The 10 Steps to Design Thinking

February 15, 2019

Design thinking is playing an increasingly significant role in the business world. Companies doing some of the most innovative work, such as Apple, Amazon, and Google, use this approach to help solve complex problems and develop highly-creative solutions, products, and services. The need for design thinking is especially urgent now, given the constantly increasing pace of innovation. 

“People who are designing new solutions no longer have the luxury of focusing on just a single aspect of the problem, so they can solve problems holistically,” said Blade Kotelly, a senior lecturer at MIT and co-instructor of the MIT Professional Education course “Mastering Innovation & Design Thinking.”  “They need to think of every element of the design and the single element that they’re focusing on, at the same time. They need to know how what they make relates to the rest of the system.”

Those who use design thinking innovate in ways to bring better experiences to their customers and build technologies and processes around that. In other words, it’s all about the customer experience. 

“In everything we do, we ultimately make things to serve people,” said Kotelly. “So, you need to think about how people are going to experience products when you are making the thousands of decisions that go into a solution.”

Kotelly explained that design thinking is a framework that helps engineers and designers move through a structured design process. It’s a way to frame your strategy, your design approach, and your development around the end-user. But there are many different variants of design thinking—and not all approaches are created equal. And while there are no guarantees for success, some design thinking methods are more effective than others.

1. Identify needs. This is the most critical and most difficult step. It’s about truly understanding the problem and how it intersects with users, technology, businesses, and–most importantly–society. A great idea now may not be a great idea five years from now because the world changes. You have to consider the context.

“There is no good and bad design outside of context,” Kotelly warned. “You might make something you think is a great product, but what's the context? Consumers might have a preference for a Samsung phone or an Apple phone, but what’s the context for their decision making?

“Is it that they want to spend less money?” he added. “Do they want a better-quality camera? Do they care more about having a system of interconnected devices and services?”

2. Gather information. This is the research phase. To design innovative products, you have to first watch what people do and how they do it in their environment. Then find analogs to the problem you are trying to solve—things that exist in the world that can inform your solution. For example, if you are trying to develop a new container for pressurized liquid, you might look at how champagne bottles were developed. 

3. Stakeholder analysis. Too often people limit their research to “users” when it is equally important to consider other stakeholders. Not all stakeholders hold the same value to a company. Examine the complex network of stakeholders to determine how you can take advantage of that network to develop more opportunities for win-win situations with more non-traditional stakeholders.

4. Operational research. This involves looking at the things you could be limited by. Typical limitations include money, time, and resources, but there are many others to consider. There are lots of techniques you can use to get around these limitations and/or figure out how best to balance the trade-offs.

5. Hazard analysis. Innovation can also result from examining risks and determining how to prevent them from happening. For example, the banking industry created “overdraft protection” to help customers mitigate the consequences of bouncing a check or mistakenly transferring funds to wrong account. They also make money on that so it’s a win for consumers and for the bank. 

6. Specification creation. The devil is in the details, as they say. But specs that are too detailed limit innovation, while specs that are too vague leave people feeling unanchored and unsure what to do. Specs done right in the center, on the other hand, can be inspiring, because they can help create vision that inspires. 

7. Creative design. This is when you need to spend time in the problem space and think deeply about it. Of course brainstorming and other common creativity techniques are valuable here. However, when you’re trying to innovate boldly you need to understand how to run (or participate) in those sessions, how to maximize the value of them, how to bring in new stimulus to the sessions, and how to change the brain chemistry of the people doing this work so they are inventing breakthrough concepts.

8. Conceptual design. The part where you winnow down the concepts you developed and start to zero in on a solution. Down-selecting and re-combining from the previous step is done by synthesizing your research with the ideas you’ve come up with and considering which ideas are yielding possible directions for you to test.

9. Prototype design. Creating a model of your idea that’s testable. Being testable is the important aspect here. If you’re creating a new remote control, you might make a prototype that looks like the real thing, or feels like the real thing, or operates like the real thing. You might simply make a paper prototype that allows people to understand the general concept of how the remote works. Prototypes can (and should) vary in levels of fidelity.

10. Verification. In this step you’re learning from the work you’ve done so you can reduce uncertainty. In this phase, usability testing will help you learn about your concept and help you innovate further so you can refine your ideas, re-prototype, and test again. The way you test, synthesize the data, and then deliver that information can have an enormous impact on your ability to take your ideas and get buy-in to make them real and deliver them to customers. 

According to Kotelly, engineers and designers often make the mistake of spending the majority of time on steps 7, 8, 9, and 10. That’s the phase we are all most familiar with: design and testing. The truth of innovation is that it’s truly enabled by the first phases of the process—steps 1 through 6. This is where Kotelly says innovators should be spending far more time.

Even though these steps have very little visible output (some research reports perhaps, compared to working prototypes), they enable people and organizations to focus their work by developing a deeper collective understanding of the problem. That understanding brings clarity and motivation to products. He describes it as finding the “Experience Centerline,” which ensures the product or service being created ultimately addresses a core human need. 

It’s clear that creating innovative products is extremely complex, and there are no guarantees for success in design thinking. However, when you get it right, there’s a possibility you could change the world, and learning how to apply design thinking in a proven, systematic way greatly improves your chances of success.