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What are the principles of design thinking?

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There are certain principles that are pivotal to design thinking. These are reflected in the design thinking methodology, which we’ll explore in detail a little later on. We’ve outlined five of design thinking’s most important principles below.

1. User-centricity and empathy

Design thinking is all about finding solutions that respond to human needs and user feedback. People, not technology, are the drivers of innovation, so an essential part of the process involves stepping into the user’s shoes and building genuine empathy for your target audience.

2. Collaboration

The aim of design thinking is to pool a diverse variety of perspectives and ideas; this is what leads to innovation! Design thinking encourages collaboration between heterogeneous, multidisciplinary teams which may not typically work together.

3. Ideation

Design thinking is a solution-based framework, so the focus is on coming up with as many ideas and potential solutions as possible. Ideation is both a core design thinking principle and a step in the design thinking process. The ideation step is a designated judgment-free zone where participants are encouraged to focus on the quantity of ideas, rather than the quality.

4. Experimentation and iteration

It’s not just about coming up with ideas; it’s about turning them into prototypes, testing them, and making changes based on user feedback. Design thinking is an iterative approach, so be prepared to repeat certain steps in the process as you uncover flaws and shortcomings in the early versions of your proposed solution.

5. A bias towards action

Design thinking is an extremely hands-on approach to problem-solving favoring action over discussion. Instead of hypothesizing about what your users want, design thinking encourages you to get out there and engage with them face-to-face. Rather than talking about potential solutions, you’ll turn them into tangible prototypes and test them in real-world contexts.

The design thinking methodology in action

So far, we’ve covered quite a bit of theory. We know what design thinking is and the key principles that shape it. Now let’s consider what the design thinking methodology looks like in action, starting with the five key steps in the design thinking process.

The design thinking framework: five key steps

The design thinking framework can be divided into three distinct phases: immersion, ideation, and implementation. This framework can be further broken down into five actionable steps which make up the design thinking process:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

Although these steps appear to be sequential, it’s important to point out that design thinking doesn’t follow a strictly linear process. At each stage in the process, you’re likely to make new discoveries that require you to go back and repeat a previous step.

Step 1. Empathize

What? During the empathize phase, you’ll engage with and observe your target audience.

Why? The aim of this step is to paint a clear picture of who your end users are, what challenges they face, and what needs and expectations must be met.

How? In order to build user empathy, you’ll conduct surveys, interviews, and observation sessions.

For example: You want to address the issue of employee retention, so you ask each employee to complete an anonymous survey. You then hold user interviews with as many employees as possible to find out how they feel about retention within the company.

Step 2. Define

What? Based on what you’ve learned in the empathize phase, the next step is to define a clear problem statement.

Why? Your problem statement sets out the specific challenge you will address. It will guide the entire design process from here on out, giving you a fixed goal to focus on and helping to keep the user in mind at all times.

How? When framing your problem statement, you’ll focus on the user’s needs rather than those of the business. A good problem statement is human-centered, broad enough for creativity, yet specific enough to provide guidance and direction.

For example: “My employees need to be able to maintain a healthy lifestyle while working in the office” is much more user-centric than “I need to keep my employees healthy and happy in order to boost retention.”

Step 3. Ideate

What? With a clear problem statement in mind, you’ll now aim to come up with as many ideas and potential solutions as possible.

Why? The ideation phase gets you thinking outside the box and exploring new angles. By focusing on quantity of ideas rather than quality, you’re more likely to free your mind and stumble upon innovation!

How? During dedicated ideation sessions, you’ll use a range of different ideation techniques such as bodystorming, reverse thinking, and worst possible idea.

For example: Based on what you’ve learned in the empathize phase, you hold several ideation sessions with a variety of different stakeholders. With your problem statement to hand, you come up with as many ideas as possible for how you might make your employees happier and thus more likely to stay with the company.

Step 4. Prototype

What? Having narrowed your ideas down to a select few, you’ll now turn them into prototypes—or “scaled-down” versions of the product or concept you want to test.

Why? The prototyping stagegives you something tangible that can be tested on real users. This is crucial in maintaining a user-centric approach.

How? Depending on what you’re testing, prototypes can take various forms—from basic paper models to interactive, digital prototypes. When creating your prototypes, have a clear goal in mind; know exactly what you want your prototype to represent and therefore test.

For example: During the ideation phase, one idea that came up was to offer free yoga classes. To prototype this idea, you set up a dedicated yoga room in the office, complete with mats, water bottles, and hand towels.

Step 5. Test

What? The fifth step in the design thinking process will see you testing your prototypes on real or representative users.

Why? The testing phase enables you to see where your prototype works well and where it needs improving. Based on user feedback, you can make changes and improvements before you spend time and money developing and/or implementing your solution.

How? You’ll run user testing sessions where you observe your target users as they interact with your prototype. You may also gather verbal feedback. With everything you learn from the testing phase, you’ll make changes to your design or come up with a completely new idea altogether!

For example: You decide to test the yoga idea for two months to see how employees respond. You find that people enjoy the yoga classes, but are put off by the fact that they are in the middle of the day and there is nowhere to shower. Based on this feedback, you decide to move the yoga classes to the evening.

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