Understanding The Design Thinking Process

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Why Design Thinking?

What is design thinking and why is it important to a modern organization? Design thinking is umbrella term used to define a group of methodologies i.e. Agile, Scrum, Lean Startup and a different way of bringing the right products to market with a higher chance of success. Design thinking is a way to get your team and organization thinking creatively about your products and services from your customer’s perspective. It helps an organization understand their customer pain points, find solutions to the biggest problems, and build solutions faster and more accurately.

Lean is one of the methodologies used within design thinking. It is a process for testing new ideas quickly and cheaply and using feedback from those tests to decide which parts of the products to work on next. Agile is a methodology typically used for delivering technology based projects. It is also a process used to test and build solutions quickly. The aim of both processes is to deliver the most value to the business sooner. Design thinking is a combination of the Lean testing and Agile Iteration.

Typically, design thinking processes can take as little as a week or can be an ongoing process. While it’s important that the whole organization be aware of what is happening in the design thinking process, not every part of the business needs to be involved all the time. To communicate the progress of a design thinking project, demo events can be organized. In Scrum, these are called the Sprint Review. Stakeholders from different parts of the business will be involved in the project at some point. Design thinking argues that it’s better to have them on board at the beginning and in short bursts throughout the project, rather than having to explain the project and its justification to every stakeholder throughout the project.

Benefits of Design Thinking

At its heart, design thinking is a customer centered process that helps organizations identify and fix real customer pain points. It also allows an organization to get early measurable feedback about which product’s, features, or ideas will be successful with their customers. When using design thinking to build-learn-measure, an organization will start with a shared understanding and continue this through the whole development process. Design thinking makes it easier for everyone involved to make decisions about the things they need to work on because they are involved from the beginning and often. This shift in the way products are built also saves significant time in meetings. It’s also much easier to decide the project’s goals because all projects are about consistently delivering the highest value to the business by meeting the customer’s needs. Lastly, one of the biggest benefits of design thinking is that the project team continually work with their customers to make sure they are building the right thing. This is in stark contrast to waterfall project management where all the design specifications are completed at the beginning of the project.

Design Thinking Process

The process of design thinking is a set of activities that take an organization from definition to implementation planning quickly and efficiently. The first step is Customer Development. This phase is all about an organization listening to their customers to find out what their main problems lie. Customer Development is about “getting out of the building” and speaking to customers. The insight gained from this type of customer interaction cannot be done in a meeting or via a survey. The perfect outcome would be to find a burning pain point or need of a customer, that occurs on a daily basis, that they have tried to fix themselves, and they have a budget for. Once an organization has identified and solved this type of problem for their customers, the customers are likely to be surprised and delighted (see the Kano model). If this is achieved, an organization will have provided value to their customer as well as to themselves.

The ideation process involves stakeholders from all parts of the business, not just the traditional design and development teams. It involves people who are logical and process orientated, very creative thinkers, and everyone in between. The outcome here is to have everyone involved early and have ideas generated from different areas of the business that will foster creativity and, collectively, generate better solutions. This process is distinguished from the old way of solving problems and building products where the product was built and shipped with little to no interaction with the customer or input from internal stakeholders.

Once a team has spoken to customers, identified a problem worth solving, and come up with a potential solution, the next phase is all about developing a prototype. A prototype can come in different forms: pen and paper, a wireframe, a low-fidelity coded solution, or a high-fidelity coded solution. Each one of the prototypes have their benefits and drawbacks. For more information, see section 3.2.5 Lean User Experience. Of all the prototyping techniques available, paper prototyping is the quickest, easiest, and cheapest. These can be created in a day and tested the following day to see if the stakeholders clearly understood the customer’s problem and built a suitable solution. When working with prototypes it’s a good idea to keep them low fidelity to get as much feedback as early and quickly as possible. If the team has missed the mark when building the solution, it’s best to find out early, before significant time, energy, and effort has been spent on building the solution. Once a team has entered into the design process and a cadence has been established, they will gain a certain level of confidence from gathering customer feedback and iterating through the process to build a better product.

Once the team has moved through the build-test-measure process a number of times they will have a clearer idea of what the end solution should look like. This is done by the whole team working through an iterative process whereby each new feature is delivered and user feedback is captured. With this clearer vision of the end solution, the team can move to higher and higher versions of fidelity. Because each stakeholder represents a different part of the business and has different ideas, it is more likely their unique input will serve the team as a whole to build a better product. Because the team collaborates through the iterative build-test-measure process, have a customer-centric focus, and measure the output of their work, they can be more confident they are building the right solution for the right customer.

Design Thinking Pros and Cons

Design thinking is a massive shift from the traditional ways projects are run. In traditional projects, all the specifications, budget, timing, etc are set up front. If there is a deviation from any of these, there needs to be significant adjustment and justification. Design thinking on the other hand, allows a team to move faster, deliver value to the business sooner, and deliver satisfaction to their customers regularly. In traditional projects, specification documents are written up front for the whole project. If things change, there is usually a significant amount of time, energy, and effort that goes into redesigning and rewriting. Design thinking is developed in such a way as to minimize design and specification documentation. Here, only the absolute essentials are created.

Communicating early and often is one of the major benefits of design thinking. Making sure there is complete transparency throughout the team helps everyone stay on the same page. Communicating using design thinking allows the team to catch issues early on from parts of the business. It also allows the team to cost out the development as well as have the development team accurately scope the work to be completed. It helps the design thinking team as well as the organization as a whole understand the project from its inception, right through to its delivery. It also provides people outside the design thinking team an opportunity to contribute whereas in other project styles, this is not usually possible. While not a guarantee for success, design thinking definitely increases the likelihood of a team delivering a products that their customers will be delighted about.

Another benefit of using design thinking is the significantly reduced time it takes for a team to move from ideation through to production. Here, the design team can moved through the build-test-measure phase of the project, designed the low fidelity and high fidelity prototypes, and finally launched the product or feature to market before most traditional project get approval. To be clear, the development team does not build and ship the whole product all at once. Instead, they build the product or feature that will provide the most benefit to the organization the quickest. The product is built and tested using short increments of work. In Scrum these are called Sprints. To find out more about Sprints, see section 2.7.2. Sprints. If done well, the Customer Development interviews early on in the design thinking process and the continuous interaction with customers will provide enough information to build and release a product that fulfills the needs of the customer. If the product does not meet the customer’s need exactly, the design thinking team continue to iterate through the process of build-test-measure until they have perfected the product for that customer segment.

Another benefit of design thinking is its ability to guide the team in what not to build. Because the team consistently delivers the highest value parts of the project consistently, the risk around things that shouldn’t be built or things that are not needed is reduced. If, through Customer Development interviews and low fidelity prototypes, the team receives feedback that a product or feature is not needed, the process for that feature stops there. This has the potential to reduce the project timeline, by only building the things customers actually want, and also reducing costs. With the reduction in risk, time, and cost, there is an increased probability of success for each feature and the project as a whole. This increased probability of success has an positive impact on the team and organization overall.

One of the challenges with design thinking is that it is a new way of doing things and some people find it difficult to or don’t want to adopt new ideas, processes or procedures. They’re happy doing things they way they’ve always done them. Another challenge with design thinking is that its predicated on transparency and collaboration. If an organization has a strict hierarchical structure or each department is siloed, then there may be little incentive for people to step outside of their existing environments to adopt a new way of working. If design thinking is something that a team would like to start within its organization it’s best to find influencers to help sell it to higher level management as well as throughout other areas of the business.

Tracking Success

How does a design thinking team know it been successful and how do they track success and progress over the course of the project? A good way to track everything that needs to be tested and the progress along with way is to use the Project: [PROJECT NAME] – MVP Test document. It helps capture a teams assumptions, tests, criteria for success, and insights over a period of time. The information gathered will be from internal and external sources and will be both qualitative and quantitative. All this type of information can be presented to the rest of the organization using an information board, a slide deck, demo day presentations (see Sprint Review), and/or a company wiki. Having a chronological record of the work completed in a logical and structured was will help the design thinking team and the rest of the organization understand where the project started and the justifications for the products and features created.

Conclusion

Design thinking is growing in popularity but in reality it is simply an umbrella term for many user-design techniques such as Agile, Scrum, and Lean Startup that have been around for decades. Regardless of what terminology is used, the important thing to remember is that design thinking offers a lot of tangible organizational-wide benefits over the traditional way of delivering projects. Once the basics have been implemented into an organization and the benefits realized, it’s possible for an organization to continue adding complementary and more advanced design thinking methodologies to find new opportunities and remain competitive in their market.

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