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Making Businesses Better by Design.

Design Thinking – The VODASY Take.


Design Thinking is a great design and problem solving tool.  That’s why VODASY offers courses and consultancy to help you understand it, master it and implement it in your business.

There is no agreed definition of Design Thinking.  So, here is our take on what it is, why we should all learn to do it, and a few hints and tips to make it work for you.

What is it? Why Do it?

There are two premises at the heart of Design Thinking:

Premise 1 – We design products using a structured process and that is a good thing because it combines the best of divergent creative thinking and convergent analytical thinking.

Premise 2 – The solution to any problem can be thought of as a designed product.

The obvious conclusion then is that you can design the solutions to problems and if you do you will have more creative solutions as well as a rational, solid analysis of whether or not they work.

All we need then is a really good design process and we can use that in any business to design in the traditional sense i.e. products, brand image, etc. and to solve problems e.g. develop policies, strategies, budgets, etc.

Design Thinking is that process.

The Basics

Here is a pretty common model of the process.  You can find dozens of variations on the theme with a quick Google.  Most of the variations reflect differences in language, the industry they are aimed at and whether they are more focused upon traditional design or problem solving.

Traditional Design Thinking Process

What we are going to try and do is to create a generic version that works well for both design and problem solving.

The first thing we want to do is to change some of the language, for reasons that we will come back to, and give each of the five stages a bit of an identity to make it easier to remember.

VODASY Design Thinking Process

Much better. Let us take a quick run through the process and then we can look at each one in more detail.

Working from left to right, we work through a process of Understanding the question, or the design context so that we can Describe the question accurately and set out what a good answer to that question should look like.  At the centre of the process is the Create phase, divergent thinking that comes up with as wide a selection of candidate designs or solutions as possible.  We then start to use convergent thinking. We Make models or prototypes of our designs and then we Reflect upon their relative merits and what we should do with the designs we have produced.

Circles Within Circles.

The process is very rarely such a nice simple progression from one stage to next.  This can be a problem for anyone trying to make a great process model and particularly for anyone trying to Project Manage it.  There needs to be a constant process of examination, both of what is coming from the process, the design, and how the process is working.  It is this examination that determines what the next step in the process should be rather than slavish devotion to a Gantt chart.  Project Managers beware.

Let us take a look at each of the stages in a bit more detail.

Step by Step…

This stage is often called ‘empathise’.  It stems from a laudable desire to emphasise a user-centric approach to the design process.  For our more general process we will use Understand as it has a wider application.  Whilst we can empathise with the driver of a car, we Understand the needs of the car manufacturer.

What we are trying to achieve is to be able to inform both the Describe and Reflect phases.  We need to Understand the problem or design context well enough to be able to describe it and what outcomes a satisfactory solution would have.

The big challenge during this stage is knowing how deep to go.  Over simplification runs the greatest risk, that of a design that does not work or that produces unwanted and unforeseen side effects.  Going too deep wastes time and effort and can result in an excessive focus on relatively minor impacts.  A little too much knowledge is probably better than too little, whilst a fear of missing out on finding something vital can be allayed by understanding that this phase can (and should) be revisited later in the process.

Depth of knowledge though is only half the problem. Width is important too.  We need to identify both the effects our design has and those things that affect it.  To take an example, the design for a new car impacts upon the customer, the driver, the passengers but it is also a response to the legislative environment, costs of labour, available materials etc. both are critical to the success of the design.

Often referred to as the define stage.  Define has a finality about it that can be misleading in a process that is built around iteration. The Describe stage can be revisited and challenged on a number of occasions, capturing the problem and what success could look like at any given time as our understanding evolves.

During the Describe stage we set out two things, what the problem looks like, the context, and how we will judge success, the bar that we will need to clear.

Aspects of the problem’s context must be translated into a set of parameters.  These could be subjective, objective, qualitative or quantitative but they provide a framework within which designs or solutions may be developed and evaluated.  For each of these parameters a criteria needs to be developed.  Ideally these are objective and numeric but that is not always possible and particularly in early iterations subjective tests may well be perfectly adequate.

The Describe phase is a communication exercise.  The key to success then will be to do that well.  It is not just a matter of writing up a specification, dropping it off with the design team and assuming they now know what the author knows.  It needs to be presented, talked through and played back to make sure a mutual understanding has been reached.

First off, why not ‘Ideate’ (a portmanteau of create and idea)?  Well because either it is not a word, depending on whose dictionary you have, or it is, in which case it is a horrible one.  A personal opinion but there you have it.

This is the phase that could be called ‘Have lots of great ideas’.  In truth, it is the bit where a designer does what they are good at because it is what they do all the time.  They are creative people who practice being creative.  If you are not and you do not, this bit will be hard and there is only so much that energetically saying ‘let’s think outside the box’ whilst staring at an empty flip-chart is going to help.  But all is not lost.  There are lots of things that can be done to generate a good set of candidate ideas.

The key to this stage is to generate a diverse selection of possible solutions.  It is the time for divergent thinking.  Even if none of them are likely to meet all of the parameters set during the Define stage, iterations of the design process may well result in a synthesis of options that does.  We can adopt a few techniques to help achieve this:

  • Generate ideas using a diverse group of individuals.  Try to bring as wide a range of approaches as possible to the problem.  Certainly, think in terms of diverse demographic groupings but also in terms of personality types, politics, education levels and subject specialities. 
  • Organise your idea harvesting in such a way as to get ideas from all of those involved rather than let A type personalities dominate.  (Get people into your workshops who normally turn down invitations to workshops.)
  • Break the design down into components, where possible, create solutions for each then mix them up and see if they work differently.
  • Steal ideas, not just existing solutions from your industry. Does another industry do something similar? How about biomimicry i.e. does nature do what you are trying to?
  • Work the extremes.  What would be the biggest, smallest, poverty spec, most luxurious, simplest solution to the problem.

Be creative about creating creativity.  Outside facilitation can help this process but it needs to be skilled, experienced and informed.

VODASY can help facilitate these processes for you or train you to facilitate them yourself.

Why not ‘Prototype’?  Purely because some solutions are hard to prototype in the usual sense of the word so maybe a model works better.  Either way we need to Make a representation of our design or solution that we can play with. We need to, metaphorically or literally, handle it, see how it responds.

For soft projects there is often a temptation to replace this stage with something more akin to building a business case but the idea here is not to develop a justification but to test and learn.  The model needs to be something that can be used to understand the candidate design.  What is good about it, what is bad, what breaks it, stresses it, improves it?

The type, sophistication and accuracy of the modelling needs to be in proportion to the problem and to the maturity of the design, but it must add value to the process.  You may need more than one model, perhaps a physical model if there is a product being designed and a financial model to help appraise its impact upon the business.  On the other hand you may not need one at all, from experience though, that is unlikely.

Why not ‘Test’?  Well, because it implies something binary, pass or fail.   There are far more situations where a design process is seeking to optimise or balance mutually exclusive drivers and a more nuanced analysis or evaluation is required.  This is the stage at which we use the models from the Make stage to see how well our solutions match up with the problem we set out in the Describe phase and the criteria for success that we established.  It is the point at which we determine the success of our designs but it is also a key decision point about the process.

What are we going to do next with our designs?  Maybe we will refine them, go around some of the stages again.  Perhaps, one option may be sufficiently refined and meet our requirements so well that we can move on to implement it, or we may decide that we cannot come up with a design the meets our requirements and the process comes to an end, which is sometimes the right answer.  What we need to do at this stage is to Reflect on what we have produced, what that tells us about the solutions we have developed and where the process needs to go next.

The results of this reflection process need to be handled carefully.  There is a very good chance that you have brought a large number of stakeholders into your Design Thinking process.  There is also a pretty good chance that many of them will have developed favourite candidate solutions or perceived ways forward.  If  now we have an opaque process to determine what happens next, there is a risk of turning what could otherwise be keen advocates into adversaries.  Ensure that the reflection process is bought into widely in advance, share draft conclusions and be prepared to discuss and revisit them before issuing any formal outcome.

Making it a Success.

Design Thinking is a simple concept, whether it is applied as a design or problem-solving process.  In many ways its power lies in its simplicity but the breadth of its potential application makes it as difficult to summarise as it is to give generic guidance on its use.  There are though, a few pitfalls one sees frequently and a few things that are common to its more successful applications.

Be Brave About Iteration.

It is impossible to over emphasise the necessity to revisit stages as and when required.  Whole batches of candidate designs may need to go back to previous stages.  A single idea may need to go round the loop a few times to refine it or elements of it.  Maybe it just needs a better model.  Maybe subsequent stages reveal a fundamental failure in the Understand stage.  At the end of each stage make a conscious decision as to which stage to move to next.

Make it Your Own.

These stages and descriptions are intended to be generic, useful in a wide range of applications.  Hard and soft projects, process designs, wicked problem solving (a problem without a single solution), product designs, can all benefit from this approach but will also all need refinements to get the best out of it.  The key is to consciously decide what you need to do at each stage to end up with a solution that works for you at the level of fidelity and assurance that you require.

Do Not Project Manage Yourself into a Compromise.

A traditional Project Management approach combines badly with Design Thinking.  Fixed durations, number of iterations and timescales work poorly with an iterative, creative process of refinement and investigation.

Managing this kind of process requires experience, the courage to let some elements take their course and a governance framework that acknowledges that the value of the work will inherently exceed the cost of this stage.

The worst possible scenario is that the chosen solution is the one that looks best when the money runs out or the clock stops.  Project Management needs to be exercised using large planning blocks and considerable experience.  Look for progress in terms of levels of engagement with the process, communication activity, ideas in development, stakeholders engaged and questions raised rather than just milestones achieved.

VODASY offers courses aimed specifically at helping Project Managers adapt from managing physical projects to creative and investigative projects and can help you to establish governance structures that do not inadvertently stifle creativity.

Remember, The Answer is the Most Important Thing.

Determining the optimum solution is always the highest priority and the whole process should be focused on that.  That is not to say that time and money should be regarded as limitless but they should be managed in a manner that is cognisant of the value that the answer is intended to create.

The means by which that answer is derived is, equally, not an end in itself.  The process does not need to run its course for the sake of the process or go round a certain number of times just because there is budget for it.  If you find the right answer sooner than you thought you would, great, use it.

But Always Show Your Working.

If we are considering a design exercise of some significant size, then it would appear overwhelmingly obvious that the process followed, decisions made and rationale behind them need to be documented.  Though there are countless instances where this is not the case.  This is often because the decisions that influence the birth of very large projects are made by very senior people who do not necessarily do documenting and explaining so much as telling and instructing.

Whatever scale the exercise has been, it is going to be helpful to record it.  At the very least, an outcome that comes from a structured, documented process will carry a bit more weight.  For large projects where the design goes on to be refined and developed it is essential to document how it got to this stage if we are to avoid needlessly reworking the design or modifying it such that it is no longer the solution we need.

The real power in documenting the context in which a design is produced and the logic behind it, is that changes in that environment can be evaluated to determine whether they change the answer.  Responses to those changes can then be proactive rather than waiting until consequences become apparent.  We can even set up systems to monitor or influence those elements of the environment that are most critical.

Understanding the design context and its impact upon current designs is also the first step in establishing strategic Design Management but that is another article.

Get Help If You Need It.

Design Thinking is a skill like any other. To be really effective requires knowledge, practice, evaluation and reflection. VODASY offer a comprehensive range of services to help make Design Thinking an effective tool for your business, for groups or individuals, whether new to the concept or looking to become more effective.

The VODASY approach is based upon the pragmatic application of experience as well as the latest thinking rather than mindlessly applying a particular dogma. As with all design projects the first stage is to understand your needs as well as you do, so why not get in touch for an initial discussion?