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Stop. And Think.
This Is How Design Thinking Really Works

Let’s take a traditional brainstorm session and turn it upside down–and then take it for a walk around the block. This is exactly what we did when we attended a Design Thinking Workshop at the Harvard Extension School. Our mission? To experience a new, more collective way to problem-solve and expand our knowledge.

Design thinking is a five-step, human-centered approach to problem solving that encourages us to stop and think … without boundaries … about a problem or a new concept. Whatever the topic, however big or small the problem, we focus our attention on the human element. We continually ask ourselves, “Will our solution make life somehow easier, better, more efficient or more cost-effective for its intended user?”

Seems simple and logical enough. Any inventor or designer will tell you that they approach their work in this way; they set out to create something that meets or exceeds the needs of the people who will be using it. Design thinking provides a framework, a step-by-step process, to take you from a glimmer of an idea to a fully developed, tested and functioning product or service. You will seek to understand and empathize with your client or customer, fine-tune and define your problem, brainstorm (endlessly and collectively) many solutions without boundaries, create a prototype, and test and then tweak it … over and over and over again.

But here’s the catch: In our busy, multitasking, high-performing, fast-paced lives, we feel pressure to find quick solutions. We are driven to be efficient, reliable and productive to stay competitive. We don’t grant ourselves nearly enough permission to stop and think and imagine any and all possibilities. But that’s where the “magic” happens, and design thinking embraces it.

Demystifying Design Thinking

When we approach a problem using a design thinking methodology, we dig deep to understand everything we can about the person(s) who will be using the product or service. We can then identify a number of solutions to prototype and test. We ask questions and redefine our goals as we go, yet we never shift our focus away from our target audience or customer, whether creating a foot-activated car trunk door or designing a smart toothbrush that records our brushing and offers improvements.

Design thinking is an entirely versatile methodology that can be applied to most any situation, not just to the invention of new products. Imagine, for example, that you are a hospital administrator looking to ease ER waiting times for young children. You can use design thinking to arrive at a new process for admitting and triaging children with the input of healthcare workers who deliver pediatric emergency care and most understand the challenges. You can test and measure the process over and over again until you define best practice guidelines that are easiest to follow in real-life situations.

Though design thinking was developed in the late 1960s, it has only been in the last decade that it has become so widely touted and integrated into corporate culture. Yet many people are still mystified by the way it works. Perhaps because we are so accustomed to and often rewarded for finding the quickest, most efficient solutions, design thinking’s methodology may seem counterintuitive. Or even a little intimidating. Not everyone is born an inventor or an innovator. Yet just about everyone can find an application of this methodology that relates to their own lives and businesses.

When Adaptation attended a Design Thinking Workshop at the Harvard Extension School, we were given a relatable task. We were asked to improve the tourist experience in Harvard Square for the City of Cambridge. We put ourselves in the shoes of a tourist visiting Harvard Square for the first time, and we began to experience, understand and live the journey of a tourist! We brainstormed simple ideas without the boundaries of cost or viability—essentially an open canvas of thoughts. In the end, we provided suggestions like adding the park to Google Destinations. We also added more complex and costly ideas including signage, outdoor exercise equipment and landscaping, all to enhance the outdoor experience of a tourist exploring Harvard Square.

Through this experience, we were reminded that some of the most innovative concepts and products begin with a single thought, even a note or two jotted down on a napkin over cocktails. When we are free to explore our ideas, whenever and wherever they occur, free of judgment and without boundaries, we begin to experience a ripple effect. As each idea builds off the next, we follow a path of discovery that moves us forward to an effective, workable solution.

Anything Is Possible Now. Design Thinking at Work

When design thinking becomes part of the decision-making process of a business, a few things should happen. First, your team should be brought up to speed on the five key stages of the process. You should also structure the method in a way that it can be applied to all types of businesses, in many different shapes and forms.

The five key stages of the design thinking process are:

5 Stages of Design Thinking
5 Stages of Design Thinking

  1. Empathize – During this phase, you will begin to gather information from the people who are experiencing the problem or event that is being addressed. This requires that you interview and observe these individuals, and make sure you understand their emotions, perceptions and assumptions. At the end of this phase, the design thinking team should be able to create a journey map that outlines the processes taken by the people who will experience the problem or event.For example, a company might use the five-step process to improve the experience of its new hires. In the first step, the company needs to take the time necessary to understand the requirements and emotional needs of its new hires. This way, they can work to provide the support and resources new hires need to feel connected to and invested in the company. Empathy for the user, whether he or she is a customer, an employee or a consumer, is at the heart of design thinking.
  2. Define – The objective of this phase is to create a problem statement. It should be open and generic. It should not include any indication or directions for a solution.In our example, the company’s problem statement might be “The onboarding experience of our new hires needs to create a strong emotional connection to the company.”
  3. Ideate – During this phase, the design team shares all ideas without boundaries. A common question to be asked during this phase is “How can we … ?” All ideas are shared, and as a group, they are prioritized. Ideas are then selected for a prototype.For instance, some ideas for improving the new hire onboarding process might be to leverage technology to simplify and accelerate the process, to introduce self-made videos to share new hire personalities within the organization, and to maintain daily engagement by creating internal interest groups.
  4. Prototype – A protoype is scaled-down and even primitive version of an idea as a product or service. Prototyping is an iterative phase that allows the designer to refine the proposed idea as the final solution. Ideas can be created in prototype by drawing, acting them out, photo or video, and even physical prototype. This step is important to convey the idea in more detail and highlight challenges and flaws. Throughout the prototype stage, the ideas may be accepted, improved, redesigned or rejected depending on how they are experienced in prototype form. When onboarding, for example, the team might create a prototype that would leverage new technologies to engage new hires on a daily basis.
  5. Test – Testing should generate valuable feedback about the prototype as well as potential modifications to the problem statement. It should be conducted to observe the people who will be using the product or service directly.During the testing phase of our example, the company must be sure to obtain feedback from new hires for each aspect of the prototype. The team should determine if the new processes did, in fact, create an emotional connection for the new hires in the company.

We know that these steps work. We know that, when properly implemented, they will improve the experience for the person using any product or service. By taking the time to create a greater awareness of the human element, by nurturing an environment where all ideas are welcome, and by continually questioning the process and testing the prototype, you should arrive just where you had hoped—the discovery of a valuable learning experience, a connection to the human elements of a problem and the realization that we all can contribute to a better world. —Allyson Gilbert, CFP, and Hyun Sook

Allyson Campos GilbertAllyson Campos Gilbert
Allyson Campos Gilbert, CPA, CEO and founder of Adaptation, is a thought leader in business transformation strategy and organizational change. Allyson is a frequent speaker on topics such as disruptive technologies and organizational change, business transformation and global best practices. Read Full Bio


Hyun-Sook LeeHyun-Sook Lee
Hyun-Sook is a process improvement and project management professional with more than 25 years’ experience. In this role she has helped large financial services as well as entertainment and media companies develop and implement process redesign, including leading large technology initiatives. Her approach consists of applying Agile and Design Thinking methodologies. Most recently, she has been helping a $2.5 billion New York City agency transform various operational processes. She has undergraduate degrees from Bucknell University in Biology and Japanese Studies and an MBA from MIT Sloan School with an emphasis on Marketing and Operations.


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