There are a number of variants of Design Thinking, but it is usually described as a series of iterative steps. The exact number of steps is up for debate, but here I’m going to look at the five-step version we use at Tantamount: empathise; define; ideate; prototype; test.
Before exploring each of these steps and looking at how they apply to our approach, I’ll just note that one drawback to a stepped approach is that there’s a tendency to assume each one follows sequentially, building to a conclusion. Remember that this isn’t the case with Design Thinking: it’s an iterative process and at any point in the process we can – and do – question what we have learned and where we are, and then jump to a different point in the process if appropriate.
When faced with a problem that needs solving, the obvious first step is to try to understand it. But to do that, it’s important to recognise that any problem exists within a context, and that context informs both the problem and the solution. If a client comes to us and asks us for a new brand identity, for example, there are a lot of elements to consider and it’s far more complicated than “client – brand – let’s get started”.
It isn’t even enough to have a good understanding of the client: we need to understand where they sit in their sector, who their competitors are, who their clients are, what makes our client unique, what pain they solve for their customers, and what pain they are trying to solve themselves with the proposed project.
So the empathise stage of the process is about understanding the client and the context of the problem.
Anyone who’s read Douglas Adams knows that an ill-defined question (life, the universe and everything) can result in an unusable answer (42). So it’s not surprising that “define” is an essential stage of the Design Thinking process.
In this stage, we’re getting our ducks lined up, ready for later. We look closely at what the client’s needs are; we identify what is being asked and who is doing the asking; we look at the peripheral factors we have identified and we assess the knowledge, tools and resources we have at our disposal.
An ill-defined question can result in an unusable answer.
At the define stage, we scope out the project and all that we know about it.
Previously, I’ve talked about patterns and the danger of coming up with knee-jerk solutions based on prior experience. The ideate stage of Design Thinking encourages us to question what we know and it can help if there are people from different disciplines involved. We question and challenge the problem itself, our assumptions and those of our client, and we reframe things in a human-centric way.
This is a fun, creative stage where we brainstorm all around the topic and beyond, throwing out ideas of all sorts. No idea is too silly to be put on the table as you never know where the chain of thought will lead, so we try and overcome the everyday self-censorship that often comes from fear of being laughed at.
The ideation stage is all about creativity and ideas that can lead to innovative solutions.
Design thinking focuses on planning and thinking before actually doing
Up till this stage, we've done a lot of planning, researching and thinking. Now, we’re at the stage of execution and implementation, where we choose one of the ideas and work towards a prototype. This is a minimum viable product (MVP) rather than a finished design: it has enough detail to allow us to move forward to the testing stage, but isn’t complete or polished.
The prototype might not bear much similarity to the final form of the solution, even if this is already known: for a website, for example, there doesn’t need to be any programming behind the prototype interface. In fact it’s possible to have designs sketched on paper, just showing the available buttons on each screen, for example, to see how the user will interact with the information in its simplest state.
At the initial prototype stage, then, we implement very simple first designs that emerge from the ideation stage, in order to validate them and confirm whether we are moving in the right direction. After testing, and looping back through to any other stages if appropriate, the prototype is gradually refined and improved, step by step.
The testing stage is where we test and review the prototype, questioning how it’s received, whether it stands up against the problem we defined earlier on, and how it can be improved. Here, we’re checking whether we have made an appropriate choice of idea and whether it’s worth continuing to refine the design further or whether we should circle back to an earlier stage.
It’s clear that Design Thinking fits in well with the Fail Fast philosophy of the Lean Startup methodology: it allows prototype solutions to be produced quickly and tested without the expense of developing full-blown systems.
One of the fundamental premises of Design Thinking is that the process is non-linear and non-hierarchical: at any one of the steps, we can jump to any other. It’s all about questioning and challenging assumptions and checking whether the results stand up. Its multidisciplinary involvement and focus on planning and thinking before actually doing can result in great cost savings in a wide range of business settings.
The questioning approach continues beyond project completion
Although the five stages – empathise; define; ideate; prototype; test – are a fairly standard explanation of Design Thinking, there is a sixth step – review – that continues the questioning and consultation beyond project completion. When we reach the end of a project and have produced a suitable solution, we continue to ask questions: we review what we learned during the process, how the new solution informs our understanding of the problem and how we can add our learning to our arsenal of tools for the future.
For us, not only is the process non-sequential, it’s also fundamentally participative: we don’t speak to the client just once and then go away and work in isolation. Instead, we loop round again and again, talking to the client, checking that we are still heading in the right direction and that our assumptions and understanding remain valid. Using Design Thinking in the Tantamount studio allows us to build close collaborative relationships with our clients and develop solutions that work for them and for their stakeholders.
At Tantamount, we specialise in words and design and in making sure they work together to communicate brand messages effectively and appropriately. If you need help finding the right words and getting the tone right, why not mail us on firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a call on 0798 661 3437 and let’s have a chat?