Design Thinking 101: Human-Centered Innovation

Consider trying Design Thinking to solve your next challenge. There’s no way to lose and a whole lot to learn.

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Jason Schneider
July 17, 2022

Design Thinking is a human-centered methodology that helps teams define a problem and find innovative ways to solve it. With Design Thinking organizations take on just about any challenge. Success stories include: updating the electric toothbrush, improving emergency room experiences, creating sanitation systems in Africa, and making voting systems easier to use. At Foundry, we usually use Design Thinking to create innovative custom software solutions that our clients and their customers love. 

Although the ideas behind Design Thinking have been around (in one form or another) for 70 years, the methodology used today came to prominence in business during the 2010s. Today, organizations worldwide—from Nike and Apple to AirBnb and Google—use Design Thinking to create digital (and in-person) transformation.

Here’s what you need to know to get started.

Design Thinking is about people

In the 1960s, academics started thinking about products that would exist on machines, like computers. To understand how to create these machine-based products, they turned to their colleagues in psychology and anthropology for help. Together, they realized the key was including the customer/end user in the product design process. That combination of design and social sciences set the groundwork for today’s human-focused Design Thinking practices.

Everyone (including you) can be a designer

One of the best parts of Design Thinking is that—with help from an experienced facilitator—anyone can be a “designer.” No design experience required. In fact, Design Thinking works best with a cross-functional, collaborative team made up of people who see the business, products, and customers from different perspectives.

The only requirement is a willingness to:

  • Trust the process
  • Embrace ambiguity
  • Challenge the status quo
  • Prioritize progress over perfection
  • Be supportive and build from others’ ideas
  • Redefine failure (you always succeed if you are learning)
Design Thinking Venn Diagram: desirable, viable, feasible

Design Thinking helps you find the innovation sweet spot

Design Thinking initiatives aim to find solutions that are at the intersection of these three characteristics:

  • Desirability is about humans. Does the product solve a problem or meet a need for the end user/customer? Does the customer want it?
  • Viability is about your business. Will the solution benefit your business today or over the long term?
  • Feasibility is usually about technology. Can the organization build the product?
Design thinking process: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test

It’s a five-step, iterative, and cyclical process                                   

Design Thinking is a combination of five, interrelated, human-centered phases. While the phases are in loose, chronological order; it’s normal to revisit some phases multiple times to refine your work.  

The phases are:    

  • Empathize

Goal: Learn about the audience—who they are, what matters to them, what problems they face, and what they need.

How it works: During “empathize” you might do exercises to help you get to know the audience, such as user research, empathy mapping, persona development, or journey mapping.

  • Define

Goal: Identify the end user’s need or challenge, so everyone is aligned/understands the problem at hand.

How it works: Usually, teams create a meaningful and actionable point of view (POV) statement (i.e., “[USER] needs [NEED] because of [INSIGHT]”) to spur ideation. The POV needs to be broad enough for creative freedom and narrow enough to make ideation manageable.

  • Ideate

Goal: Create and select a design solution that fulfills the needs of your POV statement.

How it works: Brainstorm a wide variety of creative solutions through activities such as rapid sketching, storyboarding, or simply asking questions that start with “How might we…”. When you have a healthy list of ideas, narrow down the options and select the front-runners. The goal of the “ideate” stage is to create and select a solution.

  • Prototype

Goal: Use a prototype to get initial audience feedback on whether your solution meets the end user needs.

How it works: The team builds wireframes, clickable designs, or even paper mockups of the proposed solution; then asks the audience what they think; and analyzes the feedback. There may be several rounds and revisions of the prototype before audiences approve.

  • Test

Goal: Get additional feedback from your users—this time look for more detailed feedback about navigating and using the digital project.

How it works: Develop a series of questions or test cases that help you gain insights during audience testing. After you find out what works and what doesn’t, refine your solution, and test again, if necessary.

Working through the Design Thinking methodology could take a few days or a few months depending on your goals. By the time you’re finished, you’ll be confident that you have a solid idea that your end-users will appreciate. 

Failure isn’t an option 

People often think that Design Thinking is about coming away with a brand new, big idea—a game-changer. However, it’s still a worthwhile exercise if you don’t.  

The reality is that you might come up with the kernel of an idea that you can build on, by going through the design thinking phases again. Or, you might find a way to make a big difference with a small adjustment to an existing product. Those aren’t failures, they’re opportunities. Innovation isn’t always about a big bang. It is always about learning from the process. 

Consider trying Design Thinking to solve your next challenge. There’s no way to lose and a whole lot to learn.  

Interested in trying Design Thinking? At Foundry, we can help! Contact us to start the conversation.