What is design thinking?

Even the brightest among us can define problems improperly, leading to clumsy solutions. Ill defined problems generate missed opportunities, waste resources, and culminate in initiatives that are poorly aligned with needs.

In 1999, NASA lost a US $125 million Mars orbiter because a Lockheed Martin engineering design team didn’t realize the space agency’s ethos. The team used English units of measurement while the agency’s team used the metric system for spacecraft operation. That was akin to driving 100 miles per hour on a highway against a posted speed limit of 100 km/h.

Proper problem definition requires empathy with the client for whom solution is being created and implemented.  This necessitates that careful observations must be made of the ethos in which clients function, something that Lockheed Martin did not do to understand NASA.

Faced with disruption from ridesharing companies, automobile manufacturers have realized that the future will not require conventional car ownership. Rather, customers will favour mobility solutions to move from place to place. Thus, General Motors has partnered with Lyft and Ford has invested US $1 billion in a startup founded by Google and Uber veterans.

Any problem should be considered from myriad perspectives. While we benefit greatly from experiential learning within and outside our workplaces, this form of learning also introduces filters of what is right and what is wrong into our thoughts.

Thus, we ascribe values to how we do things and even the people we work with. “His ideas are better than hers.” “Considering their suggestions will be a waste of time.”

Ever hear a colleague say, “That’s how we do it,” when you join a new organization? Or a new coworker claim, “That’s how we did it where I came from.” These are examples of biases and filters that we incorporate subliminally, convincing ourselves that there’s just a single correct way to solve a problem.

As a computer embedded in a pair of eyeglasses, Google Glass was promoted as the ultimate wearable. While it was a technical innovation, sales of Google Glass have been discontinued, partly because its design neglected to consider the social implications of its use.

There were privacy concerns about the ability of the wearable device to record people in public without their permission, potential copyright infringements of visual art and movies, and broadcasts of private meetings and proceedings in camera. Some people found Glass to be aesthetically unappealing.  Other than to early adopters, the exact function and application of the product was never clear to other potential customers.

After a problem has been considered from multiple viewpoints, a handful of solutions should be carefully reflected upon and refined. These solutions should be simulated under various conditions and, if possible, prototypes built and tested for imperfections.  Perhaps, Google could have found a way to overcome concerns had it considered the social acceptance of Glass.

Finding an optimal solution requires iteration. If simulations or prototypes do not yield satisfactory results for the client then it’s literally back to the drawing board. The problem will have to be considered from yet another perspective since it’s all about the client.

The repetition can lead to a winning idea or solution, and the process is called design thinking. That’s when you get an iPhone, Lego blocks, Airbnb, a Swiss Army knife, a foot activated car door, or the recipe for the perfect home–baked flourless chocolate cake.


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