This is an approach that has its roots in the design of new products and places, but can be applied to many different disciplines. You can use Design Thinking as a way of approaching the whole project, or just parts of it.
A typical approach
A typical approach has 5 stages:
- Empathise - Find out what the end users/customers problems and wants are.
- Define - Define, or redefine the scope and aim of the project.
- Ideate - Develop a large number of ideas using a variety of idea generation techniques.
- Prototype - Select a number of ideas, and create prototypes.
- Test - Test out the prototypes - will they work in practice?
Then you might follow this with an implement stage (e.g. creating a new product, or co-producing a film with a community group). You can adapt this model - there is no single “official” model for Design Thinking. Adaptations might be:
- changing the names of each stage.
- adding or removing a stage.
- having an iterative approach.
- add review steps as needed.
An example of where Design Thinking can help
A student team has been asked to investigate new ways for the client, in this case a charity, to market their services aimed at people who have a disability. The client has asked for new thinking, a blue-sky approach, but would like to see practical designs that are cost-effective.
The team decides to adopt a Design Thinking approach:
Empathise – the team research what the users want, by talking to them, and doing some secondary research. The team develop a good initial understanding of what the basic needs are from each different type of users. The team use a mix of customer journey maps, mind maps, and marketing tools to empathise with the user’s situation, and present back the results to the client.
Define – In discussion with the client, the team refine the project aim, to narrow down on a subset of the services – in this case face to face support workshops. The goal is clarified, and two main areas are agreed for further research. The project plan is adjusted to record what has been formally agreed.
Ideate – The team selects a mix of visual and word-based idea generation techniques to come up with 100 ideas. No ideas are discounted, as the project requires a lot of creative thinking – there is no obvious best way to address the problem. The team share the collection of ideas with the client. Ideas can be presented in a list, or a set of online post its (e.g. as a Padlet) or diagrams/drawings.
Prototype – The client and team agree which ideas to focus on, and a subset of 6 main ideas are selected. The client wants to know how these ideas might developed into practical solutions. The team develops the ideas into a working model for each one. One model might be an outline website, another a draft schedule for a revised workshop, and so on. The team do not get into the detail, but focus on trying to give life to the model, so we can see how it might work. Early prototypes can be created very quickly using flipchart paper and pens, or an online drawing (e.g. using a Google app such as Jamboard or Googleslides; or Miro). The team discusses with the client, and any other key stakeholders, and refines the prototypes. In refining the prototypes, some of the discarded ideas might be adding into the prototypes.
Test – The client now asks the team to test and evaluate two or three prototypes. This means the team asks various users for their feedback, what the users like about the designs, how they can be improved. The team also evaluates the designs in terms of: financial viability, sustainability (e.g. how the designs contribute to one or more UN Sustainable Development Goals, or contribute to the Circular Economy), and the resources needed to being the models to the next stage of a real product or service. In this example, the client has not asked the team to produce the new website or workshops, but sees that two of the designs have passed a test stage, and wants the team to create a recommendation as to what the client should do next.
We have described the stages of the Design Thinking process, and emphasised the iterative approach. We have provided an example of how Design Thinking can be used in practice in a SEKE project. Design Thinking can be applied to a wide range of disciplines and can easily be adapted.