Podcast: A Beginner’s Guide to Design Thinking

March 27, 2023

Design thinking is a frequently-used methodology among innovators, and the term has been in use at least since the 1990s, when it was popularized and codified by IDEO and Stanford University. But not everyone who shows up for a design thinking session — or even those who run one — have deep experience with the practice. To help get you up to speed, we created this “beginner’s guide” podcast.

In it, we ask some basic questions about what design thinking is, how non-experts can become more conversant, the challenges experts have seen when introducing it to others, and how it can help guide you along the path to viable solutions. We talk with Prapti Jha, a Strategist and Researcher at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Scott Wolfson, Senior Strategy Director at BCG BrightHouse; and Craig Damlo, Senior Manager of Advanced Development Programs at Blue Origin, to get the answers.

You can subscribe to our podcast, “Innovation Answered,” on Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Podcasts.

Tyler Smith:

Welcome! You’re listening to the Innovation Answered podcast. Innovation Answered is the podcast from InnoLead, the web’s most useful resource for corporate innovators. And if you haven’t yet subscribed to the podcast, we encourage you to do so, so you’ll catch all of our future episodes. 

I’m Tyler Smith, and I’ll be your host for this bonus episode called “A Beginner’s Guide to Design Thinking.” We’re diving in at the 101 level, without jargon or complexity, assuming that you may be new to the job of making innovation and change happen inside a big organization. We want to make things crystal clear so you can get down to business. For this episode, we wanted to understand what exactly is design thinking, and how change makers inside large companies are using the concept in 2023.

We’ll dive into four questions, with answers coming from three experts in the field. Those questions are: 

  • What is design thinking? 
  • How do you get started with the design thinking mindset? 
  • What mistakes do beginners make in the design thinking process? 
  • And what role does curiosity play in the process? 

The first person I spoke with was Prapti Jha, who currently works as a strategist and researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Before her time in Cambridge began, she had roles as a Senior Design Strategist at Cisco, and a Design Thinking Catalyst at the Ford Motor Company. Let’s hear how Prapti defines design thinking.

Prapti Jha:

My go-to definition for design thinking is that design thinking is a human-centered approach to creative problem framing and solving. And in this definition, there are two important things to pay attention to. 

One is, what do you mean when you say human-centered approach? And by human-centered approach, we mean designing for the people, with the people and with is important because when you think of with the people, you involve them in the process throughout.

And then at the second part, I mentioned [design thinking] is a creative problem framing and solving — a process for that. And it’s not just problem solving. So you solve a problem, but before that, you really have to frame it well. And design thinking as a process really helps you do that — to see the right problem, to frame it, and then solve it in a human-centered approach.

Tyler Smith:

The next person I spoke with was Scott Wolfson. Scott works as a thinker and senior strategy director at BCG BrightHouse. BCG BrightHouse is a global creative consultancy, and also one of InnoLead’s sponsors. Previously, Scott spent five years as the Director of Design Thinking at KPMG Ignition. Now that I know what design thinking is, I wanted to know how a beginner like myself could get started. Scott shared his approach.

Scott Wolfson:

Let me actually boil down the process to an even simpler three-stage methodology. Everybody needs to start a design thinking process by finding the right problem. So I think anybody who’s going to take any sort of design thinking approach to problem solving, decision-making, coming up with new ideas, really ought to focus upfront on finding the right problem to solve. And the best way that I found to do that is by asking better questions — typically, those open ended questions that will start with the ‘whys.’ Why do people do that? Why don’t people do that? Why do I feel this way? Why do others feel that way? Before exploring some of the ‘what ifs’ and then the ‘how might wes?’ 

Often, you will see iterations on similar themes. The methodology that we created at KPMG, which we call design thinking for business model innovation or design thinking for complex problem solving, followed five stages. You’re looking at signals to identify what could create possibilities. So the possibility space is large, but never infinite — even though sometimes it seems infinite. Possibilities can start to be called down to opportunities, and once you start to identify opportunities, you can also start to think about the potential impacts before, ultimately, you arrive at solutions. 

Those five phases that the KPMG design thinking methodology follows are signals, possibilities, opportunities, impact, and, ultimately, solutions. It sounds like a linear process. It’s not; it’s both a nonlinear process and one that much like most — if not all — design thinking methodologies, follows a flow of divergence and convergence.

Tyler Smith:

The final person I spoke with is Craig Damlo. Craig works as a senior manager at Blue Origin, which is a defense and space exploration company founded by Jeff Bezos. He also started his own innovation consultancy, Soapbox Rocket. We’ll hear from Craig in a minute. But first…

Kristen Krasinskas:

I’m Kristen Krasinskas from InnoLead, and I’d love to invite you to join our community of change-makers and innovators this October in Boston. That’s when we’re hosting Impact — October 25th through the 27th. It’s the only event designed exclusively for people working in big organizations, in roles like R&D, digital, innovation, and new product development. You’ll learn from peers at Johnson & Johnson, Goodyear, Cisco, Fidelity Investments, the Boston Celtics, and more. You can find out more about Impact 2023, or grab your early bird ticket, at

Tyler Smith:

And now, let’s return to A Beginner’s Guide to Design Thinking. Here’s Craig Damlo on the biggest mistakes he sees with the concept. 

Craig Damlo:

The biggest mistake is taking the process as a stiff set of instructions. 

People look at it and say, ‘Oh, no, we can’t build a prototype we haven’t done, you know enough ideation, or we can’t test this because we haven’t empathized it.’ And yes, there is a standard flow, but it needs to fit your situation. It’s not a stiff process. And remember, it’s iterative, you’re going to go back and you’re going to do all the steps multiple times. So if one is shortened or you miss something, don’t worry, you’ll catch it the next time around. 

So remember, as you apply design thinking to your customers, or your stakeholders, that the people doing the work with you are also stakeholders. So think about where they’re at, what they’re feeling, and roll that into it. 

The biggest challenge is that perfect is the enemy of complete, or however you want to state that. I think that’s the biggest challenge, is people start getting in their heads with, ‘We don’t have enough ideas yet,’ or ‘We haven’t found the perfect idea yet.’ And then, same step comes when you start prototyping is, ‘I don’t want to test this; it doesn’t look good yet. If we just spend a little more time correcting this, or we spend just a little more time getting a 3D print.’ 

It’s always, ‘If we just spend a little more time.’ The biggest hurdle you’ve got to do is get to the next step. Again, iterative — remember, you can go back and try another prototype; you can come up with more ideas. But the more information you get from your users and your stakeholders, the better your final result will be.

Tyler Smith:

So Craig believes that design thinking is a process that can’t be put in a box, and that it’s not going to be the same for each person or each problem. Prapti Jha has a different take on the three mistakes she sees most often. Let’s hear what she has to say about ditching your old ways and avoiding biases when it comes to design thinking. 

Prapti Jha:

What I’ve seen in my experience is, when people say they are using design thinking methodology, or they want to, y from heart, but they fall into the trap of using their own methods that they have been using before, and then trying to just put it in the framework. 

Let’s say, for example, if there is an explorer, or research prototype, some kind of framework. They might use a very different method, but they would put that into that structure to seem like they have done design thinking. So that’s a common trap, and it’s understandable because you feel uncomfortable when you start a new process. So that is something that’s very commonly seen when the team doesn’t have the right kind of support or expert support to help them throughout the process in their initial projects. 

The second is that you are not biased. The research that you do, you’re not putting in your own ideas or asking leading questions when you’re asking people and doing research. So sometimes, even if you follow the whole design thinking process, but if you’re biased, or you have certain kinds of solutions in mind, and you’re trying to push for that, unintentionally, that might lead to the process not being successful. And you went through the whole process, but came to the same output. So like how can we be more unbiased when we’re doing the research and the prototype and the feedback that we’re getting. 

And the third is just getting hung up with trying to learn as many frameworks as possible, because design thinking has hundreds or I don’t know, five hundreds, I don’t even know the counting. And there is always something new that comes up. So it’s more about understanding the core. And then I also encourage people to create their own methods or frameworks or tweak it based on their needs, as they start doing it even more.

Tyler Smith:

Prapti knows that design thinking isn’t a process that you can bring your old ways of thinking and doing into. And I also think it’s particularly important to avoid biases, especially when working with stakeholders. Stakeholders don’t always have the best idea of what they really want. And they almost always aren’t fellow design thinkers. Craig Damlo has some thoughts and an analogy on this topic of thinking about stakeholders when it comes to design thinking.

Craig Damlo:

A lot of times, we think the person buying the product — or even more to the point, the person using the product — a lot of times we think is our stakeholder, and we forget that they don’t always make buying decisions. And so you do need to ensure that you have all the stakeholders first. But then, they don’t always know. And I’m always reminded of a quote, and I think it’s a horrible quote we use in design thinking, but we do. And as Ford said, ‘If I had asked my customers, they would have told me a faster horse.’

And that’s not actually the case. They may have told him that, but what they really would have told him if he had a conversation was, ‘Well, I need to be able to move more product. I’ve got a bigger family, and I need to be able to move them,’ or, ‘The horse just eats too much, and I need to figure out a way to reduce my costs.’ The car addresses all of those use cases, but they may have actually told him, ‘Yeah, I need a faster horse.’ But if he had asked, ‘Why do you need a faster horse?’ they’ll say, ‘Well, to ship all my product, I’ve got to make four trips. And if my horse was a little faster, that would speed that up.’ It’s like, okay, so you actually don’t need a faster horse, you need a way to move more product from point A to point B.

Tyler Smith:

Here’s Scott Wolfson on a specific case study, and the role that curiosity and using the five whys approach played.

Scott Wolfson:

I’ll go with a deceptively simple one, and that was working with a global life insurance company, helping them use design thinking to imagine the possibilities for a customer-facing app, as well as an insurance agent-facing web portal. So it was a rapid sprint to generate two minimum viable prototypes, proof of concept kind of prototypes. 

We followed our design thinking methodology. And I think, the critical role that curiosity played, especially up front, our question was, why do or don’t folks in Mexico buy or have life insurance? 

We always use the ‘five whys’ to get down to root cause at first principles. But we really challenged ourselves to try to understand what does insurance mean to the Mexican consumer? 

And it was that true curiosity, that beginner’s mindset that led us to, again, a deceptively simple couple of concepts that were confianza and tranquilidad. So two Spanish words that loosely translate to confidence and tranquility. 

But again, it was something that this insurance company, at least in Mexico, it was a line of questioning that they had not previously really gone down to get to those deep, underlying motivations for Mexican consumers. So that dual concept of, ‘Hey, this is what really matters to Mexican consumers when it comes to life insurance.’ It was that initial, sincere curiosity that got us to two concepts that really became the North Star for all of the decisions that we made. 

As any good North Star or sense of purpose will give you when testing hypotheses and trying to generate a prototype like we were, that first gating question all along the way was, ‘Will this feature? Will this function? Will this button on a screen? How might it convey a sense of confianza and tranquilidad for the consumers, for the agents as well? And so I think it was that curiosity that led us to the true drivers of behavior — those deep underlying motivations of consumers, that again, made the rest of the process much more efficient, and much more effective.

Tyler Smith:

I learned a lot from these conversations on design thinking. If you want to learn more, visit, and check out the topic pages that focus on ideation and innovation methodologies. 

Thanks to my colleagues, Meghan Hall and Scott Kirsner, for their help on this episode, and to our interviewees, Prapti Jha, Craig Damlo, and Scott Wolfson. If you’re interested in hearing more Beginner’s Guide episodes on topics like AI and innovation spaces, check out the rest of our feed. And don’t forget to subscribe to the Innovation Answered podcast on your platform of choice. This is Tyler Smith. Thanks for listening.