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Design thinking is no longer the exclusive realm of designers. It’s being used in any situation where complex problems need to be solved. But what is it exactly and why is it considered to be so important for business?

The process of design thinking can be applied to any field and, although it began there, is no longer specific to design itself. It’s a solution-based approach to solving complex problems, or developing products and services, that has been identified to be highly effective when implemented by businesses. We take a brief look at the steps of the process and why it has proven to be so effective.

Think like a designer

Simply put, design thinking is thinking like a designer, or rather, analysing and finding solutions problems like designers are trained to do. This involves defining a problem, coming up with a solution, creating a protype, testing it and making the required changes based on those tests.

This iterative process of trial and error in design thinking begins with an in-depth understanding of the person behind the problem. Understanding and defining the needs of the end user of a product or service are at the core of the design thinking process and are where it all begins.

Step 1: Empathise

First and foremost, design thinking is user-centric. To create products and services that are of genuine use to consumers, and therefore saleable, the first step of the process is to gain an intimate understanding of them as people. Walk in their shoes, ask them what their problems are and take on their suggestions of how they can be solved. Seek advice from experts and observe, engage and empathise with the people your product will impact.

Step 2: Define

The next stage involves taking everything you have learned in step one and using it to accurately define the problem you plan to solve. Bringing together all the information you have gathered you then come up with a “problem statement”. This statement needs to remain focused on the user’s point of view. It should read something like, “Mothers with small children need to find somebody to look after their children while they exercise,” rather than “We need to sell 30% more childcare services to young mothers”.

Step 3: Ideate

Ideation, as its name suggests, is the step where you come up with ideas to solve the problem you defined in step two. The key here is to be as imaginative and freethinking as possible. There are no wrong answers at this stage. Design thinking is considered to be highly creative and to break with convention. Everything is possible and it is important to challenge standard beliefs and explore alternatives. Some options for coming up with ideas include brainstorming, mind-mapping, and roleplaying.

Step 4: Prototype

Prototyping involves making a scaled down version of your product or service. You can prototype just one or several of the solutions that were thought up in step three. This stage turns your ideas into something real that can be used for testing on real users and get feedback from them. It also reduces the time and expense of fully developing a solution before testing it on the people who will use it.

Step 5: Test (and then go back to previous steps)

Your prototype is now presented to your target users. They try it out and give feedback about how well, or badly, it solves the problem you set out to address. You then take this feedback and incorporate it into the final solution, if the process has gone completely smoothly, or into new prototypes to bring back to the user for further feedback. At this stage you may even find that you didn’t properly identify the problem in the first place so need to go back to step 1, 2 or 3 of the process.

Design thinking is ultimately a never-ending process of solution development and testing. It puts people first, it’s highly creative and more economical than some traditional processes that would take products to market before their developers found that they were not fit for purpose. In the end it provides more useful products, services and solutions that actually improve people’s lives by solving real problems.

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