If you’ve ever ordered waffles online, most likely they’ll come in one of two kinds of packaging. One is clean like in the pic above. The other is where all of them in thin paper holders will be stuffed into a box. Quite messy.
Anyway, say you ordered a few dishes for dinner via a food ordering app from a local restaurant. packaging by the restaurant is horrible. The food has leaked into the outer bag, and slightly onto other food containers below.
However, the food itself is delicious.
Now consider you ordered from another restaurant on another night. Exceptional, airtight and impressive looking packaging.
However, the food tastes somewhere between horrible and just-average.
Now, if both restaurants, or even the food ordering service used a simple rating mechanism, chances are, both restaurants will be oblivious to what customers love and hate about them.
The first restaurant might see a bad rating and think their food sucks. The packaging quality never crossing their mind.
The other restaurant might feel proud with a high rating, assuming it was for their food, while customers struggle to consume it. Or they might think the bad rating was because of some delivery error or delay.
If you are going to take the trouble to capture user feedback, take a little more trouble to capture more detailed feedback. Because vague feedback can sometimes be more dangerous than no feedback.
Without boring the customer, try and split up your service feedback into its components. In the case of the home order, it could be the food quality, packaging quality and service delivery. For a product, it could be the effectiveness of the product (in doing the job), ease of understanding and use (instructions, design simplicity, etc.), and effectiveness of customer service (if it comes to that).
If you own, manage or work at a company, and are grappling with a complex challenge or are in need of innovation for growth, get in touch. More here.
And you might find my book, ‘Design the Future’ interesting. It demystifies the mindset of Design Thinking. Ebook’s on Amazon, and paperbacks at leading online bookstores including Amazon & Flipkart.
This post about my 9-step version of the design thinking process has been long overdue. It is already explained in my book, ‘Design the Future’, but I also wanted to share it here for those interested.
The five-step Stanford design thinking process is arguably the most popular process out there. I have however, come across numerous different processes or versions. Ranging from the 15-step Darden process that I was taught, to oversimplifications and misleading three-step processes I have come across.
In my interactions with managers, business leaders and even students, I found that while many were familiar with the Stanford or some other design thinking process, they did not quite understand it well enough. For instance, ‘empathy’ came across to them as something that is ‘just done’. Similar to how many people assume hearing is the same as listening. And seeing empathy as a step in the process gave many the impression that like a switch, it had to be turned on and then off, as one moved to the next step.
So, in an effort to simplify the design thinking process so more people may use it, I created my own version of the design thinking process based on my understanding of design thinking and experiences practicing it. I took the Stanford model, and hopefully improved it.
You need to remember that any design thinking process is a broad guideline. It is not like a military obstacle course that one must complete in a defined sequence. You might find yourself looping through a few steps multiple times. Or in some cases, depending on what the information or insight presents, you might find yourself back at the beginning; starting again with renewed understanding of the challenge.
Sherlock Holmes, in the series ‘Elementary,’ once tells Watson, “The danger with rule books, Watson, is that they offer the illusion that leading a moral life is a simple undertaking, that the world exists in black and white. Welcome to the grays.”
At least when it comes to areas such as creativity and drawing inspiration, remember there can never be stringent rules or guidelines.
My 9-step version of the design thinking process:
Of the nine steps in the process, the first three are more underlying criteria than steps. Criteria that are critical to improving the chances of success on a project. Those three criteria are Humility, Empathy, and Intention. While these might seem obvious to the point of sounding stupid, they are often the most ignored aspects to a design-led process. More on that as we understand each step better.
After that come the more common steps of most design thinking processes.
They are: Define – Empathize with Intent – Redefine – Ideate – Prototype – Test
Let’s look at the nine steps more closely:
Humility – The quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance. Its relevance springs from the simple signal versus noise perspective. Our objectives as design thinkers is to maximize our understanding of user experiences and needs. Of those we want to innovate for, or whose problems or challenges we want to solve. That is the signal that is of utmost importance to us for innovating for them. Our views, opinions, and biases are the noise.
The moment you can bring yourself down to the level of a beginner or a learner, you put yourself in the backseat, and that’s when the end user or final beneficiary of your innovation will come into the limelight of your focus. Remember to start with humility.
Empathy – The ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Putting yourself in a live user-setting and observing and/ or interacting with users to get a better sense of what a problem or future opportunity might mean to them, how they deal with it, and so on. In conjunction with humility, it offers a good environment to capture user information.
Unlike what some methods might state, empathy (and humility as well as
the next step, intention) are not steps in themselves. They should not be
traits that you turn on and off depending on which stage of the design thinking
process you are. It is also why, along with the intent, I have placed them at
the base of the six-step process, to signify how the three traits always need
to be ‘ON.’
Without being in a constant state of empathy, no real innovation is possible. And that will be the difference between a real design thinker or team creating an exceptional change, and people simply practicing it as a flavour of the times.
Intention – An intention is the larger thought and nudge to action for a change, that brings you to employ the design thinking process. You might wonder what the difference is, between humility, empathy, and intent.
As a business leader, humility will always help you spot customer or employee or other stakeholder needs and concerns. Empathy will let you better understand those needs and concerns. To get to the root causes of it. You might still choose not to do anything about it, because you don’t have the intention to. Contrarily, if you have the intention, but lack humility and empathy, it would mean that your objective or goal is not the right one.
Equipped with humility and empathy, but in the absence of any intent, a
business leader will always spot improvement areas in his or her business. All
they need then is to choose their intention – i.e., determine the direction of
their effort, and get working on it.
Define – Here, we put the problem statement or
opportunity statement in words. It is a starting point of sorts, to the primary
design thinking process. Before interacting with user groups, this is a step
where we broadly express what we think the problem or opportunity area might be.
It could be how a client has described a problem, or, if we are helping a
friend or industry colleague, it could be their description of the issue.
One key thing to remember with defining a problem or opportunity is to
make it sound positive, irrespective of how grave or pointless the situation
might seem. A lot of companies are prone to defining/ framing what hurts first.
Their definition ends up being a problem statement which sounds grim. The
disadvantage of doing this is that when you invite people to think of ideas,
even as part of a brainstorming exercise, a grim-sounding problem statement
stifles the thinking, and will hugely limit the number and quality of views
that you receive.
On the contrary, if you turn your problem statement into an opportunity
statement, people ideating will be in a positive mindset, and be more attuned
to think of creative ideas. Try to notice the difference of mindsets the
following two statements evoke. Read them more than once if necessary:
A Problem Statement: “How can we drastically reduce our after-sales
service related expenses?”
An Opportunity Statement: “How can we redefine our service arm to be more relevant to customer needs, while not proving expensive for us?”
As Abraham Maslow once said, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Defining a challenge too negatively and very precisely might give you solutions that just create more problems of their own.
Empathize with intent – This is the fun phase, where you spend time
observing actual users in their natural surroundings. See how they consume a
product or service. How they interact. And you must do this in the subtlest way
possible, even when you are interviewing or interacting with them. Especially
if the process is delicate or embarrassing for the end-user, or if the user is
introverted or are in some way intimidated by you and your team’s presence.
One important thing to remember in this phase is to be subjective with the empathy, but objective with what they share with you. If you have a subjective mindset when trying to find learnings, you might tend to get lost in a problem. And depending on the type of assignment, it might leave you either in disbelief, or maybe even depressed or an emotional wreck, depending on the kind of problem you are working to solve, as users expose you to severe difficulties or bitter experiences.
Instead, empathize with users as they walk you through their journey, experiences, feelings, and thoughts. But look at it from behind a glass wall when taking notes or drawing inspiration or conclusions from it. That way, your focus is not diverted by problems but instead stays focused on noting down those problems and possible thoughts, reasons, etc., that might spring to mind. The focus will help you then work towards getting rid of the problem, as opposed to being overwhelmed by it.
Redefine – After gathering user insights, we revisit our original definition with what we have learned. After enough information has been collected in the earlier stage, the team debriefs. The information is shared amongst team members without contaminating it with their inferences. That way, each member gets a clear sense of how things presently are.
Often, when tasked with solving a problem for someone, even when we have little or no information to go with, we are eager to get started with identifying potential solutions right-away. You might have seen this tendency in yourself and others (I tend to, from time to time), where someone mentions a problem, and without stopping to understand more, you start rattling possible causes or solutions.
That happens when we go with our definition of someone else’s problem. Which is why, after an initial definition, once we get a better understanding of it from actual people facing the problem (in the ’empathize with intent’ stage), we redefine the challenge more accurately, based on what we have learnt.
Ideate – This is the stage where designers would take the information they have gathered and use it as inputs that they put through a choice of design thinking tools. Tools including the brainstorming or versions of it, to contra-logic, worst-idea, brain-writing, trigger questions, changing perspectives, etc., and then use anchors, forced combinations and connections to come up with numerous ideas. The more ideas, the better, and the crazier the ideas; even better!
Prototype – Prototyping an innovative solution is akin to shaping a solution using two pairs of hands – your design team’s, and your users’. In the previous stage, you would have identified some potential ideas and possible directions regarding a solution. This is where you need end users to help you figure out what works for them, and what does not.
The objective of this stage is to be able to move rapidly towards a final solution, with minimum investment (as far as possible) on experiments towards refining potential solutions. The moment each prototype becomes too expensive and complicated, there is a tendency to either convince yourself and your team that it is a great solution (because of the effort that went into it. It is a cognitive bias called the IKEA effect).
Another possibility is that if you encounter a roadblock at this stage, your team or the top management might get easily demotivated and consider it a colossal failure, solely because your team spent a fortune building a prototype that user groups did not like or approve of.
Instead, make the most basic and low-cost but effective prototypes possible. Use anything from sheets of paper for story-boarding, to card paper or cardboard, Styrofoam and other craft supplies to work toward a final solution. Your objective with each prototype, is to test no more than one factor or variable you need clarity on. Test too many criteria, and the learning becomes unclear.
At workshops I conduct, I sometimes take my old letterheads for participants to use for discussions, sketching, or to make things out of.
It is only when everyone finds using anything lying around them as potential material for prototypes, is when prototyping will become far more prevalent. The same goes for ideating. If the materials you use are too fancy, you or your team might use it as an excuse to delay prototyping, or even ideating.
Which is also why, while a lot of design thinking workshops use post-its and put up pictures of it, few participants continue to use post-its to implement some of the tools they learnt. Because buying post-its is expensive and sometimes inconvenient. If you can’t make do with stuff already at your desk or around, the action gets delayed till you buy those supplies. Take this from someone who uses toothpaste or soap to write on the bathroom wall so that a potential idea does not disappear with the flowing water.
Test – Once you’ve completed the prototyping phase, you
move on to testing. The significant difference between the two is that while
prototyping was far greyer and also, the prototypes were far less expensive but
required a slight stretch of the imagination by the user, the testing phase is
that much more advanced, as it is that very close to the final product or
And unlike checking one feature at a time in the prototyping phase, here
you are testing the product or service in its entirety, towards ironing out any
features or poor service extensions that exist, by letting your users directly
interact with the solution.
The first rule to keep in mind in the testing phase too is that your
product or service is not final or finalized yet! There would still be some
assumptions that your team would need to test. For instance, it is one thing to
prototype with sketches or storyboards or even pretend mobile interfaces. Quite
another to have end users interact with your store layout or theme park or
Which is why we have the testing phase, where your team would help build
almost-final solutions to test them in the hands of a closed group of
stakeholders. It is great to have a select list of people who will evaluate your
creation. That increases the focus and feedback capturing. And what you will be
testing, are any assumptions that were earlier not tested, or that sprung up
along the way with the increase in clarity.
It isn’t possible to overstate the amount of valuable, even critical
insights that can be gained in the testing phase.
Testing is followed by eventually launching the product, service or
change – once all assumptions and user hesitations have been factored in.
After you’ve gained more realistic insights from real users who
interacted with your prototypes and brought you very close to a final solution
that you by way of prototypes and then running exercises with them in the
testing phase, you are finally onto an almost ready and well-refined answer.
Ideally, even after launch, the journey should be looked at like it is the making of a TV series. You’ve launched season 1 or 2, and it is doing well. But you need to check-in now and then as to how viewers are reacting and engaging with it. The bigger question in your mind always is, is there enough traction to demand a season 3, and if yes, would there be any significant changes needed (replacing actors, etc.) or is the show no longer relevant to its audiences. In which case, you then need to figure out what next. That way you are not going in blind with season 3, to later find out it lost its audience midway through the previous season itself.
One should remember that there is no perfect product, service, experience or solution to user needs or problems. And there are no runaway results promised by design thinking, the way some firms guarantee the ability to create viral videos. But yes, you always have a far greater chance of arriving at a product or service that people want or need by using design thinking, than by merely guessing or troubleshooting your way through.
A close friend recently shared this article titled ‘Why Design Thinking will fail’, written in 2013 by Jeffrey Tjendra. Jeffrey is a designer entrepreneur and strategist. Among some of us friends, there was were points of disagreement on the article. Jeffrey does seem to have a good understanding of design thinking. This post, however, is an effort towards taking a closer look at each point mentioned there. And to see if it makes sense or not. All of this, with my limited but growing knowledge of design thinking.
Before I begin, here’s a quote by Mara Wilson. While her quote describes storytelling, I believe it offers a more far reaching explanation. With products and services too, for instance. She said, “The more specific you get, the more universal it is. (It’s a special alchemy of storytelling).” – Mara Wilson
Back to the article, here goes:
Misperception of Meaning – I’ll agree, it can be misleading to some. I use either ‘human-centered’ or ‘user-centered’ design thinking in an attempt to bring a little more clarity, especially when interacting with people I believe might misinterpret the meaning.
Loss of Meaning – Can’t do much about that. A lot of effective methodologies often see phases of hype and a lot of randomness being packaged and sold in its name. But as the dust settles, only the real stuff and an increased respect remains.
Misunderstanding and Not Accepting Creative Elements – True. However, any company or more specifically, a management that has ever worked on any form of creativity or innovation, knows how boring, full of trials and iterations, full of mess and uncertainty it can be. Look at your kid’s school projects for instance. If it isn’t too simple, it is bound to take a lot of ‘random’, before it starts to make sense. Anyone who doesn’t understand that, will surely not use design thinking. And that’s alright.
Lack of Business Elements – Coming from a management and finance background, with experience in strategy and marketing, I tend to build those critical business aspects to a design thinking project. And that is especially why the design thinking team needs to have a wide-enough assortment of skillsets. Using only UI/UX people or ethnographers or psychologists is not going to do the trick.
Language and Perspective Barriers – There have been worse instances of communication gaps. For instance, if you have heard the almost unbelievable and heroic story of the Gimli Glider. An obvious technical specification got so conveniently ignored, that it put at risk, 69 occupants aboard a Boeing 767. Read the fascinating story! So, it just boils down to the intention and seriousness of the parties involved. Nothing is foolproof or idiot-proof. But a lot of change and innovation can be brought about with the right intentions. And no amount of left-brain learning and practice can fix unpredictable situations either. Because a lot of left-brain thinkers often learn a process from end to end. Any deviation could potentially leave them baffled. Creative thinking, on the other hand, helps one focus on the fundamentals. On understanding the building blocks more and more. And then, irrespective of situations or deviations to them, there is often more clarity as the building blocks can be used to better understand complexity. And it’s often easier to communicate fundamental building blocks across language barriers, as opposed to communicating complexity to begin with.
Missing Future – Even design thinking veterans like IDEO have made mistakes, overestimating future demand of tech products. A strong problem or opportunity statement (which is open to being updated when you learn more about the end-user) helps reduce the risk. As does an unbiased and strong mechanism to interact with, and observe and understand needs, behaviours and desires of end-users, and capture that information towards building a solution.
Wrong Implementation of Process – Which is why a lot of products and ingredients come with ‘Instructions to Use’. If an ingredient needs to be mixed and cooked, simply sprinkling it will not help.
Poor Direction Scoping – This is where an intention and objective to start with, matters. There are billions of people, billions of problems and billions more opportunities. Which one or ones do you want to target. That’s what you pursue. Ignore everything else.
Co-creation at the End of Process – all I’ll say is, phone sex doesn’t help create babies.
Misconception of Approach to Creativity – This is true. Some people would tend to follow the design thinking process like it is a treasure map, when in fact, it is navigating your way through hostile jungle. Your senses need to be on alert all the time. Any input can change a lot of initial assumptions. That lions don’t climb trees. Or that chimps tend to rely on third party to help resolve disputes.
Wishful Thinking for Culture of Innovation – Completely agree here. Which is why, a startup whose founders have the right values and give importance to innovation, can build it better into their culture, as opposed to trying to inject it into a global behemoth that has a century of history.
The End Process is not the End – true – design teams, just like any other specialty teams, need to walk the talk. Leaving projects with solution advice that is abstract to clients, won’t serve anyone’s purpose. A lot of large consulting firms were infamous for doing this back in the day. Leaving clients many million dollars poorer, and with a big “report” that the client was clueless what to do with.
Risk of Stagnancy – As Zig Ziglar said, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”
Look forward to your views. And if you liked this one, consider following/subscribing to my blog (top right of the page). You can also connect with me on LinkedIn and on Twitter.