Design Thinking: A Human-centred Approach to Innovation

The book “Change by Design” by Tim Brown tackles how Design Thinking helps transform organisations by fostering innovation.  Design thinking has gained in popularity since the late 1980s when P Rowe wrote a book by the same name.  Its application has spread from traditional design fields such as architecture to ICT, business, education and even medicine.

Brown argues that one does not have to be a designer to benefit from design thinking.  At the heart of design thinking is a process by which options are created and choices are made.  Design thinking depends on observing how people actually use products and services.  Design thinking forces those involved to think about how more can be done with less.  Design thinking argues those responsible for shaping products and services to take into account the needs of the world at large, environment included, in coming up with their designs.  Increasingly the line between product and service, and the line between consumer and producer are blurred. Design thinking enables a human centred approach to the design process.

This ethos means that innovation must be driven by a thorough understanding, derived from observation, of what people need and want, what they like or dislike about the way the products/services they use are made, packaged, marketed, distributed and supported.

While the traditional designer has come from design school, design thinkers today come from all fields where innovation matters; and that is just about any field. Design thinkers distinguish themselves by showing empathy; that ability to put themselves in the shoes of others.  Design thinkers imagine the world from the perspective of colleagues, customers, end users; taking a people first stance and observing the world in minute detail.  Great design thinkers are, in the words of Steve Jobs, able to hold opposing views in their minds, using their integrative thinking ability to bring together the salient aspects of contradictory positions to bring forth novel solutions that go beyond existing solutions.  Design thinkers exhibit great optimism, allowing them to continue to look for solutions where others have long given up.  Their thinking progresses not in incremental steps, but look for solution in places that more conventional thinkers do not consider related to the problem at hand.

This calls for collaboration with professionals in many professional designs bringing together engineers, marketers, anthropologists, sociologists and professional design engineers to work on common problems.

While over the years various models of design thinking have been proposed, the core of design thinking is built on three processes. The process of inspiration starts by identifying what the problem is and where the opportunity for improvement lies.  It involves observing the world going about its business, what people want and need, why, how, where, when.  Design thinkers try and understand the constraints such as time, money and market size that affect the problem at hand, bringing in the perspectives of different disciplines.  This process tries to uncover the hidden assets that the business can bring to bear to solve problems; technology, expertise, intellectual property, assets and ideas.  Ideation is process through which options are put on the table, starting with brainstorming for ideas.  Creative frameworks allow for order to be created out of a chaotic environment applying the ideas of integrative thinking leading to quick prototypes that are tested, taking into account the observations of the world made during the inspiration phase.  Finally implementation is the execution of the strategy developed, with extensive communication both internally and externally.  Throughout the life of a design thinking process, one repeatedly goes through a process of building up options and making choices, a process described as alternating between divergent and convergent thinking.

The Hasso Plattner Institute, set up by Hasso Plattner, one of the founders of SAP, has spent a substantial amount of capital on research into design thinking working with Stanford University.  Why all the fuss? When I started talking to a professor in Information Systems I am working with on the idea of design thinking in the ICT industry, they immediately jumped to the defense of the ideas of systems analysis and design which have been around for while. Design thinking is different.  Design thinking is about involving the end user at every stage.  It goes beyond asking them what they want and observing how they actually behave. It goes beyond their wants and needs and looks at the bigger picture of the world.

Design thinking is not about building systems that we think users will want, but about building the systems with them.  Prototyping is central to design thinking. Users get to touch and feel what they are going to get while the astute designer observes not just their words but their reactions, their emotions, their body language and using this information to refine the design.  Design thinking lies at the heart of co-innovation, allowing the end product to be a product of not just the designer but a product of the designer and those for whom the product is designed for.

All that said, I think design thinking is still young, but it presents an exciting opportunity to change the way we deploy systems.  It allows us to get much greater acceptance for our systems.  It allows us to drive higher utilisation of the systems we deploy.  It allows us to design systems that address not just narrow requirements for the users, but the business and the community at large.  But it will take work.  It will take changing minds.  Gaining acceptance of those that for years have driven the ideas of “mass customisation”, “best practice”, et cetera, to accept the idea of the customer has an individual.

The challenge for researchers is to find out how this can be done.

One thought on “Design Thinking: A Human-centred Approach to Innovation

  1. NIgel Ganye

    Hi. I’m Nigel. I did my one year internship program at your organization. I was at Tripleplay. I am a design thinker. I love mathematics.” Design thinkers exhibit great optimism, allowing them to continue to look for solutions where others have long given up.”

    I stay in Kwekwe, the city of Gold. Growing up in such a town I came to know most of the basic processes done in the extraction of the precious mineral. Innovation and technology, I like them too. Design thinking allowed me to design a “wireless plant network” that is applicable in all process industries. For instance in Kwekwe there are many chemical gold processing plants.”It allows us to design systems that address not just narrow requirements for the users, but the business and the community at large”. The business and community at large. Think about monitoring poisonous gas emission to meet environmental compliance. Predictive maintenance of plant equipment. Real-time systems.
    I need help from the TTCS family.


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