningful solutions. With the advance of technologies and the Industry 4.0, design thinking has become another buzzword of the century that receives much attention.

In many ways, design thinking is related to innovation, and both of them aim to solve existing problems in a new way, or tackle new issues (Brenner & Uebernickel, 2016). Many industries apply design thinking process in all aspects of their operation, increasingly focusing more on the people than the technologies and equipment. Design thinking becomes an asset of many companies, promising to give them a competitive advantage over their competitors, helping them to widen their customer base, lowering production costs and improving overall profitability (Modicum, 2017).


Definition and Principles of Design Thinking

Design thinking is often defined as a problem-solving framework to solve a previously unknown issue. This approach is human-centred, innovative, iterative and inclusive (Karpen, et al., 2017). Here are the six main principles of design thinking:

  • The first principle of design thinking is human-centered, designing for the people, trying to find and satisfy their desire. Consequently, the process starts with human beings, acknowledging their needs and demands, their contexts, constraints and perspectives, not with a list of available technologies or products.
  • Second, design thinking is inclusive. To create a product, it is crucial to gather inputs from all stakeholders, such as users, manufacturers, suppliers, marketers, distributors, and so on. The production team also comprises of people from cross departments with different experiences and skillsets to ensure the diversity of the opinions. All inputs are valued and incorporated into the production process at various stages to answer the specific questions or problems arising at a specific time.
  • Third, design thinking fosters innovation to improve a product or service, or generally to make the world a better place. Therefore, it is very common to identify design thinking with the current trend towards sustainability and green consumerism. In order to achieve that, design thinkers also need to evaluate the impacts of their design on all stakeholders, including users and their environment, critically address any unintended consequences, and adjust their design to reduce negative impacts.
  • Fourth, design thinking is experimental and innovative, requiring a lot of trials and errors, and possibly undergoing many failures before reaching the best solution. To create something new and impactful, design thinkers should consider all possibilities and combinations, and try to do things that have not been done before. Through their trials, they learn their lessons, and apply those learning into the next stage, or a new product.
  • Fifth, design thinking is interactive and explicit. Visualization is often used extensively throughout the process, sketching ideas, flows of thoughts, or visualizing the shapes, features and various elements of a product. Prototyping is also made to represent the products as close to the real ones as possible. With the advance of software and technologies, there are more and more new ways to create interactive design and present ideas in a more tangible way.
  • Last, design thinking is holistic. Designers immerse into the users’ environment to better understand their requirements, and the design is considered within the relationships with all internal and external stakeholders (Karpen, et al., 2017).
Principles of design thinking

Principles of design thinking

Design Thinking Process

Different organizations across different industries have different processes for design thinking (Dunne, 2018). Nonetheless, some steps are common in all of them.

  • First, design thinking often begins with empathy. Empathy is defined by Dam & Siang (2018) as the ability to deeply connect with others, putting oneself into their situation to see the issue from their perspective. To do so, design thinkers need to spend time observing others in their home context, engaging with them through communication, interview and other interaction, and trying to understand and empathise with them. This step is also known as the research phase of design thinking.
  • Second, the next step of design thinking is to define the users’ needs (Liedtka, 2014). A user probably has more than one need, which might be unique and also change with time. Nonetheless, after studying a group of users, or several groups of users, design thinkers should recognize the general patterns of the users’ needs, and use their own insights to refine the needs that they want to tackle.
  • Third, the next stage is to ideate the solutions, brainstorming different ideas to meet the pre-defined needs. Ideas can range from being traditional to the craziest proposals. Thanks to the inclusiveness of design thinking, ideas come from a wide range of disciplines and perspectives, and the team can discuss to choose or combine various ideas to come up with the most suitable solution.
  • The fourth step in the process is to prototype ideas. In this stage, a preliminary and interactive version of the solution is created to test the feasibility of the product and to decide whether the solution can solve the problem. Prototyping provides great benefits such as cost reduction and product usability assessment. Moreover, it also reduces ambiguity and discrepancies in ideas if a concept is understood differently among different people (Guimaraes & Saraph, 1991). Based on evaluation of the prototype’s performance, the team can go back to adjust the solution, or generate a completely new idea.
  • Finally, during the testing phase, the product or solution is implemented and tested to analyze its effectiveness. In this stage, more stakeholders and evaluators are involved to acquire the most complete assessment of the products. Moreover, if the designers find more issues arising from the solution, they can go back to readjust their products again, or plan for another product to address new requirements.
Design thinking process

Design thinking process

Benefits of Design Thinking

Design thinking can bring many extra benefits. First, design thinking is claimed to promote innovation. Innovation stems from the Latin word “innovare” which can be literally translated into English as “into new”. It is defined as the process of going beyond the present and into the future by taking different actions or seeing things in a different perspective (Kuczmarksi, 2003). Unlike pure creativity, innovation includes both the creation and implementation of new ideas into practice. In this regard, design thinking process considerably facilitates innovation. In order for a new product to be utilized, it must be approved and accepted by its intended users; hence it must be developed and shaped around the users, which is the fundamental principle of design thinking. Moreover, since design thinking is particularly experiential, it allows for failure and errors and even encourages innovators to take the more original route to go beyond what is perceived as possible.

Second, design thinking can help to generate consumer value. Consumer value is the value of a product through the lens of the consumers, the difference between what they pay and what they receive (Smith & Colgate, 2007). Consumer value stems not only from the functional benefits brought about by a product or a service but also from the social value (how the products help users gain social prestige), emotional value (how customers feel when engaging with or using the product), and epistemic value (the knowledge acquiring from the product), and conditional value (Sheth, et al., 1991). In short, customer value is all about customers, the human beings who actually use the product. Throughout the design thinking process, the product designers engross themselves into the customers’ world, thoroughly conduct research to learn and understand customers and create their users’ persona who is a fictional character that epitomises a typical user of the product. Based on the results, the product is tailored to best serve the users’ desire. In this way, design thinking also helps to reduce production costs by guiding companies to focus resources on the most useful features for users. Moreover, during the testing phrase, the team can also collect feedback from real users to evaluate its usability and use these insights to enhance the products even further.

Last, due to its systemic and contextual nature, design thinking has the capacity and potential to lead to sustainability (Young, 2010). Sustainability has been defined as the ability of the current generation to meet its needs without sacrificing future generation’s resources (Brundtland, 1987). Because the world has become more interconnected, almost any change in any system would impact another system. Since throughout the design thinking process, a solution is co-created with the participation of all stakeholders, the solution can take into account the concerns of all stakeholders, minimizing the adverse impacts on any group, and overall providing the most optimal solution (Young, 2010).

Criticisms of Design Thinking

As indicated earlier, design thinking values the input or the intelligence of the mass, generating solutions based on research, or from outside-in. All possibilities are considered, analysed critically, and tested to identify the best solution. Nonetheless, it is observed that in the real business world, among the most innovative companies are those who do not follow design thinking principles. In some cases, they even do the exact opposite (Verganti, 2016).

For example, Google Nest which was formerly known as Nest Labs, was founded by Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers in 2010. Unlike the theory of design thinking, Nest Labs was established to satisfy Fadell’s own desire to produce a thermostat that would better serve his own home. The company’s first product came directly from its founders’ vision of what a perfect thermostat looked like, and miraculously, Nest Labs’ thermostat was able to convince the whole market, selling more than 1 million products in less than 3 years. Similarly, Apple Inc., one of the Big Four technology companies, was also widely known as a trend-setting company, persuading the market to buy into its vision. Instead of asking the users what they need for a mobile phone, Apple “taught” the users why it was important to own an Apple product and how that product would improve their life (Moorman, 2018). From these examples, it was argued that the world in fact has enough ideas; the important thing to do now is to make sense of these abundant ideas and information to choose the right direction to go and create meaningful products, services or experiences. Sometimes, in order to do so, it is important to look inside, and decide from within (Verganti, 2016).

Another criticism against design thinking process is that it is very expensive and time-consuming. In reality, there are very few projects that have the budget needed to afford extensive user research, prototyping and testing. Moreover, since design thinking process builds on consensus, it might take time for a diverse team to agree on a decision, thus lengthening the development time.

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Applications of Design Thinking

Regardless of some criticisms, design thinking has been applied to many types of industries and aspects of businesses. For instance, software development has been one of the pioneers in applying design thinking. The industry has shifted away from the traditional waterfall or V-development model to various agile development methodologies which allow further flexibility and the participation of more stakeholders in different stages of software development process (Young, 2013). For example, scrum software development process starts with user research during which the development team learns about the users’ general requirements. The whole product development process is then broken down into smaller sprints when the team produces parts of the product, present the result to the customers, ask for their feedback before releasing the feature. By including users or product owners along the development process and prototyping the feature before release, software developers can quickly respond to users’ change request, and ensure that the product is really what the users want. This approach helps to reduce development risks, time and cost; hence more and more software development companies choose to apply it into their production.

Agile software development process

Agile software development process

Another example of application of design thinking is in marketing. Previously, marketing mainly focused on advertising and selling to encourage customers to buy a product. Nonetheless, modern marketing is all about relationship building with all stakeholders, especially with customers (Palmer, 2012). To build a sustainable relationship with customers, ensuring their satisfaction and loyalty, the marketers need to understand their demographics, needs, and challenges, building users’ persona and customer journey mapping (Kumar & Reinartz, 2016). In other words, they need to empathise with their customers, and engage with the customers in this ever fast changing world. After analysing the users’ requirements and needs, the marketing team provides the insights to the production team to tailor their products to accompany users’ needs. The production team can create an initial version of the product to test users’ acceptance before manufacturing at full capacity. After the customers have purchased the items, the marketers continue to interact with users throughout the aftercare services to both support customers with any arising issues and gather feedback to improve or modify the products. An example of a company utilizing design thinking in their marketing strategy is IBM Corporation. The company invested heavily in conducting research on its buyers, generating their buyers’ profiles, persona and their journey from product discovery, research, purchasing decision, and product advocate (Silverpop, 2017).

Generating customer persona and journey mapping is part of design thinking in marketing

Generating customer persona and journey mapping is part of design thinking in marketing


In summary, although understood slightly differently among various disciplines and industries, it is no doubt that design thinking has become the latest trend in all fields. Overall, design thinking offers a human-centric framework to approach, study, understand and create the most feasible user-friendly products. It is argued to bring tremendous advantages such as enhancing innovation and sustainability. For companies, it can create value-added to their products, reduce costs, engender more sales volume and ultimately more profitability. Regarding application, design thinking is seemingly ubiquitous, being used by both established companies and start-ups due to its agile and innovative nature. It helps to shift the question from the constraints and feasibility of technologies to the exploration of inexhaustible human needs and imagination. Although there are criticisms against design thinking such as the ambiguity in its definition and other alternative solutions, design thinking is poised to continue to extend its application and impacts in more organizations across more disciplines in the future.


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