Design Thinking: Fashionable jargon or revolutionary problem solver?

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“Design thinking is just fashionable jargon describing the method of problem-solving which we already know and use.”

That sums up the first reaction many people have when design thinking is briefly explained to them, and why wouldn’t they? Design thinking is a method of problem solving. Most definitions of it define it as a five-step cycle where the steps do not necessarily follow in order. The cycle starts with ‘empathise’, where you learn about your audience; this is followed by ‘define’, where user needs are used to create a point of view; ‘ideate’, where solutions are created; ‘prototype’, where solutions are umm… prototyped; and finally, ‘test’, where the prototype is tested.

Does that sound familiar? Well, here’s the problem-solving cycle: problem definition, analysis and diagnosis, solution design, implementation, and evaluation. Surely the similarity is coincidence? What about the agile software development cycle: analyse, design, implement, accept, deploy. Well, it certainly doesn’t require a PhD in quantum dynamics to see the similarity, pretty sure a high school diploma will suffice. Design thinking, it would seem, is similar to a fidget spinner; very popular for no real reason. But it’s not all hype.

The primary difference between design thinking and other problem-solving methodologies is its focus on the user. It is human centric problem solving. This is a key difference from traditional problem-solving methods that have primarily been formalised from learnings gained via the scientific method. The problem-solving methods we have been trained to use through our years in academia are based on solving a problem without taking any consideration of the emotional state of the user. As a result, we think of the experience that a user has while using the product or solution as an afterthought. We almost never consider the cultural upbringing of the user, or the values they hold dear. We mine large sets of transaction data to learn more about our customers, but do we spend time really getting to know what they are thinking, or how they are feeling? This is where design thinking is helpful. It’s focus on the user forces us to see the problem from different angles. But it’s not the silver bullet that current hype has made it out to be.

Like so many other problem-solving methodologies, design thinking is a methodology for problem-solving that works well on its own but works better when combined with other methods. It brings together various professions and disciplines into one multi-disciplinary problem-solving approach. It forces us to think in non-conventional ways and look at scenarios we wouldn’t have considered before. But it is not a god. It is just another way to solve a problem.

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About Author

Mehrdad Behroozi

Mehrdad (Merv) Behroozi is general manager of Hamilton graphic design and web development company E9. Phone: 07 838 1188 | Email: merv@e9.nz