Design thinking is a problem-solving approach with a unique set of qualities: it is human centered, possibility driven, option focused, and iterative. Human centered is always where design starts—with real people, not demographic segments. Design thinking emphasizes the importance of deep exploration into the lives and problems of people whose lives we want to improve before the generation of solutions. It uses market research methodologies that are qualitative and empathetic. It is enthusiastic about the potential to reframe our definition of the problem and to engage stakeholders in co-creation. Design thinking is also possibility driven. It asks the question, “What if anything were possible?” as idea creation begins. It focuses on generating multiple options and avoids putting all eggs in one particular solution basket. Because innovators are guessing stakeholders’ needs and wants, despite their research, design thinking also expects their solutions to be unworkable sometimes. So it puts multiple irons in the fire and lets stakeholders decide which works for them, always managing a portfolio of new ideas. Finally, the process is iterative. It conducts cycles of real-world experiments to refine ideas, rather than running analyses using historical data. Design thinking doesn’t expect to get it right the first time—it expects to iterate its way to success.


Five Core Elements of Design Thinking and their Impacts
Our research into design thinking across multiple organizations employing an array of models suggests five elements integral to design thinking in action. Fundamental to all design thinking approaches is the aim to develop a deepened understanding of stakeholders’ contexts, particularly those of the user or citizen for which any service is being designed. This emphasis on decision-makers experiencing a profound and personal, almost sensory, immersion into the subjective realities of individual stakeholders may be the key differentiator between design thinking and other approaches like The Lean Startup. By focusing on developing empathy for stakeholders through the use of ethnographic tools, design thinking teams reframe problem definitions and generate possible solutions based on derived insights into customers’ actual behavior; not what they say they will do, what they actually do. Those tools include ethnographic observation and interviewing, journey mapping, analysis of user “jobs (both practical and psychological) to be done” and the creation of personas that illustrate different categories of users and their needs.

Rather than relying solely on quantitative data, such as surveys and market analyses, human-centered design involves being deeply interested in the details of human lives and, therefore, innovation team members seek first-hand and empathetic connections. Often, this involves using co-creation approaches that invite these stakeholders into the conversation itself. In other instances, stakeholder perspectives are introduced by members of innovation teams who rely on ethnographic research. Ideally, this pursuit of deeper insights into unmet, and often unarticulated, needs precedes the search for solutions. In fact, much of DESIGN THINKING’s unique value derives from holding solution-oriented decision-makers in the problem space long enough to reframe their challenge definition in ways that generate the possibility of more creative solutions through more profound understandings of human, primarily user, behaviors.

The development of a deep empathic consideration of stakeholders impacts the innovation process in multiple ways: by providing user-driven criteria for ideation and encouraging reframing of the problem to improve solution quality; by helping align team members’ perspectives; and by building emotional engagement throughout an organization which increases the likelihood of successful implementation. Finally, this empathic base also enhances teams’ abilities to alter course and pivot with agility because of its focus on understanding user needs rather than designing particular products, allowing the design criteria created to be deployed across a variety of products as needs and technologies change.

Learn about Element Two: Formation of Diverse Teams