design thinking

Most often, in this era of dogged competition, companies fail to realize that a customer is not a statistic or a sales target, and that newly released products fail miserably in the market if they don’t meet customer expectations.

Companies need to understand the real user and his needs, and create a specific user-driven strategy before releasing a product. At the base of product development, companies must introduce a concept known as Design Thinking, wherein they need to look at a problem from inside out and think about the product from the customer perspective.

For example, you built a feature-rich mobile app and launched it in the market, but despite all the hype, there’s not much of downloads taking place. What will you do?

You work with your team to find a solution for it. You churn data and come up with a list of feasible solutions, but none seem to work in your favour. Why is it so? Because, you have not thought about the end-user of the product.

This is where Design Thinking comes into action. You need to first analyze the user's’ pain points with the product - some feature or service that irked them or features that they found lacking. Then, list out all the possible solutions, adopt an agile workflow and improve the product.

Design Thinking has evolved to be an out-of-the-box approach where the product is perfected by empathizing with the user and understanding the product’s shortcomings through the ‘mindset’ of the user.

Design Thinking - A Problem Solving Methodology

According to Tim Brown, (CEO and president of IDEO)“Design Thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

In Design Thinking, the focus is not on the product’s technicalities, but firmly on the user’s needs. The problem can be best identified by asking the “why” at every stage of product development, and through brainstorming.

The team works in a continuous feedback loop, so they can be assured that user needs are addressed. Supplement this by showing the product to your colleagues and listening to their feedback as well.

In his 2008 seminal paper on Design Thinking, Tim Brown discussed the following traits needed for a design thinker:

1. Empathy

Design Thinking creates an empathetic connection with the user, where you see and understand things from your user’s viewpoint. This is one of the first steps in the Design Thinking process, where you focus on human values and needs. This can be done by assuming the user’s mindset and asking questions like “What, How and Why”.

2. Integrative Thinking

Through Integrative Thinking, you can create clarity from complexity; meaning you can produce a coherent vision to avoid messy problems in the future. Don the holistic thinking cap and look at the bigger context from the user’s perspective.

3. Optimism

The design thinker has to be an optimist. He has to firmly believe that there will be a strong solution to the problem, however complicated it may seem.

4. Experimentalism

Design thinkers have to experiment with various alternatives and then try to figure out which one works best for the product and why.

5. Collaboration

Procuring feasible solutions is much easier when you work as a team. So team collaboration with members of different disciplines is a must when you are looking to find the best solution.

Main Stages of Design Thinking

Design Thinking undergoes a series of design processes. Design principles are created through a series of stages/phases. An early model of design process consists of the following stages: Define, Research, Ideate, Prototype, Test and Learn.

Through these stages, the designers can understand the problem, try out different solutions, observe the results, generate ideas, experiment, test and implement.

1. Define

In order to come up with a design solution, it is important to understand the root cause of the problem. Next, empathize with the user to know how he feels about the product.

For this, conduct site visits, talk to real users, interview them, send questionnaires and observe their usage patterns before actually proceeding to solve the problem.

2. Research

There are several ways to research the problem - review the problem history, collect tried and tested solutions of similar problems. Do this by going through user cases, user stories, personas and creating empathy maps.

Asking the “how might we” questions will bring you closer to the finding an answer to the problem. Through the empathy map, you will be able to focus on what the users “said, did, thought and felt”.

3. Ideate

This is the third stage of the Design Thinking process, and a step where designers start generating ideas. At this stage, you understand your users better since you empathized with them, and you know what they need. Indulge in brainstorming sessions to generate ideas as much as possible.

Plenty of ideation techniques like Brainstorm, Brain write, Worst Possible Idea and Scamper are used to stimulate free thinking, and to help you test your ideas.

4. Prototype

It is important to create a series of prototypes to test and refine the concepts collected from real life situations. This is more powerful than the data collected through surveys and market research. Then bring out these ideas in a rough physical form, through low fidelity prototypes (wireframes, HTML prototypes) or high fidelity prototypes. Also To design an interactive and effective prototype, you may use some prototyping tools. Mockplus is one of the best design tools that allows designers translate the ideas into interactive prototypes with simple clicks and drag-and-drop.

5. Test

Once the prototype is made, it is easy to select and test the most workable and feasible idea from it. Testing must happen with real users, as well as in the lab. During the testing phase, you can revise, adjust the prototype and test again. The results garnered during this stage are used to redefine the product, and so it naturally comes after the prototype stage.

The main aim of this step is to solicit feedback from your users, and their experience in interacting with the refined product. The questions like “has it improved their experience in using your product”, "can they do their tasks”? will find their answers here.

6. Learn

Once the testing phase is over, get the user feedback, to know what worked or didn’t work, and whether the modifications were good or not. With the feedback in, the focus will be on improving the solution until it is brought to perfection.

The stages mentioned above may not always go in this sequential order - they may run in parallel, or in an iterative manner. This means that there will be several feedback loops and cycles. Improvements are made to the solution irrespective of the stage.

Design Thinking is thus, an Agile approach that calls for continuous feedback and validation. Through validation, you can analyze whether the needs of a particular group of target users are met.

Success Stories of Design Thinking

Have a look at how some of the top companies of the world implemented Design Thinking into their product development and achieved success. These success stories would help reinforce your conviction that Design Thinking is extremely important to deliver powerful results.

These are all major players from different industrial sectors, proving once again that you need to really know your customer before coming up with a product. Just being a big name in the industry isn’t enough; you have to be a fierce fighter and think in terms of customer needs and wants, and this is possible only through the Design Thinking process.

Observe how these companies gained an edge over their competitors, by building and redesigning their products. Interestingly, Design Thinking plays an important role in all industries; be it retail, travel, technology, healthcare, finance, and so on.

1. Procter and Gamble

In the 1990s, P&G’s “Oil of Olay”, an anti-ageing skincare brand, was running at a loss and was struggling hard to dominate the market. The company understood that adopting innovative measures can only help it to overcome the crisis.

They had three options before them – (1) Launch a new brand, (2) Acquire another established skin care leader or (3) Reinvent Olay brand.

Eventually, after considerable study and research, which included senior managers closely observing consumers at retail stores, the company realized that their main consumers were women over the age of 50.

They found out that women, who were in their 30s and 40s, were equally worried about wrinkles. By ignoring the beauty interests of these women, they were missing out on a potential consumer base that had to depend on other skincare brands.

By keeping these consumers in mind, P&G reinvented Olay by trying and testing different formulations that addressed many new skin concerns as well. Finally, Olay was relaunched successfully in 1999 and to this day, it is the leading brand for anti-ageing skin products. Through Design Thinking, P&G not only earned huge profits, but also earned customer loyalty.

2. Airbnb

Airbnb has revolutionized the concept of travel booking in the tourism sector. But in 2009, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy and people were not booking their rooms/houses. The ad campaigns failed, and the founders were miserably losing money.

The problem was with the ad campaign itself - in the 40 different ads that they published, the rooms looked almost similar. Moreover, the pictures were of low quality and did not include all the rooms of a house. Hence, people could not understand what they were paying for, and this led to a drop in bookings.

Design Thinking helped Airbnb to come up with a brainwave solution that had little to do with scalability or technical upgrades. The founders of the company, personally visited New York, interacted with their customers, clicked pictures of the rooms and houses and displayed the enhanced pictures on the ads.

Had they sat in front of their computers and played with the codes, they wouldn’t have come up with the right solution, and the company would have met with a premature death.

With the Design Thinking strategy, the company’s per week turnover doubled - from 200 dollars to 400 dollars. Today, Airbnb is one of the largest travel companies in the world and is estimated to earn a profit of $3 billion by 2020.

3. Apple

The “i” in Apple products really resonates with users and creates a unique bond with them. Considered as one of the world’s favorite tech brands, Apple is known for driving innovation in all its products; which is why it enjoys a high level of brand loyalty.

But, there was a dark period in the history of Apple. It all started when Steve Jobs was fired from the company in 1985 when he had a fall out with other members of the board.

And with this started the downhill ride of the giant company. During the period 1985-1997 (that was when Steve Jobs was not involved), Apple went through a crisis from which there was no coming back in sight.

Other IT giants like IBM and Microsoft entered the foray, and Apple was slowly melting away because their products were not unique in the market anymore; most of their products failed miserably and there was confusion about selling OS licenses. The executive team changed, adding more fuel to the problem.

Eventually, in 1997, Steve Jobs returned to Apple, and a new era of success started for the company. He applied the concept of Design Thinking and unleashed a series of innovations.

He understood the relation between Design Thinking and Innovation and applied the following concepts with great success:

Market feasibility - Conducting a SWOT analysis to understand the Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats of products and analyzing if there is a market for a particular product. This helped in creating a successfully business strategy.

Technology Possibility - The necessary tools and technologies required to innovate and build new products that will always have a market.

User Desirability - It is not possible to go wrong when you think and understand what the user requires. Rather than putting their efforts to enhance product technicalities, Apple focused on incorporating consumer’s needs and desires into their products.

Thus, Apple built empathy, developed user-friendly products and gave the users exactly what they wanted in each of their devices. The rest is history.

4. Makassar

Makassar is the provincial capital of South Sulawesi in Indonesia. Recently, it entered into a partnership with the United Nations to solve the city’s traffic problems by bringing in fresh and workable ideas through Design Thinking. In fact, 70% of the traffic accidents in the city was caused by motorbikes and the only way out was to quit using two-wheelers and switch to public transport.

To ease the heavy traffic congestion, UNDP and Pulse Lab Jakarta jointly conducted a workshop on the importance of Design Thinking techniques to Makassar’s officials. They found out that the minivans (also known as pete-pete), the main mode of transport in the capital, were not really meeting people’s needs.

To find a solution, they actually went out to the streets to ask people about their transport experience, and to know more about the problems they were facing. They also studied the traffic patterns in the city.

In the end, they identified that they had to design new routes to avoid any overlapping of traffic, encourage people and transport operators to follow traffic laws and make the general public aware of transport schedules.

By the end of the workshop, three key ideas emerged.1. To make minivans economically viable by using them for transportation of students. 2. To use minivans as a first and last mile transport between housing complex, schools and province-run bus routes.3. To create an app that shows commuters the arrival time of the minivan and show the bus schedules offline.

Eventually, the officials began to understand the problems of drivers, and fixed schedules, and an income for them. Makassar is planning to introduce smart pete-pete that will have GPS sensors and facilities like WiFi and air conditioning. This will encourage people to opt for public transport over two-wheelers.

5. Stanford Healthcare

Stanford Healthcare, through Design Thinking process, revolutionised emergency care patient experience. The hospital personnel themselves played the role of patients and family members through a demonstration on how to improve patient health care.

They wanted to get a sense of how the patients and their relatives felt in a chaotic atmosphere, when faced with an emergency. They empathized with the patients by interviewing them and understanding the reactions they had towards emergency care.

Apart from proper treatment and care, the patients expect coordinated and clear communication. When left in the dark, it would only heighten their anxieties and fears. Through Design Thinking Process, Stanford Healthcare understood that patients and families have to be involved in the treatment right from the start.

6. Bank of America

People and money! Some are good at managing it, some are not. While investing in schemes, people would like to know that they are in control of. This is what Bank Of America did, but they reached this conclusion, only after implementing the Design Thinking.

IDEO, the company that handled the Design Thinking process for the bank came up with ideas of a banking service, named “Keep the Change” to help solve the problems of people so that they have a better control over their finances. They also had the challenge of enticing people to open bank accounts, and to bring innovation to an industry where conservative thoughts were so rampant.

As part of the Design Thinking process, IDEO conducted observations in different American cities by talking to families and individuals to know more about their spending and banking habits. The bank came up with a strategy that help people not only open a bank account, but also to save money through an ingenious service idea.

They could enroll in a savings scheme that would round up all their spending (made with the debit card), and the overage would be transferred to a savings account. This endeavor was a major success; there was an emotional touch to it, and people who had trouble saving money, instantly accepted it.


More and more businesses are moving to a Design Thinking approach because it not only fuels innovation, but also saves money and the painstaking effort of developing an inferior product.

Design Thinking approach provides validation to the future goals and mission of the company. Through frequent releases, it is possible to support a building block approach to product development, while all the features are perfected and modified. And, there is a continual delivery of valued features throughout the product’s lifecycle.

Interested in implementing Design thinking for your next product? We are here to help you!

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