What is Design Thinking? Why is it so Popular?

April 29, 2019 ProgressionHR

The problem with ingrained patterns of thinking

As humans, we naturally develop patterns of thinking based on repetitive tasks and commonly assessed knowledge. This is useful because it allows us to quickly apply the same actions or learned responses to the same or similar situations or problems.

What are schemas?

These patterns of thinking are often called schemas. A schema is a cognitive framework or concept that helps us organise and interpret information. They can be useful because they let us take shortcuts when interpreting the massive amount of information in our environment. For example, we have schema for horses. We know they are large, have four legs, hair and a tail. When environmental stimuli (i.e. a horse in a paddock) match this schema, this pattern of thought is brought to mind and we know we are looking at a horse.

The trouble with schemas

But schema can also be troublesome. Because they are generated automatically, we make assumptions (using the horse schema, we assume it’s a horse, but it could be a donkey). Schemas can prevent us from seeing a situation or problem in a new way that would allow us to develop a new problem-solving strategy. In life – and in our work – this can cause us to blindly try to solve problems without questioning or further study.

Using Design Thinking

When we use a Design Thinking approach, we seek to challenge assumptions and redefine problems in an attempt to find or develop alternative solutions or strategies that may not be obvious with our initial understanding. For this reason, Design Thinking is often referred to as ‘outside the box’ thinking.

Some of the world’s most famous companies, such as Apple, Starbucks, Google and Nike have adopted a Design Thinking approach as a way to develop new products, services or customer experiences, often leading them to outperform their competition. Design Thinking is also taught at top universities around the world.

A creative, solutions-based approach

Design Thinking is a creative, solutions-based approach to problem-solving. It is an extremely useful approach for new or complex problems where traditional methodologies fall short. It is a prototype-based approach to innovation and is focused on the needs of the ‘user’, with the aim of providing value to all users. That is, it is based on providing solutions for the people involved.

Design Thinking and HR

Traditionally, Design Thinking has been applied to innovation and the development of new products or services. But when we consider it involves developing a deep understanding of the ‘user’ and the creation of solutions to fit their needs, we can see that Design Thinking can also be applied to all areas of business, including HR. This is why Design Thinking is spreading right through organisations and across departments.

It can be applied to the design of organisational processes, planning, the creation of teams, or in training. It can be used in the development of employees, management, or even in the initial attraction of potential employees or retention of existing ones, by understanding what these ‘users’ want.

Five-phase Design Thinking process

While there are many variations of the Design Thinking process, and they all have three to seven phases or stages, we’ll look at the five-phase model, which is as follows:

Empathise – with your users

Think deeply about those who will be impacted by a new solution or process. Spend time with them to understand their challenges and motivations. This can help the designer get past their own assumptions and gain insight into the users and their needs.

Define – the user’s needs, their problem and your insights

Assess information to define core problems. A key aspect of Design Thinking is to make ‘humans’ central to the problem you are trying to solve. Rather than look at a problem as a target metric (e.g. 15% reduction in payroll enquiries) see it in ‘user’ terms (e.g. a payroll system that’s easier for employees to use and understand).

Ideate – by challenging assumptions and creating ideas for innovative solution

Start generating ideas and approaches with the user in mind. This is when designers are encouraged to find different ways of looking at a problem and ‘think outside the box’. All ideas should be considered, and you want as many ideas on the board as possible.

Prototype – to start creating solutions

Produce solutions you can experiment with on a small scale or on a pilot scheme. If it’s a product, produce different versions to evaluate for effectiveness in problem-solving. If it’s a service or process, trial it with a small group of users (but enough users to get a valid result). At the end of this phase, designers will have a better understanding of how different solutions will impact users.

Test – solutions

Thoroughly test the complete solution, product or service using the best options from the prototype phase. Will it perform in the ‘real world’? The Test phase is the final phase in the Design Thinking model. However, results can be fed back into the Ideate Phase if more solutions are needed.

Be it a product, a service or an HR initiative, the best result from the test phase is getting acceptance and validation from the end users.

Solutions tailored to employee needs

While Design Thinking is not new, and has been used by designers, engineers and even marketers for decades, it has not always been applied to the problems and challenges HR professionals face. Used in this way, Design Thinking enables organisations to think beyond a traditional process-model and aim for a people-oriented model to develop solutions tailored to the needs of employees.

The Truck and the Boy: The Predisposed V The Fresh Mind

Thinking outside the box can provide a creative solution to a sticky problem. But it can be a real challenge, as we naturally develop patterns of thinking that are modelled on the repetitive activities and commonly accessed knowledge (e.g. schemas).

Once upon a time, an incident occurred where a truck driver tried to drive under a low bridge. The truck was too tall, and it became wedged firmly under the bridge. The driver couldn’t drive through or reverse out.

This caused a huge traffic jam. Perplexed emergency personnel, firefighters, engineers and truck drivers stood around discussing various solutions for dislodging the trapped truck.

They debated we whether they should remove parts of the truck or chisel away parts of the bridge. Each put forward a solution that fitted within his or her respective level of expertise.

A boy walking by watched the passionate debate, looked at the truck, looked at the bridge then looked at the road and said nonchalantly, to the astonishment of the experts trying to solve the problem, “Why not just let the air out of the tires?”

When the boy’s solution was tested, the truck was able to drive free with ease, having suffered only the damage caused by its attempt to pass underneath the bridge. The moral of the story is that in the struggles we face, often the most obvious solutions are the ones that are hardest to come by because of the self-imposed constraints we work within. Design Thinking can help overcome this.

Boy with head stuck in railing finds an initially unobvious solution:


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