Apply Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a mindset for problem solving or “A style of thinking that combines empathy for the users and immersion in the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and a data-based experimental approach to assessing the quality of solutions.” (Liedtka and Ogilvie, 2011). Design Thinking primarily leverages techniques from the product and industrial design fields. These practices have long been used before design thinking as a term was popularized, and have recently been adopted and applied in the software, startup, strategy, pharmaceutical, and finance industries to great success.

Although there are numerous and highly popular process models for design thinking, they are consistent in that they begin with problem exploration, move into ideation of solution concepts, and include some element of prototyping and testing those solution concepts for feedback. Below is the most popular and recognizable process model from the Stanford Design School.

While the process is depicted as linear, in practice, it is often highly iterative and may require jumping across process steps depending on the circumstance of the team, problem complexity, and other variables unique to the space by which the problem exists.


When to Use Design Thinking

  • When an organization is in need of a new strategic and/or operations strategy – addressing the big picture, pain points, environmental landscape, and strategic actions which can be pursued
  • When creating and defining new products and services – to understand from the human perspective in order to improve or make it more relevant to the users’ needs
  • When the problem space is complex and requires significant user engagement – humans are complex and less predictable than system to system problems
  • When there are many unknowns and past data is unlikely to help predict the outcome of the solution – prototyping is key
  • When past efforts have failed to be adopted by Users – addressing the true motivations and needs of Users
  • When you haven’t seen this problem before and so are not sure where to start

Strategies and Principles for Applying Design Thinking

  • Involve customers (or users) early and often throughout the process
  • Don’t assume a solution; instead, explore the problem domain first
  • Implement diverse multidisciplinary teams to participate in the end-to-end process
  • Don’t be beholden to specific tools and techniques within any process phase – select and adapt tools (from within design thinking and other disciplines) that meet the spirit of each step
  • Prototype and iterate early and often. Welcome failure and learn from each iteration.

Specific situations when Design Thinking has been found to be useful

  • A framework for front-end requirements in agile systems development efforts
  • Incorporation of principles and some tools in context of collaborative engineering of decisions among diverse stakeholders
  • An approach for product owners in agile development efforts to design and evolve products to meet customer needs
  • A means for bringing researchers and practitioners together to design research proposals that meet operational needs
  • An approach for defining and designing lab services for internal MITRE Sponsors and Missions
  • An approach for defining enterprise disaster recovery solutions and data center designs

When is Design Thinking not enough

  • When problem domains are in a more technically and system oriented complex environment (supplement: Systems Thinking)
  • When you need a structured way of taking ideas and implementing them in an enterprise (supplement: Lean Startup)
  • When design thinking requires implementation and scaling of technology solutions to deliver value to the customer (supplement: Agile Methods)
Actions You Can Take
  • Identify Who the Target Customers and other Stakeholders are for your Product, Service, or Offering: customers may be external to the organization (e.g. citizens, warfighters, partner Agencies) or internal to the organization (e.g. employees)

  • Find Opportunities to Explore Problem Spaces from the Customer Perspective 

    • Consider ethnographic methods to interviewing and observing customers to understand problem areas from their perspective. Remember that humans are notorious about describing their needs, but it is up to you to uncover their unstated needs.
    • Leverage tools such as personasjourney maps, and empathy maps to consolidate the results of customer research and identify insights
  • Decompose Complex Challenge Areas into Problem Statements

    • Craft problem statements to decompose different aspects of a complex challenge area. Focus on stating problems from the perspective of customers and without bias for any solutions
    • Consider the construct of “How Might We…” to craft problem statements in a manner that encourages brainstorming of new and unique solutions
  • Involve Multi-disciplinary Teams in Ideating Possible Solution Concepts

    • Leverage divergent thinking initially in brainstorming to identify many possible ides without judgement
    • Leverage convergent thinking to discuss, combine, and narrow down possible solution concepts to pursue
  • Prototype Solution Concepts to Understand What will Work and What Won’t

    • Remember that “prototypes” in design thinking are not like proofs of concept. Their purpose is to facilitate discussion and feedback from customers and stakeholders. Flowcharts, Lego structures, storyboards, and sketches can all be appropriate mediums for an initial prototype
    • Capture feedback from prototypes and incorporate learnings into future iterations of the design thinking process. You may go back to the Ideation phase or even the Problem Exploration phase as a result of prototypes. The learning process is part of design thinking
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