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Design Thinking

Design Thinking – A simple primer

This term is becoming popular these days. When I first heard it sometime earlier I was confused. I thought – ‘does it mean I should rethink the way I approach design in general OR should I redesign the way I think?’ I reasoned out that it is a combination of both.

Design Thinking has its roots pre-1960 where people from various walks of life theorised on the better ways to approach designing products. As thoughts evolved and slowly attained some maturity, in 2005, Stanford University’s d.school offered to teach engineering students design thinking as a formal method.

The design thinking process consists of five steps. The steps are:


  1. Empathise
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

1. Empathise

What does this word mean to you? A recent advertisement says it all. Remember this? A father empathises with his son on an haircut gone bad!Empathy

Seek to understand, putting self in others shoes, are some phrases that would come to your mind. But empathize here has a deeper meaning. It is the ability to feel other’s experience be it their pain, inability or feeling their hopelessness. How else would one be able to design prosthetics for those who need it? Empaths are those who are believed to have the ability to absorb pain from those suffering from it. It is that ability that this step requires.

This is often achieved through

  • Observation – see how it is done now, see the problem being faced.
  • Experience – Try tying your shoe laces with one hand, try being homeless for a night, try sitting in a classroom for eight hours.
  • Ask – Try talking to the people using wheelchairs, try talking to the traffic police.

Do this and you will perhaps be able to design a better way to tie shoelaces, design a better classroom chair or design an efficient wheelchair.

2. Define

After having empathised, it is but natural to give the understanding a shape. A direction of how to proceed would be useful. This however may not prove easy. There is an implicit iteration that forces the practitioner of design thinking to go back to step 1. It is either due to inability to define what is needed to solve the problem or lack of understanding carrying on from step 1.

Plain-PathAt this stage – in my mind at least – it is very much akin to ants trying to forage for some good food and arriving at the optimum path to the food.

Sometimes a solution may be a simple articulation of known tasks. Usually they are not. It is important here to identify the key need. What is needed is not only a good prosthetic but something that can be easily managed by the person using the same. It needs to be light, easy to lift, wear it and dismantle it as well. It should be easy to adjust, clean and repair if necessary. Identifying the specific user needs becomes important here.

3. Ideate

Having arrived at the definition of the product or the solution, it is then necessary to actually realise it. This is the step where that is achieved. The specific user needs identified in the earlier steps get transformed in to questions such as = “How might we make the prosthetic light?” or “How might we enable easy dismantling?”

IDEATEThis HMV questions as they often referred to lead into independent ideation processes. A regular ideation process, with quick-fire ideation using simple day to day objects to give shape to the idea is the end objective.

The resources required here would usually be lots of post-it notes, large space to paste them – a wall or a table, pencils & markers. Many brainstorming techniques can be used here to carry out the ideation session.

4. Prototype

protoAfter the ideation step it is necessary to create a prototype that demonstrates the basic idea and enable the end user to appreciate the same and offer suggestions. The step requires one to prototype just to demonstrate one piece of the result of the HMV. Simple tools can be used to demonstrate the prototype. Clips, pins, rubber bands, paper cups, wooden blocks, pencils, staple pins, balloons toothpaste caps, Styrofoam can be used to create a prototype. An often quoted example is the prototype created for a possible device to ease nasal surgeries for the surgeons A designer reportedly quickly put together a basic approach using a marker, a cup, a clothes peg and some sticky tape to demonstrate a possible idea that gave the necessary impetus to the whole process. In practice this step will iterate with the previous step.

5. Test

pointlessThe prototype process is iterative and the users are involved in the testing of the prototype. This step is important as there is a very high need to manage expectations at all levels. The most important thing is let the user use the prototype without intervention and observe – by being there and yet not being there. Often a camera is used to observe, record and replay to clearly understand the process of use and hence the difficulties and the issues with the prototype and  therefore paving the way for a better design.
This approach could be used to not only design a new product, but also to solve a social problem, to arrive at an algorithm, or even to plan a new party. To many this would seem obvious after reading and I will probably retort with this famous Sherlockian quote – “Because in five minutes you will say that it is all so absurdly simple.” Refer The Adventure of the Dancing Men.

Further Reading : Change by Design by Tim Brown : Here is the amazon.in link




  1. Pingback: E ≠ SY — Empathize | A Ra News - August 11, 2015

  2. Pingback: Derive the Point of View | A Ra News - October 2, 2016

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