Design Thinking: How to Tackle Challenges Like a Designer

In 1958, 4 months after Sputnik launched and President Eisenhower created NASA, a Stanford engineering professor named John Arnold proposed that design engineering should be human-centered.

Inspired by Arnold’s work, engineering professor Bob McKim, with the help of art professor Matt Kahn, created an engineering program called Product Design. Within this program, McKim and others helped create a design thinking process that became the foundation for Stanford’s, as well as the guiding framework for design-driven companies like IDEO.

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.

Tim Brown, President and CEO of IDEO

Due to the remarkable success of design-led companies such as Apple, Coca-Cola, IBM, Nike, Procter & Gamble, etc. design has evolved beyond building products. Large and small teams now want to learn how to think like designers, apply design principles to their work challenges. Design Thinking is both a mindset and a methodology, including different stages, created specifically to create products as well as solve complex problems and build strategy development.



Why You Need Design Thinking ?

  • It brings everyone into the process, not just the designers.
  • It guides to the right solutions thanks to a user-centered perspectives.
  • It allows thinkers to create for the users in a way that also meets business needs.
  • It helps jump-start the solution process no matter the challenge’s nature or difficulty.
  • It helps organizations to move faster, and without wasting money and energy thanks to an iterative system.

While Design Thinking is a mindset before anything else, it follows a toolkit to ensure the proper process is being applied to solve any kind of design challenge. It involves massive collaboration and frequent iterations. It has five very clear phases: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test.designthinking_illustration_final2-02


A team from Stanford’s set out to solving the problem of infant mortality due to hypothermia as a project for the Design for Extreme Affordability class. Naturally, redesigning existing hospital incubators seems to be an obvious and simple solution.

The design team needed to see the problem from the perspective of hospital staff, doctors, and most importantly, parents of the child in danger.What they learned, after many interviews and observations, is that many homes where these babies were born were many miles away on harsh rural roads. When in danger, the new-born never made it to a hospital in the first place. The problem was therefore redirected to the incubator’s portability rather than just their quality. And Embrace was born: a portable incubator.

Who are your users? what do they need?

Empathy sits at the heart of design. Trying to design a solution is a waste of time and a pointless task if you don’t understand first the ‘who’ and the ‘why’. To see clearly from different user perspectives you can use research and interviews. Knowing your users is one essential step, because only then you can understand their needs, and consequently, identify and define the right solutions to the right problems.

Further reading: Interviews aren’t the only way to gain empathy.


During the Empathize phase, you collected information and insights from your users. This Define phase will give you an opportunity to define, or re-define, the problem or challenge by synthesizing these findings. A point of view (PoV) formula: PoV = persona + need + insight can help you re-frame the problem and open new and innovative solution possibilities.

Further reading: How Reframing A Problem Unlocks Innovation
Book: Reframe: Shift the Way You Work, Innovate, and Think by Mona Patel.


To ideate is to brainstorm, to bring all the ideas on the table and leave judgement behind: Crazy is welcomed! The term “brainstorm” was popularized by the ad agency executive Alex Osborn in his 1953 book Applied Imagination. Osborn claimed that by organizing a group to tackle a creative problem, innovative results could be doubled.

Osborn created 2 main rules for a successful brainstorm:

  1. Defer judgement: step beyond obvious solutions and find new areas to explore.
  2. Reach for quantity: encourage the minds to wander around which boost their overall creative output.

The value of ideation is not only the ideas generated but it is also the the shared perspectives in a group. The team members understand each others points of view and most importantly are on the same page when it comes to finding a solution.

I like to use the 3 funnels method during the ideation phase in order to keep all the project assets on sight without focusing too much on one and forgetting about the other:


After the brainstorming, comes a rather convergent phase where the team needs to narrow down the ideas. A good technique is voting using post-its: each team member gets a set of post-its and individually each member ranks the ideas. After this process is complete, it’s easy to democratically select the top solutions. By the end of this phase you should end up with a few selected ideas to prototype.

Further reading: How IBM Brings Ideas Forward From Its Teams.
Book: How to Fly a Horse by Kevin Ashton.


When prototyping you are making a representation of a solution, the main goal with this is not making them functional, but that users can interact with them, and provide you with more information about possible issues and relevant points about the product your team is building.

“A prototype is worth a thousand meetings”is a saying at IDEO. 

Like I’ve already mentioned in a previous article 50 Shades of Wireframes, there are 3 types of prototypes: Low, Medium and High fidelity ones. Low-fidelity prototypes are merely sketches and wireframes, they come into play in the early stages of the product development. Medium-fidelity prototypes are the mockups used in a more advanced stage of the product life-cycle with the intention to test. High-fidelity prototypes include interactive assets and the final looks and feels of the product, they help improve interaction and specific UI issues. All these prototypes main goal is to provide a testing platform.

Book: The Lean Product Playbook by Dan Olsen.


When prototypes are ready, test them with real people. Let your users play freely with the product and just watch and listen, “fly on the wall” style. Testing is what makes your flow being in continuous improvement, it might seem like a waste of time but it really is nothing but the opposite. Failing fast to learn fast is what makes great companies great. The results you obtain from testing could validate your solution and take you to the next stage, or making you go back to research and iterate again.

Analytics can also help, they validate different perspectives and approaches. Adobe XD has a very talented group doing analytics, but instead of just collecting numbers, they always start with a question, for example: “Are people succeeding in Design Mode? Success being, for instance, customers using the repeat grid tool with images dragged from Finder.” After looking at the numbers, if users are not successful, they make changes to the on-boarding process, or to the tool itself, and test again.

To stay in the loop, when testing is complete go back to one of the previous phases and keep iterating, one phase at a time. If you’re all done then next final step…


Not too much to say here! You and your team are ready to implement the best solution/s. If you want to learn more, Stanford’s d.School offers a very interesting Design Thinking Crash Course that I totally recommend.

Just keep listening, thinking, creating, testing, validating, and doing it all over again and you will most certainly build a solution the users will love. Also, don’t be afraid to take that extra step that makes a better Samurai! design thinking is NOT a process. So, don’t take it literally and follow your instincts. 



“Engineering, medicine, business, architecture, and painting are concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent—not how things are but how they might be—in short, with design…Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”
—Herbert Alexander Simon, Nobel Prize laureate (1969)

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