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Design thinking

What is design thinking?

By | Behavioural Science

Excerpt: In this post, we will explain what design thinking is all about. Originating from the innovation arena, it has gained popularity in other business domains. Driven by the success of design thinking of radically focusing on the needs of the user. The how and why behind design thinking is explained in this article.

 

Design thinking explained

Everybody seems to be design thinking nowadays or has at least have heard of the term. But what is design thinking? Why has it gained so much popularity? Is it something that can help you and your business become more successful? In this article, we will give a short design thinking masterclass. So, you’ll know what everybody is talking about. And you can see for yourself if you want to start implementing design thinking in your own company. We’ll explain how and lead you to some of the best resources on the internet. To make your life a bit easier, we’ve divided the article into several subsections. Which you can jump to by clicking on the following links:

A new approach to innovation and problem solving
Design thinking implementing the process
The steps in the design thinking process
Design thinking tools and videos
Recap

A new approach to innovation and problem solving

Design thinking comes from the field of innovation and is a new approach, or process if you like, to solve problems taking the user as a focus point. The method has been described as far back as 1969 by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon. But it really made a lift when d.school of Stanford University came up with a five-step approach to design thinking. Which was given a boost by Tim Brown of IDEO, and explained in his bestselling book ‘Change by Design‘. In this article, we’ll describe their approach, as it is most commonly used nowadays, and very practical to implement yourself.

design thinking

It’s all about human understanding

Design thinking revolves around a deep interest in developing a deep human understanding of the people for whom we’re designing products or services. It helps you question and enables you to resist to act upon (often wrong) assumptions. Design thinking is extremely useful in tackling problems that are ill-defined or complex. By re-framing the question in human-centric ways. Design thinking is so successful because it focuses on the needs of the user. Understanding culture and context through observation and qualitative research (storytelling) diagnosing the right problem.

Okay, that sounds nice and all. But why do we need this? To put things short, we all think in patterns. We all have ways we are used to doing things. Our habits, what we get taught in school, by our parents, and in the business place. Which is fine, as it helps us deal with everyday situations. We can rely on these patterns of thinking.

Automatic behaviour

We need this automatic behaviour to survive. If we had to make every decision consciously. Or had to think about every behaviour rationally. Or had to learn to do everything from scratch over and over again our brains would crash. As we explained in our article about system 1 and 2 thinking of Kahneman. In short, we rely on doing every day – private and business – processes for the most part unconsciously. For example, when we get up in the morning, eat, brush our teeth, and get dressed. We don’t think about it; we do it how we are used to doing it.

There’s one downside to this patterned thinking. It makes it very difficult for us humans to challenge our assumptions of everyday knowledge. Especially when you’re expected to be a paid expert, it can be tough to start questioning your own experience . Also known as the expert fallacy or false authority. So, when we run into a problem that we haven’t faced before. Or that requires a new innovative solution, we often get stuck or come up with old answers that aren’t always the best.

Patterned thinking vs. innovative thinking

Often this difference between repetitive patterned thinking and innovative thinking (also commonly referred to as ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking’) is illustrated by the truck example. Have you heard of it? If not, let us tell you this story.

Some years ago, an incident occurred where a truck driver made a wrong judgment call and tried to pass under a low bridge. That turned out to be too low for his truck. His truck got so firmly lodged under the bridge, that the driver couldn’t manoeuvre the truck through it anymore. But also couldn’t reverse his vehicle. Which not only caused a problem for the truck, but also for the traffic that got stuck behind him. The story goes that the fire department, other truck drivers, road help, and other experts came over to negotiate how to tackle this problem.

Everyone was debating whether to dismantle parts of the truck or break down parts of the bridge. Each spoke of a solution which fitted within his or her respective level of expertise. And this went on for some time.

The story goes, a boy walked by, took a look a the truck and then said, “Why not just let the air out of the tires?”. Which took all specialists and experts by surprise, who were debating for hours trying to solve the problem.

 

design thinking truck

When the solution was tested, the truck was able to drive through quickly. The story symbolises the struggles we face where frequently the most obvious answers are the ones hardest to come by. Because of the thinking patterns we all have within. And it summarised what design thinking helps you realise: design thinking helps you to change the way you tackle problems. It encourages you to explore new alternatives. Creating options that didn’t exist before.

 

Design thinking implementing the process

In this next part, we want to give you a concise design thinking masterclass. It will explain the principles of user-centred design. The first advantage and characteristic of design thinking is that it encourages us to take an integrative approach to develop new strategies or ideas. Whereas in a lot of ideation processes the research department passes on insights to strategic planners. Who in their turn pass their insights on to the creatives. And then the ideas are handed over to production to be made. Design thinking sees insight, ideation, and implementation as three overlapping ‘cycles’. You will also come across to these spaces being called ‘understand’, ‘concept’ and ‘develop’.

Design thinkers don’t follow these three cycles in a strictly linear way. You could pass through every cycle more than once. Could be you have an idea, but after prototyping your idea with real users, you come to learn they don’t understand it. Or didn’t do what you hoped them to do. Then you have to adapt your ideas. So, you go back to the drawing board.

Build, test, and learn

We always like to say that strategy is nothing more than a hypothesis that you test, build, and learn. We are firm believers the best strategy is developed through ideation and prototyping. Sometimes the feedback you get in prototyping gives you such an extra insight into the consumer decision-making process. That you have to make a perception switch and come to a new understanding that will reshape your strategy. We like to call this process of including and being open to human psychology the concept of strategy development. As opposed to the more inside-out concept of strategic planning.

design thinking

Source: IDEO

The task of a design thinker is to bring all phases together as one harmonious solution. The cool thing – we think – is when you have the design thinkers mindset you break through silos. Whereas the researchers, the creatives, and the strategic thinkers often work in different departments. Now you get to go through all cycles yourself with a multidisciplinary team. Which not only makes your work more interesting but especially makes sure a lot of valuable insights aren’t lost in the process of handing things over to the next department. Design thinking is an integrative approach that adds value and fun. And which is a springboard for innovative, smart thinking that puts humans first.

 

 

The steps in design thinking

Let’s dive a bit deeper into the stages of the design thinking process. There are five steps in total:

  • Empathy

    The first step of the design thinking process is called empathy. You try to understand human psychology and try to find out why people make decisions. The goal is to gain an empathic understanding of the problem you are trying to solve. You could do this in several ways. One of the most reliable methods is observation. Watching what people do.

    Why this is a proven method is because a lot of what people do is sub-conscious. If you’d ask them, they wouldn’t be able you to give you a (correct) answer. But you could also consult experts, extreme users, or do qualitative research to gain a deeper personal understanding of people’s emotions, needs, desires and fears. Empathy is crucial to a human-centred design process as it allows to set aside your assumptions about the world or your target group. It is all about understanding behavioural psychology and identifying behavioural patterns.

  • Define

    In this stage, you put together the information you gathered during the empathy stage. This is where you will analyse your observations and refine and focus the problem you are trying to solve based on what you found while empathizing with your user. We often tend to define the problem inside-out. For example: “We need to gain 5% more market share in gym subscriptions by the end of next year”. But the whole point of design thinking is that you start thinking outside-in. So, your problem definition should also be human-centred. For example: “We need to help people to build the healthy habit of coming to the gym so fewer people will quit”.

  • Ideate

    This is the stage where you try to come up with as many as possible solutions to your problem. Several techniques have proven to be very useful like ‘brainwriting‘ or the ‘crazy eight‘. It is essential to get as many ideas or problem solutions as possible at the beginning of the ideation phase. Behavioural research done to research the effectiveness of teams have shown that individuals are best at coming up with as many diverse ideas as possible, whereas a group is best at picking the most promising ideas. A technique used for this is called dotmocracy. If you’re interested in unlocking more creative power from a group, you could read our post ‘3 techniques that will supercharge your team’s creativity“.

  • Prototype

    Prototyping is all about learning. Your job is now the make some inexpensive, scaled down versions of your idea that can be shared and tested with the actual users. There are several ways to prototype. You can write value propositions on a page; you can make a first landing page, you can create a storyboard or sketches. This is an experimental phase, so it’s not about making the perfect prototype. It’s about making a prototype that will help you gather valuable user feedback.

  • Test

    We go about the testing phase by doing qualitative interviews with our end users or potential target group we are trying to influence. Very important to remember to tell and not sell. You’re not at the stage of convincing someone yet; you are here to learn where your product, service, idea, etc. needs improvement. Which parts are unclear? What turns out to be the killer feature? All the test insights will be used to do an ideation round again to optimise the idea based on real user feedback.

 

design thinkingSource: IDEO

 

Design thinking tools and videos

There are a lot of tools and techniques to use to make every step of the design thinking process worthwhile. The masters of design thinking are the people of IDEO, and they did us all a massive favour by developing a design thinking toolkit that they’ve put online for all of us to use. Google has also put a great designsprintkit online. Just take a look in there, and see which tools you like.

One of the founders of IDEO, David Kelley, has given an hour long interview explaining his view on design thinking. You can watch it here:

IDEO has also made a series of videos explaining the mindsets design thinkers should have.

1. Iterate, iterate, iterate featuring Gaby Brink (1.16 min.)

2. Empathy (1.26 min.)

3. Creative Confidence featuring David Kelley (11.47 min.)

4. Embrace ambiguity featuring Patrice Martin (1.19 min.)

5. Learn from failure featuring Tim Brown.

 

 

6. Optimism featuring John Bielenburg (1.18 min.)

 

 

 

Recap

Design thinking is a process to come up with truly innovative ideas that are radically human-centred. The five-step approach of empathy, define, ideate, prototype and test help you to find solutions to problems with an outside-in view. Tapping into the consciousness and sub-conscious of your potential users. And helping you to validate your ideas before the money runs out.

Would you like to learn more?

If you want to master design thinking powered up with the science of influence yourself, you could consider enrolling in our two-day course Behavioural Design at our SUE | Behavioural Design Academy. You can download the Academy brochure. Or maybe you currently have a challenge in which you want to influence choice or change behaviour. Please, take a look at our Behavioural Design Sprint. It might be the answer you’re looking for.

Or could be you just would like to get to know us a little better. We happily introduce ourselves here.

How to create change by design

By | All, Health & Fitness, Safety & Wellness, SUE Amsterdam & Behavioural Design Academy originals, Sustainability

It’s hard denying we as humankind are facing serious problems today, and things need to change. Global warming is happening as we speak, obesity is overtaking smoking as the number one cause of death.

And for most of us, it isn’t that we don’t care about these problems. Sometimes we care a great deal. Who wasn’t shocked after seeing Before the Flood, the stunning climate change documentary starring Leonardo DiCaprio? Who wasn’t moved by Jamie Oliver’s quest to start a Food Revolution knowing children didn’t even recognize real food like an ordinary tomato?

And even if you weren’t aware of these two specific examples: We all know some serious issues are going on.

It’s a framing game

But the interesting question is why don’t we act? Is it because the issues are too big to comprehend? Or do we feel too powerless to make a change? Might very well be, because they are, at least if you frame them as a problem for humankind or the world.

But if you look at global warming or obesity from a different frame, you come to realize they have one thing in common.

People.

You and me.

We eat sugar. We don’t go to the gym. We save time by buying processed foods in the supermarket. We drive cars. We take flights. We buy loads of packaging and forget to recycle. We love taking long showers and binge watch Netflix on the couch while eating crisps.

This way, you realize that the significant issues we’re facing in the world right now can be brought back to simple daily human behaviour. Things we can comprehend. Things which we could change.

So, why don’t we do it? Why don’t we cook with fresh fruit and vegetables? Why don’t we work out? Why don’t we go out and walk more often, for instance to the recycle container? The answer is simple: Because we don’t. It’s that plain simple. We can play the guilt trip or blame game for a much more extended period, but it isn’t relevant, and it surely doesn’t do us any good. Not us as people. Or us as humankind.

We’re all just irrational.

The only relevant question to ask ourselves is: How can we help people adjust this daily behaviour? How can we nudge people into making better choices on an everyday basis?

I believe the answer is behavioural design. If you want to change behaviour, you need to understand behaviour. You need to know how people make decisions. Why they do things and why they don’t. You need to understand human psychology.

Recent years the understanding of behavioural psychology has skyrocketed. We now know more about the human brain than ever before. To me, the biggest eye-opener was that we all are entirely irrational. Not just a little bit, but for the most part.

We all think we consciously make decisions, we all believe that we control our thinking. But in fact, most of our decisions are made through shortcuts – such as heuristics and biases – and have nothing to do with a rational or controlled thinking process. As one of the groundbreaking researchers in behavioural psychology Daniel Kahneman has put it:

We are very influenced by completely automatic things that we have no control over, and we don’t know we’re doing it.

That explains why the blame and guilt trip game isn’t beneficial. How can you be blamed or feel guilty if most of the time we’re just doing things automatically without even knowing we’re doing it? Dr. Kahneman says it even more prosaic:

We are blind to our blindness. We have very little idea of how little we know. We’re not designed to know how little we know.

To conclude behavioural psychology has given us powerful insights into the human mind.

Challenging a commonly accepted assumption

To me, a crucial part of solving the puzzle of making this world a better, healthier, happier place is the realization that behavioural psychology challenges a commonly accepted assumption that people who make poor decisions, made the conscious decision to do so. But science has shown us that’s not true.

Still, millions of euros are invested in campaigns to convince people to act differently, targeting their thinking capacity. That’s just money down the drain.

But what is the answer then? Understanding how the mind works is just one thing. But how do you translate scientific research into practice? How can it stop me from eating pizza? From buying sneakers for comfort instead of running? From buying plastic bottles instead of refilling my own? How can we apply science to daily life?

Behavioural design is the answer

I think a behavioural design is the only answer. I do realize design instantly opens up associations about the visual, about aesthetics. But if you look at design in a broader sense and if you take a closer look at what designers do, you see their job is to find new solutions to problems using creativity. And there are some fascinating things to learn from the way they work:

1. Just as behavioural psychologists, designers have always taken humans as a starting point. When designing a new chair, they want people to be able to sit on it. When designing a new fountain pen, they want people to be able to write correctly.

2. Just as a behavioural psychologist, designers do empirical testing. Designers have always used early testing with prototypes. They build scale models; they make paper cut dresses, they make beta releases. They watch how people interact, react or behave. And then measure, learn and adapt.

A lot is written about design thinking. Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO – one of the leading innovation companies – has written a great book on the subject: Change by Design, if you want to get some more in-depth information.

Behavioural design is the symbioses between two things: behavioural psychology and design thinking.

To me, Behavioural Design is the symbioses between two things: behavioural psychology and design thinking. If you combine those two worlds, you’ll be able to come up with better products, with better ideas and better interventions that will help people make better decisions, as you take people and their irrational decision making into account when developing an idea.

Change will come

But to get back to us as humankind tackling the world’s problems, my belief is design thinking is indeed an answer. It will help you:

– See that obesity, and global warming are both behavioural problems on an individual level, making them comprehensive and tangible;

– Understand people most of the times aren’t unwilling, but unable to change their behaviour, making you realize you need ideas that enable them to make better decisions;

– Use design thinking to come up with ideas that influence people’s daily behaviour and get evidence-based results by testing them at an early stage;

– Experience that change will come

– The first step in finding wicked answers to wicked problems is reframing a question to a behavioural challenge.

 

Behavioural design teaches us that the first step in finding a great answer is reframing the question to a behavioural challenge. By doing this, you’ll automatically end up with people. You’ll end up with us. At you. And if all of us make a change on a daily basis, we make an impact. We can change the world. I am convinced.

Astrid

 

 

 


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Astrid is the founder of SUE Amsterdam and The Behavioural Design Academy. Our mission is to unlock the power of behavioural psychology to nudge people into making positive choices in work, life, and play.

In two days of high-end master classes, we train people in unlocking the powerful principles of behavioural psychology and teach them our Behavioural Design Method™ that translates this knowledge into actionable skills to influence personal behaviour or the behaviour of customers, employees, family members or the general public.

Cover image by welovecostarica.com under creative commons license.

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