Design Thinking: 5 steps to solve all your problems

A few years ago Amsterdam Schiphol airport found a way to cut their cleaning costs by 80%.

They discovered that a picture of a fly (or bee) on a urinal meant that men instinctively wanted to aim at the insect. The result? There was much less to clean up.

They worked backwards to empathize with their users and got them to change their habits. In other words, they’d used design thinking.

You’ve probably heard this phrase before. You might have heard it called human centered design or human centric design or something similar. You’ve nodded. You’ve briefly wondered what exactly that means then never thought about it again.

If that’s the case, then you’re missing out. Design thinking is simple, it’s just a way of solving problems. In a human way. It’s all about understanding peoples’ needs and developing ways to help them.

Design thinking isn’t immediately getting into a room and trying to solve a problem. It’s making sure the problem that you solve is actually the real issue. In Amsterdam it wasn’t that the cleaning supplies were too expensive, it was that people were making more of a mess than they had to.

Organizations such as IBM, Stanford University and Deloitte all have their own methodologies for design thinking. But they all broadly follow the same route:

1.    Empathize

Find out about the people you’re trying to help. Understand what motivates them. Ask “why?” until you become annoying. Then ask “why?” again. To use some management jargon, understand their real “pain points”.

2.    Find patterns and start defining the problem

Now that you’ve done your research you can start to see where the patterns are. Group them together. Categorize them. See what the real problem is. Chances are, it might not be the one you originally set out to solve.

3.    Brainstorm

Start to picture ways to solve this problem. Think. Challenge yourself. Come up with 100 ideas in 60 minutes. Don’t think about time, money or man power. In fact, think about the most expensive way, the most time-consuming way. Really push yourself.

4.    Prototype and plan

Start creating. Make use of Lego, pipe-cleaners and flip charts. Draw, diagram and move Post-It notes around. Do it quickly. Don’t overthink. Test it. Break it. Start over.

5.    Test and feedback

Take it to the people who’ll use it. Let them test it. Let them break it. Watch them use it. Ask them why a feature is or isn’t working. Keep asking them: “why?”. Move backwards through the steps and start again. Fail fast and make improvements.

Have you practiced design thinking before? What exercises have you used? Let me know in the comments below.