The Basics and Benefits of Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a trending topic in the business world today. If you’re new to Design Thinking, you may be wondering if it’s more than just the latest fad.

It Is. In fact, Design Thinking is a revolution that allows your business to thrive amidst a constant flood of product releases and ever-evolving technology. Things outside your business have changed the expectations of the customers of your business. Your next release will not be judged by how much it improves your offering, but on how it compares with your customer’s banking app, iTunes experience, or one-click Amazon checkout. As The Cloud Adoption Playbook says, “This means that the last best experience that people have anywhere becomes the minimum expectation for the experience they want everywhere, including in the enterprise.” Design Thinking can help you keep up in the opinions of your customers and your internal users.

No wonder Design Thinking has become a key tenet of business schools at Stanford and Harvard, among others. In fact, Harvard Business Review recently said that “Design thinking has the potential to unleash people’s full creative energies, win their commitment, and radically improve processes.”

In this post, we’re going to explain what design thinking is, how it works, and how your business can benefit from adopting Design Thinking methodology in your business.

What Design Thinking Is

1. A Way to Solve Business Challenges

Design Thinking is a structured approach to solve business challenges of all types. It is a a pervasive, interactive process aimed at identifying creative solutions to business challenges by putting yourself in the shoes of customers.

Design Thinking can be used to solve any kind of challenge. Whether you’re trying to identify a new product that will take over the market, reduce employee turnover, or make a governmental agency more efficient, Design Thinking can help. As Innovation Evangelist Dr. Pavan Soni put it, “Deep down, Design Thinking is nothing but a systematic approach to problem solving.”

2. A Different Way of Thinking

Design Thinking is a different way of thinking. In the past, solving business challenges happened as the experts huddled around a boardroom table and making decisions based on preferences and gut feel, a la Don Draper’s meetings in Mad Men. Then businesses started asking focus groups or studying analytics to make decisions.

Design Thinking is different in that it express creativity that is fundamentally based not on expertise or on feedback but on empathy. It focuses on what the end user feels during the experience of using a product, software, or service. Based on this empathetic approach, Design Thinking takes a different path toward final results.

David Kelley, the founder of Ideo and one of the forerunners of Design Thinking, describes the different way of thinking this way:

  • Holistic – Be a big-picture thinker
  • Uninhibited – Defer your judgments
  • Collaborative – Work with diverse teams and with the end users
  • Iterative – Perform cheap and dirty experiments
  • Visual – Create mockups, sketches, storyboards, and visual artifacts to express and visualize ideas better

Different Design Thinking experts will put the thinking process in different words, but the general approach is consistent across the discipline.

3. Human-Centered

We just mentioned empathy as the bedrock of Design Thinking, but it bears repeating. One of the biggest distinctions about Design Thinking is human-centered—based on the needs and wants of real people. Design Thinking can be radically human-centered because it continually talks to real users, gets their feedback, and works to empathize with their wants and needs.

Dr. Soni puts it this way: "Design Thinking starts with and remains loyal to the customer. It’s human centric rather than being product- or technology-centric.”

That’s the big difference. Design Thinking focuses on what your users (whether they be customers or employees) want and need, not what product line your business wants to introduce or what technology you want to enter into. The result of Design Thinking may well be a new product or new technology, but only if it’s what the users actually want or need.

How Design Thinking Works

The way you practice Design Thinking is more than we can cover in detail in this post. And even if we could, Design Thinking is something that is better caught than taught—in other words, the best way to learn Design Thinking is by experiencing it.

But we want to give you a brief overview of the principles, keys, and practices of Design Thinking so that you know what to expect before you experience it for the first time. The terms we use in this overview are largely drawn from IBM’s Design Thinking resources, but again the concepts are consistent no matter the practitioner.

Guiding Principles

  • Focus on User Outcomes – As we’ve already discussed, Design Thinking focuses on what actual humans want and need, and then delivers it to them.
  • Relentless Reinvention – Everything is a prototype in a Design Thinking approach. That means that everything can be altered and improved based on what we learn from how users react.
  • Diverse, Empowered Teams – No one job function determines what we make. By combining sales, operations, development, design, and especially end users, we get better insights into people. In the end, diversity is the key to powerful innovation, because the ability to get a 360-degree view of a problem and to incorporate the input of all aspects of the team is a key strength of Design Thinking methodology.

Design thinking principles

The Rhythm of the Loop

  • Design – Keep users at the center of the action while rapidly identifying requirements and prototyping solutions. This may happen through interviews, surveys, shadowing, contextual inquiries, or other methods. It also happens through divergent thinking in which everyone from every role can record what they’ve noticed.
  • Build – Leverage agile techniques to deliver high quality solutions and wow your users. Come together with your Design Thinking team and look within to talk about what you’ve observed. As you do, you begin to converge on some empathetic ideas to explore further.
  • Run – Maintain a reliable solution that users trust, while gathering meaningful observations to make it even better. Treat everything as a prototype. Begin with low fidelity and increase fidelity as you get feedback from the real world and iterate on the idea.

The Design Build Run Design Thinking loop

Keys of Alignment

  • Hills – Align teams on what meaningful user outcomes you’re achieving, and when.
  • Playbacks – Stay aligned by regularly exchanging feedback on everything.
  • Sponsorship – Invite actual users into the work to stay true to the real world.

Design Thinking: Hills, Playbacks, Sponsorship

Benefits of Design Thinking

Now that we’ve discussed what Design Thinking is and how it works, it’s time to focus on why it’s valuable. Here are some of the benefits businesses enjoy when they use Design Thinking.

  • Reduced Risk of Launching New Ideas – Design Thinking focuses on showing prototypes to sponsor users early and often. This ensures that new ideas stay on a course that will actually meet user needs, while eliminating the churn and cost of bad ideas. The end result is product launches backed by more data and imbued with more confidence.
  • Innovative Solutions and Offerings – Too often, businesses fall into the trap of internally creating ideas that are just incremental improvements on existing products and services. Incremental improvements are fine, but they can leave a business at risk of being disrupted from the outside. Design Thinking engages creativity through a process designed to surface truly innovative ideas and then test them quickly. The results can provide far greater upside.
  • Faster Pace of Learning – The Design Thinking process is designed to get multiple people from multiple departments (plus sponsor users) in a room at once to generate a high quantity of ideas. Then, because everything is a prototype, you can stage and test ideas quickly, allowing you to pursue further where you have traction and move on when you don’t. The result is a faster pace of learning and solutioning. McKinsey and Company recently said: “Enduring advantages are more likely to accrue to companies that can sustain a high rate of innovation, consistently introducing new solutions and improving them with proprietary data.” Design Thinking is a key tool in sustaining that kind of high rate of innovation.
  • Happier Users – When you actually listen to users and give them input about what you’re building, they are happier with the end result. This may seem like an obvious thought, but Design Thinking seems to be one of the best tools for actually breaking down the wall between company leaders and actual users. When this wall goes down, amazing innovations can emerge.
  • More Revenue and Returns – A recent McKinsey study identified significant financial benefits of a human-centered design approach: 32% more revenue and 56% higher total returns. This extensive study goes to show that there can be a significant financial, measurable outcomes and ROI that result from a consistent Design Thinking approach to business.


Worthwhile has always used Design Thinking principles in our work for clients, and now we are going even further to embrace these principles and keys in a more overt and comprehensive way.

The reason? It’s going to bring our clients (and their users) better results as they solve business challenges. We’re convinced that the innovations and returns that emerge will be remarkable.

Do innovation and ROI sound like things your business could use? Then come engage in Design Thinking with us.

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