Introduction to design thinking

Design thinking is a widely used problem-solving process, mainly for generating innovative services and products. It is a method used more and more in the work environment of many companies, and even of NGOs recently, with which young people should get familiar for their future jobs. The method is used to brainstorm solutions of any kind of problems, such as improving work processes, making work more efficient, creating new products or services, better understanding team members or clients, etc. Companies started to train their managers and employees in design thinking, valuing its incredible power of discovering latent needs of clients, but also staff, and its huge potential for innovation. Read more about how design thinking reshapes the working environment, with concrete examples, here: Design thinking rethinks the workspace.

Design thinking is an extremely human-oriented process that helps us to unblock ourselves from the self-imposed constraints we work within, to challenge our assumptions, to redefine problems, and to identify alternative strategies, which might not be instantly obvious. It is focused on solving problems, but what makes this process more special than other problem-solving processes is the focus on the “users”, on those for whom you want to re-design experiences as users, customers, clients, beneficiaries, etc. 

The process includes five steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test. Let’s present them one by one:

The main objective of the empathize step is to discover the needs of the users (we will call them like that, no matter if we refer to clients, customers, beneficiaries, anyone we want to serve by designing or re-designing their experience). To really empathize it is not enough only to ask people: what is your need? Sometimes they really do not know, or they cannot express it in the best way. There are certain methods used for empathy:

  • Search for insights in the people’s stories about their experience, that you want to better understand;
  • Observe people, go where they live, work or play; observe what they do or do not do, what they say or do not say;
  • Finally, understand people at the following three levels: functional (try out what the people regularly experience), cognitive (understand what makes sense to the people) and emotional (understand what people feel).

Once all the data is collected, and the users are really understood, then we are ready to define their problem. This means to unpack and synthesize our empathy findings into compelling needs and insights, and scope a specific and meaningful challenge. Why do we do that? Our goal is to come up with an actionable problem statement, a challenge that will bring specific focus in the idea generation process. In other words, we need to select the direction from which we will address a specific problem we identified, while adding to this perspective any valuable insight we acquired through the empathize step. 

In the ideate step, our aim is to generate radical design alternatives to the users’ experience. We will need to generate a large quantity of ideas, and very diverse, as we have seen when we talked about the creativity principles. Following the same principles, it is very important that in this step we keep the task of generating ideas separated from the task of evaluating ideas. The ideation process happens through complex or simple brainstorming, bodystorming or visual thinking techniques.

To prototype means to think with our hands, and any prototype should be cheap, fast and rough. A prototype can be anything that takes a physical form – be it a wall of post-it notes, a role-playing activity, a space, an object, an interface, an acting out, a customer journey or even a storyboard. When we prototype we go back to our users to empathize again, observe and understand how they use the prototype; but also to explore, to test and get inspiration. 

In the final step – test, it is our chance to get feedback on the solutions we found to the users’ problem. And we will use this feedback to refine the solution, but also to continue learning about our users. The testing should be done with a “low-resolution” product/service that should be piloted by our users. Only after we empathize again, we can go back to the process and create the final, the re-designed experience.

Here are our final thoughts on design thinking:

  • Keep in mind that this is and should be an iterative process;
  • When we empathize, we need to adopt the beginner mindset – we do not know anything about users, we need to leave behind any assumptions we have about the users and their problems;
  • We need to involve the users in the creation process, they will co-design the experience with us, being involved in most of the steps;
  • This is a process that very much builds on the power of visual thinking and storytelling techniques that activate different parts of our brain, and move us or our users into action.

Different steps or aspects of design thinking appear not only in the workshop scenarios in this chapter, but also in other chapters, as this process can support the development of multiple essential skills for young people. We consider that young people should learn about this process, firstly as a problem-solving process, but also that they should adopt this as a mindset, a meta-competence. 

In summarizing the design thinking process, we used the free resources developed by the Institute of Design at Stanford, which we also recommend to you for learning more about the process:

Also, for a more in depth knowledge on design thinking, we recommend you to consult these two books:

If you want to check an applied design thinking process for developing advocacy campaigns, we also recommend you to find inspiration in the Campaign Accelerator resources developed by Mobilisation Lab, based on the field experience of Greenpeace: