Every few years, some trailblazing designer or well-known agency develops a new design method. Names are made. Books are sold. Lines are drawn.
Within the UX community, we love to debate the merits of one method over another. We form rivalries and champion our views. It’s Human Centered Design vs Lean UX vs Design Sprints vs the latest approach trending online.
Despite our differences, our adoption of design methods expresses a common desire. We aspire to bring order to the chaos of creation. Without methods, we’re susceptible to the unpredictability of design.
Deadlines change. Ideas fail. Feedback isn’t what we expect, and we lose our bearings. But if we have a logical way to investigate problems and test solutions, we can maintain focus no matter what obstacles lie in our path.
As UX designers, we seek to understand what people need, how they think, and why they act the way they do. Our efforts must move us closer to the chief aim of UX design–creating delightful user experiences. Whatever design method we prefer, people are the focus.
Such is the case with Design Thinking.
The Origins of Design Thinking
In 1969, Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon sowed the seeds of Design Thinking in the pages of a book titled Sciences of the Artificial. Simon defined design as the “transformation of existing conditions into preferred ones” and stated that “design thinking is always linked to an improved future.”
In the 1980s, academics like Nigel Cross and Bryan Lawson identified a “designerly” approach to problem solving. According to Cross, design is the process of producing “a large range of satisfactory solutions rather than attempting to generate the one hypothetically-optimum solution.” Within the same decade, Peter Rowe, former director of urban design at Harvard, reflected on the “situational logic and decision making process of designers” in his book Design Thinking.
At the start of the ’90s, the trajectory of Design Thinking shifted from theoretical to commercial. “How do designers think,” became, “How to think like a designer.” Led by IDEO, Design Thinking was marketed as an innovative approach to overcoming complex, organizational challenges.
From the ’90s onward, Design Thinking experienced a steady rise in popularity as its influence bypassed the borders of design and sparked change in industries ranging from finance to information technology.
Design Thinking Explained
Design Thinking is not a designer-only endeavor. It’s a method in which various stakeholders and users are collaborative partners, even co-designers. There are five steps to Design Thinking:
Countless tools and strategies may be employed throughout the Design Thinking process, and the steps are not strictly sequential. They are flexible, repeatable, and cyclical. Empathy is the north star by which all efforts are oriented.
What’s it like to walk in the user’s shoes? In order to uncover the right problems, Design Thinking practitioners need to identify with the people they’re trying to help. UX designers will find that a number of familiar exercises are possible at this stage:
Observe how users interact with products and navigate experiences in their natural environments.
Create composites of semi-fictional users in order to synthesize the findings of user research (like field studies).
User Experience Maps
Visualize the average user’s end-to-end journey through an experience and outline the goals that are accomplished at each step.
Understanding users isn’t a one-time occurrence. It’s an ongoing concern that influences decisions large and small throughout the Design Thinking process.
After empathizing, Design Thinking practitioners must clearly define the problems users are facing. This process involves mapping potential roadblocks, interpreting user research, and planning logistical details.
Problem statements ought to be specific and user-centric. Design Thinking is derailed when business goals overshadow user needs in problem statements.
With problems defined, Design Thinking transitions to ideation. There are numerous exercises: brainstorming, word banking, mind mapping, and more. The goal is thoughts made visual, quickly. Rudimentary tools like post-its and pens will suffice. And remember, ideation and refinement can’t occur simultaneously.
Prototypes are an excellent way to build on the efforts of ideation, but they don’t need to be fancy. They can be comprised of sketches, interactive wireframes, or paper models. Prototypes help designers gauge feasibility as early as possible, without squandering manpower or money.
Of course, many of today’s collaborative design programs come with advanced prototyping capabilities, including animation. However, they can also cause designers to waste time refining concepts that will never make it to market.
In the final stage of Design Thinking, users are invited to participate in moderated testing. During this time, a facilitator presides over the test, and users speak out loud while interacting with a product. With feedback in hand, the design team decides which issues to address, and improvements are made.
Testing is a reality check for many designers. Frustrating UX issues are brought to light, and everyone is forced to question how much feedback to incorporate while simultaneously guarding against feature creep.
UX and Design Thinking Go Hand in Hand
Design is frequently confused for the artifacts it yields. Design equals a website, a sofa, or a smartphone. The equation is faulty. Design is not an artifact. It’s a systematic approach to solving problems.
Design Thinking is one way to solve problems. It’s an iterative process where ideas breathe life based on the needs, thoughts, and behaviors of real users. If there’s no collaboration between designers and users, it’s not Design Thinking.
The overabundance of design methods is an asset. No approach works for every designer, team, or company. No process uncovers the needs of all users. Design thinking is a method, not magic, but its user-centricity makes for a natural pairing with UX design.
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Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:
Understanding the basics
UX and Design Thinking are both user-centric approaches to design, and both are aimed at creating delightful experiences. Design Thinking is especially useful when addressing “Wicked Problems” or thorny design issues that don’t comply with traditional notions of right and wrong.
The intent of Design Thinking and UX are quite similar: Prioritize the needs of users in order to create delightful user experiences and products. Design Thinking may be applied to a range of industries, from education to information technology, but the aim is always the same: user-centricity.
Design Thinking, much like the user experience design process, helps designers identify the most pressing needs of users. It also provides a flexible system in which to address complicated design issues from multiple angles, while simultaneously fostering collaboration between multiple disciplines.
Much like UX design methodology, Design Thinking is a process in which the needs of users are tantamount at every step. Additionally, users are actually invited to participate in Design Thinking, thereby acting as co-designers. If users aren’t involved, it’s not Design Thinking.
Some aspects of user experience methodology may appear difficult, but they can be approached systematically. For instance, UX designers can use Design Thinking, a process with five clearly defined steps: 1) Empathize; 2) Define; 3) Ideate; 4) Prototype; 5) Test