Design Thinking: Create creative solutions

Design Thinking

Design Thinking seems to be THE innovative, problem-solving method for modern companies. Using so-called design sprints to generate new ideas has helped many companies, such as Google to become more innovative and out-of-the-box. But what actually is Design Thinking and how does it work? In the following we will explain to you the basics of the popular agile solution-generating method.


What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a collection of agile methods, tools and techniques that – in combination – can help teams solve complex problems and create innovations. The goal is to develop user-centered ideas, test them, and thus generate the greatest possible value for companies, stakeholders, and users.

Especially for startups, Design Thinking is one of the most used method to foster innovation and unleash creativity. This helps especially when only little data is available or the issue to be solved is still quite unspecific and/or very complex. Of course, Design Thinking methods are also used in established, large companies on a daily basis, especially to optimize products and services, to develop new target groups and niches. Mostly the method is used when the topic is particularly user centered.


What makes Design Thinking so great?

The number of companies that are applying design thinking methods to make processes more efficient and products more competitive is rising continuously. And that is for a reason. Design Thinking methods support teams in discussing and reconciling both economic viability, feasibility and added value of solutions (people, technology, economy).

Times have changed and companies face different challenges today than they did 30 years ago: Global markets, growing competition, customers who have access to almost unlimited information. There are many factors that influence the market that companies have to keep in mind.

Companies are therefore forced to launch new products, features and services at ever shorter intervals in order to remain competitive.

This is also associated with risks. A new product that the market does not accept not only causes financial damage but can also permanently damage the reputation and thus the success of a company. Especially for small and medium-sized companies, this can quickly lead to a serious crisis. Therefore companies have to be careful and analyze the market before launching new products and updates.


New solutions make new chances

So how can we ensure that innovations or further developments of products are successful? Of course, applying the Design Thinking method does not give a 100% guarantee for delivering a successful product. Studies have shown, however, that companies that apply Design Thinking show significant positive developments.

In the end, we all want to deliver what the market and the people need. However, we must also remember that when everything is alike, it’s the difference that matters. One of the reasons Design Thinking is so successful is that it combines both aspects. We deal with the questions: What does the customer need to solve their particular problem? How can we help them solve this problem in a different way than they did in the past or how the competition does it currently? The design thinking process is designed to do just that.


“What the user asks for is most likely what they needed years ago!” – Arie van Bennekum


The history of Design Thinking

More and more companies, teams and startups name Design Thinking as one of the most important methods for the (further) development of their products and services. Therefore, we should not dismiss Design Thinking as “some hype” as a few people might do. We can find the origin of Design Thinking principles already at the beginning of the last century.



The basic ideas and principles of Design Thinking have their roots already in developments in the 1920s. At that time, in the Bauhaus movement stood for the principle “Form follows function.” This means that people strived to develop objects according to functions, not aesthetics.


Systems Thinking

In the 1970s, Systems Thinking became increasingly popular. This describes a method for solving problems in complex systems. As with Design Thinking, it is important not to commit to a solution too quickly.


Design Thinking

The best-known founders of Design Thinking are the computer scientist Terry Winograd and David Kelly, the founder of the innovation agency IDEO. SAP founder Hasso Plattner from Germany as well is one of the most important pioneers of Design Thinking.

In the 1980s, David Kelley first introduced the Design Thinking phases to his agency. In particular, the focus on first phases, which deal exclusively with understanding problems and user behavior, revolutionized innovation management.


Design Thinking Today

Today, many companies such as Apple, SAP, Amazon, Google and Lego – to name a few – apply Design Thinking methods in their work. 71% of companies using design thinking reported in a 2017 study that adopting design thinking methods significantly increased company culture, product success, and customer satisfaction. 10% of Fortune 500 companies cite design thinking as their #1 priority.


The basic pillars of Design Thinking

Before starting the actual Design Thinking process, the team should define certain basic pillars. Every Design Thinking process is different and it is essential to design the Design Thinking process accordingly from the beginning and to adapt it during the process if necessary.

The 4 pillars are:

  • Common principles

  • Definition of certain framework conditions

  • Composition of the team

  • Common understanding of the process.

These aspects may already be defined during the preparation phase – the so-called phase 0.


7 Principles of Design Thinking

In order to successfully implement Design Thinking, a certain culture must be in place. Team members and environment live and fossilize certain values and principles which summarized could be called an agile mindset. This mindset consists of seven basic principles:

  1. It is allowed – even desired – to make mistakes – according to the motto “Fail fast, learn fast”.

  2. Iterations and a continuous learning process make it possible to improve ideas and solution approaches and create the greatest possible value for the user.

  3. The user is at the center of the problem or the resulting ideas. Only when the team truly knows and understands the user’s point of view, challenges and needs, they can successfully generate sustainable solutions.

  4. Any kind of idea may be expressed and pursued; nothing is too “crazy”. Creativity should be encouraged, “out of the box” ideas respected and met with openness.

  5. Team members communicate in a way of respect and establish a constructive feedback culture.

  6. Space is important. Furniture, materials and tools should be used in different ways.

  7. And “Don’t be afraid of chaos.” At the beginning of the design process, the team focuses on quantity. That means a multitude of ideas may be generated. This can seem a bit chaotic in some circumstances. But don’t worry, the design thinking process is structured so that chaos will give way to a very clear focus in each subsequent phase.


The Design Thinking Team

During the Design Thinking process, we continuously ask ourselves:

What does the customer need? What might help the customer? And what bothers the customer? There can be many answers to these questions. That’s why it was important to the Design Thinking founders to form interdisciplinary teams. The more experts, perspectives and approaches, the better! Interdisciplinarity is therefore a top priority when putting together the Design Thinking team. The team members should collectively have a broad knowledge of the topic at hand, as well as individual deeper expertise. This gives them a certain multi-perspectivity and allows them to look at the problem from different angles.

“Job Titles” should be avoided and roles should be assigned instead. For example, a sales and marketing expert (who knows customers or users particularly well); designers (who pay attention to user-friendliness); strategists who keep an eye on the vision; and analysts who take responsibility for numbers and data. Furthermore, it is helpful to combine different types of people in a team: lateral thinkers, idealists, critics, mediators and fans who act as multipliers.



The Design Thinking Phases

Different design thinking pioneers design the Design Thinking process using different models. Some large companies have developed their own design thinking processes even. The Stanford School’s Design Thinking cycle has five phases: (1) Emphasize, (2) Define, (3) Ideate, (4) Prototype, (5) Test.

SAP, on the other hand, reduces the cycle to four phases: (1) Explore, (2) Discover, (3) Design, (4) Deliver. IBM designs the process using a repetitive iteration loop consisting of the phases (1) Observe, (2) Reflect. (3) Make. Other models also include the implementation phase and extend the process after testing to include the phases: Story Telling, Pilot, Business Model and thus arrive at a whole 9 phases.

We will present to you a Design Thinking Process consisting of 6 phases:

  1. Understanding (getting the team ready to tackle the problem).

➔ Understanding the status quo and problem

➔ Defining the task

  1. Observing

➔ Identifying user behavior, obstacles & needs

➔ Deriving assumptions

  1. Defining the point of view

➔ Defining user types

➔ Describing problem from user’s point of view

  1. Generating ideas

➔ Brainstorming

➔ Developing large number of ideas

  1. Creating prototypes

➔ Concretizing and focus ideas

➔ Developing prototypes

  1. Testing

➔ Obtain feedback, test assumptions, and conduct experiments

➔ Iterate

The Design Thinking Process

Kick-off Workshop

Before the team starts the actual Design Thinking process, it is recommended to arrange a kick-off meeting. All stakeholders and the team should be invited and present. If a project manager or challenge manager has been appointed, he or she should host the meeting.

The goal of the meeting is to articulate the Design Thinking Challenge. The Design Thinking Challenge describes the actual problem hypothesis, e.g., “We need a new platform through which users could make a doctor’s visit digitally to avoid going to the doctor’s office.” or “We need a leave management system.” Even if no one knows what the actual solution will look like at the beginning of the project, the task and framework must be communicated with all stakeholders.

Step 1:

The workshop host can present the task (a preliminary draft of the design thinking challenge). This can be “taken apart” afterwards.

Step 2:

Participants can define each term in detail, discuss connections and limitations, and already name potential user groups. This can be done with Post-Its, or the workshop host can collect the input and group it. Further, any information that already exists should be collected, such as which people will be involved in the process; what resources, articles, or best practices are available; and which experts who can assist. Furthermore, the timeframe for the first 3 phases of the process should be determined. However, this workshop is not yet about the budget or financial resources.

Step 3:

Afterwards, possible alternatives for the formulation of the challenge can be discussed and collected.

Step 4:

The participants can choose the most suitable challenge from the alternatives. It makes sense if each participant briefly explains why he or she votes for one particular challenge. For example, “We need a system for leave management” becomes.

-> “We want to help employees and HR manage absences digitally and efficiently to create more transparency and better arrangements in the company.”

Only when the challenge has been clearly formulated the actual design thinking process can begin. However, all participants should know that the Challenge may as well change during the course of the project, as to date only assumptions have been worked with, which will be tested during the process by involving users.

Step 5:

In the end, a second workshop is agreed upon, the Solution Phases Kick off Workshop. It will take place at the end of phase 3.

Phase 1: Understanding

In Phase 1, the current state and its challenges are defined and explored in greater depth.

This can be achieved, for example, with initial expert interviews, results from practice and research, and user analyses.

Based on this, the team defines initial findings and assumptions. It is important not to think in terms of solutions yet, but simply to understand the status quo and the problem. Albert Einstein once said “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about the solution.” This approach should also be considered in Design Thinking. Only when we discover and understand the unconscious, often hidden needs of users can we develop truly innovative, successful products and services.

Phase 2: Observing

The goal of the phase 2 – Observing, is to delve deeper into the problem from the user’s perspective.

The team wants to understand user behavior and user types in detail and generate so-called insights – deeper insights.

These are obtained on the one hand through data analysis and the so-called “synthesis method”, i.e. quantitative methods, and on the other hand through so-called field studies, which are also used in the social sciences, i.e. qualitative methods. The combination of these two techniques is ideal to generate and deepen knowledge about the user’s needs.

Phase 3: Generating a point of view

The goal of the third phase “Generating a point of view” is to redefine the problem from the user’s point of view.

In Phase 3, the team uses the insights from the first two phases to analyze the core of the overarching problem for specific user groups in great detail.

After getting to know the user groups in detail in phases 1 and 2, they now define concrete viewpoints.

Defining those viewpoints is particularly helpful because it inspires the team to continue working. It creates a basis for making decisions, it provides a focus on the problem, and it identifies the most important perspectives on the problem.

Phase 4: Finding ideas

In Phase 4, we move from the problem space to the solution space.

After completing Phase 3, all team members now have the same understanding of the core the problem. Now we move into the creative process.

This means the team begins to develop and elaborate ideas based on what they learned in Phases 1-3. Post-Its, markers, boards or whiteboards, and glue dots are particularly helpful here.

It is important to remember that Phase 4 focuses on quantity over quality. The goal is to gather as many ideas as possible. This can seem a bit chaotic. But don’t worry, in the beginning it is normal to experiencing “chaos” when brainstorming ideas. This is not a cause for concern. This perceived chaos will give way to focus on the next phases.

Through various brainstorming methods, ideas are collected, clustered and deepened in phase 4. Examples of brainstorming methods are Crazy 8, the 6-3-5 method, SCAMPER or the Walt Disney method.

Phase 5: Developing prototypes

Phases 5 and 6 are about concretizing ideas in the form of prototypes, gathering feedback, testing the feasibility of the ideas, and finally iterating. Prototypes can take on very different forms. What they all have in common is that they make ideas tangible and testable. Perfection is not necessary or even desirable.

Different methods of prototyping are: Storyboards, vision boards, wireframes, mockups, click dummies, paper prototypes, 3D / Lego prototypes, role plays, landing pages, mockups or video clips.

Important guidelines at this stage are:

  • “Don’t fall in love with your prototype”, i.e. don’t assume that testers will find your prototype as great as you do. Be open to criticism.

  • Have the courage to fill in the gaps: the more unfinished the prototype, the more valuable the feedback, and

  • the more unfinished the prototype, the easier it is for the team to discard the prototype if necessary. If a prototype has been tinkered with for 3 weeks, it is all the more difficult to admit defeat and justify the “lost” time. (Of course, the time is by no means lost, because the team has also in this case gained important insights into what the solution should not look like).

  • Don’t spend too much time organizing the testers. In many cases, it is initially sufficient to find testers “on the street”. These do not necessarily have to be part of the target group.

  • The more iterations, the better the result. The iteration process should not be dragged out indefinitely. In case of uncertainty, however, the following applies here: It is better to do one iteration more than one too few before going into development.

Phase 6: Testing

Phase 6 is used to test assumptions and conduct experiments.

Testing is the phase in which added value, feasibility and applicability are validated or refuted by feedback from potential users. Here, it is not important that a large number of users test the prototype or prototypes, because studies have shown that the quality of the results does not increase with the number of testers. In most cases, as few as 5 testers are quite enough to gather valuable insights and find 80% of the bugs.

User testing, interviews, A / B tests to compare different prototypes are suitable for this phase. During user testing, testers are given different scenarios to run through and try out. Team members observe and take notes. The testers provide feedback, e.g., using questionnaires or in interviews.

Based on the results, the prototype is then adjusted and another testing phase begins. The number of iterations depends on the results and must be determined individually from project to project. Only after several iterations is the economic viability verified.


Challenge Closing Workshop

After the solution that the team and stakeholders have decided on has been tested and optimized in several iterations, the team finally reaches the end of the design thinking process. The first challenge – to develop a solution and test it through prototypes – has been successfully completed. The second challenge now begins – the actual implementation and market entry.

Therefore, after the last iteration, another workshop should take place with all stakeholders and, if applicable, experts involved. The goal of this workshop is to present the new innovation and decide whether and how to proceed further (implementation). The team briefly describes the course of the design thinking process and presents the solution that was ultimately developed (i.e., the innovation). The presentation of this innovation can first take place in an Elevator Pitch before going into details.


The Elevator Pitch

An Elevator Pitch is the presentation of the positive aspects of an idea in under a minute. The core idea behind it is that after only one elevator ride, the other passengers are convinced of an idea so that they are interested in continuing the conversation. The team should address both the initial challenge, findings and adaptation of this challenge, evidence during the test phase, and of course the approach for further action.

When presenting the way forward, it is advisable to involve experts from different departments such as finance and marketing in advance.

The team should have a clear model for the implementation, even if not all team members will be actively involved in the further implementation.

The goal of the workshop is to get the decision-makers to make a judgment about the implementation of the product/solution. Should the innovation be implemented further or discarded? If this is not possible during this workshop, a precise date should be set for the decision. Too often, the implementation otherwise drags on or comes to nothing.


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