Product/Interface Design, User Experience

5 Big Benefits of Design Thinking

I dream big. I always have and there are no signs of slowing down any time soon. But, an occasional peril of “The Big Thinker” is dreaming a little too big, getting overwhelmed with wonderful ideas and eventually abandoning the project without creating something of tangible value. Recognizing this as a personal fault, I’m always looking for ways to rein in my grandiose ideas into something workable without myself (or a teammate) going off the deep end.

Fortunately some years ago, I discovered Design Thinking, a brainstorming process that promises to help tackle big ideas in a manageable way. By definition, it is “a formal method for practical, creative resolution of problems and creation of solutions”. This mouthful sounded a lot like the corporate jargon I despise but, hey, I say,  “don’t knock it until you try it.”

The first time I explored “design thinking,” I was working as the lead designer at an education technology company. Education is filled with a number of huge challenges but perhaps my biggest was the seemingly insurmountable challenge of creating an online experience that would improve the way students (and teachers) engage with and retain information using technology.

Conveniently, since education is both a passion of mine and a field that’s in desperate in need of innovation, one of my intrepid coworkers suggested we take a free online workshop on design thinking through the D-School at Stanford University. My two coworkers, one intern and I were the only ones we could find who were willing to spend a couple hours of our time during the height of busy season to experiment with this new, potentially innovative way of problem solving.

In a town of analytical thinkers, I guarantee most people were confused about what we were doing with all those Post-It Notes and cut up pieces of paper. I’m pretty sure everyone who walked past the open office screamed something along the lines of, “Get back to work!” In a funny way, of course.

During this exercise, we attempted to recreate the gift-giving experience using a bevy of tools more fitting in an elementary school classroom than in the office of a company.   I don’t remember much about the ideas or even the product we produced, or if any of it was any good (although I do remember attempting to summon the 3rd grader in me and using some rudimentary origami to build a mighty fine-looking interactive storefront out of computer paper). But that’s not what’s important. The goal was to think differently and to reframe the problems and solutions we assume we have the answer to. This small exercise opened my eyes to a world of possibilities lying beyond my computer screen.

Why Design Thinking?

Design Thinking introduces a new way of thinking about the problems and questions we face in our world. It steps outside of the traditional boxes with visual thinking, creativity and innovation in order to find new solutions to the same old issues. Maybe it’s not even about problems; maybe it’s about simply finding a better way. Design Thinking questions our assumptions and what we already think we know. It upsets the complacency that keeps things rutted, inefficient or not as good as they could be.

Design Thinking can be used successfully within any industry—not just tech or design. Think government, health care, financial services or non-profits. Any field is potentially ripe for this kind of innovation.

Here are 5 reasons why Design Thinking needs to guide our work:

1. Design Thinking Focuses on the End User

Design Thinking is an approach to solving problems that puts end users at the center of the process. The goal is to develop useful products and solutions that fit the needs of the user, not the other way around. The process is inherently human-centered, getting close enough to the user to see where their frustrations lie and how we can make their lives and experiences better and more fulfilling.

2. Design Thinking Leverages Collective Expertise

By building multidisciplinary teams and bringing many voices to the table, we break out of our respective fields and boxes to leverage our collective wisdom, experience and expertise. Who knows what the healthcare realm has to learn from the humanities? We get out of our camps to bring a multitude of skills and philosophies to the table.

3. Design Thinking Employs Empathy

The very foundation of Design Thinking is empathy. Sometimes referred to as “discovery” or “understanding,” depending on the explanation, empathy requires that we seek to understand and identify with the needs and challenges of the people (or users of a product), the experience or the system.

4. Design Thinking Tests and Tests and Tests

The philosophy of “design, test and iterate” is central to the process. It allows you to have those completely unexpected breakthroughs by creating several rapid prototypes and encouraging fast feedback from actual users and customers before spending too much time, effort or money on any one idea. The process is a bit messier than the more traditional analytical and linear approaches to problem solving (you better love those Post-it Notes), but it yields results that are far more powerful, not to mention interesting.

5. Design Thinking Creates Value While Solving Real Problems

Design Thinking isn’t just creativity and innovation for its own sake; it’s specifically directed at creating value and solving problems. But instead of going about either of these in the traditional ways, Design Thinking seeks to use design principles to solve problems, from small to large, in almost any industry.

Design Thinking is challenging and changing the way we solve problems and deliver more value to the user. Stay tuned, we’ve got more to come on this topic!

Filed under: Product/Interface Design, User Experience


Drew Lepp is a UX/UI designer and founder of TimeKat, who aims to create online experiences that help make people happier and more productive. She lives in Washington, DC and enjoys inventing terrible dance moves, never cooking and taking videos of her forever kitten, Tiny Taco.