First Steps in Design Thinking

Just finished my first design thinking class in the Design Thinking and Innovation Specialization program at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.  So its time to reflect on what I’ve learned so far.

What’s design thinking? It’s a framework for solving complex problems and creating new and innovative ideas, using a human-centered, exploratory, interdisciplinary, and collaborative approach.  I haven’t yet worked my way through the full process yet, but here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1. Spend time problem finding. In design thinking, there’s just as much emphasis on finding and defining problems as on solving them. Look at what presents itself as the problem in a broader sense and reframe it. (For example, instead of thinking about a better design for a particular table lamp, think about a better way to illuminate a room.) Ask and explore whether the problem that has presented itself is the real problem, or whether there’s more overarching, underlying, and adjacent problems. Identify not just the obvious root causes, but also the less obvious and less direct causes. Think about the direct and tangential opportunities to be achieved by solving the problem. This isn’t as easy as it may sound. It took me some time and practice to allow my mind time and space to wander away from the immediate and apparent problem at hand.

2. Don’t jump to solutions. This one is hard for me, really hard. Design thinking asks us to think first about the general criteria (characteristics) that an ideal model or solution would embody. Inherent in this approach is the principle that many different models or solutions can meet the criteria. In class, I found myself going immediately to a particular solution. What I needed to do was back up and think about what made that particular solution (or other possible solutions) an ideal approach. (Following my example about room lighting, the ideal criteria would sufficient lighting by which to read. There’s a number of possible lighting solutions that would fit that criteria, including more table lamps, placement of table lamps, overhead lighting, bulb wattage, dimmer switches, and clamp on book lights, to name a few.)

Focusing first on such general criteria removes the proverbial boxes and lines which often hem in our problem solving. Because the general criteria allow for multiple solutions, they provide wide latitude for creative thinking in the later stages of ideation (i.e. brainstorming possible solutions). This approach requires (at least for me) patience in not immediately jumping to resolution and developing a level of comfort with ambiguity, knowing that there’s possibly more than one ideal solution to the problem.

3. A better way to move forward. I’ll admit that before I knew much about design thinking I thought … big deal … I know how to solve problems. My standard method, the traditional method used by many, was akin to that of a surgical strike. Get in, identify the problem or challenge as it presented itself, do a quick and straightforward assessment of the root cause, design a solution that addressed the cause, and get out. I’m reflecting on how that method compares to design thinking, and I’m wondering whether I’ve been approaching problem solving and designing new models in the best way possible. My old method worked, but perhaps the results weren’t as robust as they could have been.

Done well, design thinking is a blended of analytical approaches, creative thinking, and collaboration among diverse perspectives. It provides a set of tools to capitalize on each, and release the potential to be found in their combination. It can unearth previously unknown problems, reveal new opportunities for growth, and unlock innovation solutions and new directions. Design thinking translates well to higher education, and has been used to address its complex issues and approaches to e-learning. Perhaps in using the traditional straight-forward approach to solving problems and developing new models opportunities were lost … the opportunities for fruitful and wide-ranging impact and advances that design thinking affords.

How well is your current process working for you?


Interested in learning more about design thinking?


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