Design thinking is a methodology that many people believe they understand. But how many can clearly define it? And how many can honestly say they work for an organization that practices it regularly?
Harsh Wardhan and Prapti Jha believe in design thinking as a way to effectively design new products and services that fit people’s wants and needs, serve a real purpose, or solve a sigificant problem. But, they caution, it requires the right support to truly deliver value in a large organization. And it can’t be treated as a passing fad or novelty.
Wardhan is an Innovation Program Lead at Google Cloud Solution Studio, and Jha is a Design Strategist and Researcher at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The two worked together at Ford Motor Co. and eventually co-founded We Speak Innovation, which enables them to speak to other corporate leaders and students about design thinking’s value in innovation.
In a recent interview, Jha and Wardhan defined and explained design thinking, discussed its merits, and addressed the challenges organizations face when integrating it. The duo will be speakers at this fall’s Impact Silicon Valley conference.
The Basic Principle of Design Thinking
Jha said she simply defines design thinking as, “designing for the people, with the people.”
With concepts that aren’t yet universally understood, she said, having a simple definition is a good starting point.
Really good innovation happens at the center of the Venn diagram of desirability, viability, feasibility — that’s what I call the pinnacle of innovation.
So, what does “designing for the people, with the people” mean, exactly?
“‘For the people’ means you can never lose sight of who you are designing for. … Do your customers and people want [what you are designing],” she said. “The ‘with’ means that when you’re designing, early on in the process, you have to talk to the customers. … Bring them in early in the process to learn from them, to understand what they value. If you create something very early, test it with them — do not wait until the end when you have a million-dollar prototype. … Keep learning with them — doing co-design sessions, participatory sessions. These help you save a lot of money at the end of the day.”
When designing, many innovators start with a focus on viability, feasibility, or desirability. When practicing design thinking, innovators begin with desirability, which helps them to determine what their end users need and want.
Wardhan said he believes innovators should try to find synergy between the three aspects of a solution, but that desirability makes the most sense to begin with.
“Really good innovation happens at the center of the Venn diagram of desirability, viability, feasibility — that’s what I call the pinnacle of innovation. If you are able to perfectly balance those three, the product, the service, or whatever you’re trying to build is going to really land,” he said.
Beginning with desirability can help mitigate problems before they arise — by starting there, organizations can navigate around internal politics and powerful opinions that can sometimes steer projects off course, Wardhan and Jha said.
Why Should Organizations Consider Starting with Design Thinking?
Jha said the value of starting with design thinking falls into three major buckets.
“[Design thinking] allows you to align or work toward the right goal,” Jha said.
Wardhan said that starting with desirability allows teams to quickly understand what they should be looking at when designing or innovating.
“If we don’t understand [users], how can we define [whether] what we are going to sell to them is going to be of any use in their day-to-day life? That’s why starting with desirable desirability is important,” Wardhan said.
Whenever we talk about designing and innovation, it starts with mindsets, and then moves to methodology or process. And that is something that makes a huge difference…
“[Design thinking] helps you bring the mindsets that are really important to be innovative,” Jha said.
She said design thinking helps teams to be more curious, creative, empathetic, and collaborative, which can increase the odds of success.
“If you’re doing a design thinking project, you have to be collaborative. You have to bring people from different teams; it cannot be just a bunch of designers,” she said. “Whenever we talk about designing and innovation, it starts with mindsets, and then moves to methodology or process. And that is something that makes a huge difference — if you start with the process, and then leave the mindsets, I don’t think it’s going to serve [you well] in any innovation project.”
The processes and methodologies behind design thinking can be valuable for iteration and creation.
Jha and Wardhan said repeatedly testing prototypes and ideas throughout the process leads to valuable insights that can be used to create or iterate a better product or service for the end user.
“In the process of development and innovation, we are allowed to fail early; we are allowed to validate whatever we are thinking and creating against the values of the people; we are allowed to test it. … Then when we launch it, it’s a very holistic, well-rounded product or service that will talk to the customers,” Wardhan explained.
Challenges for Implementing Design Thinking
Wardhan and Jha said a variety of misunderstandings about design thinking can prevent an organization from being able to integrate it effectively.
One such challenge is how design thinking has been presented and understood, Wardhan said.
“One of the things that really makes it difficult…is that it is treated as a novelty. Design thinking is treated as a game-changing process that everybody has to listen to now. … And I don’t think that’s the right approach,” Wardhan said.
He said that in order for design thinking to take hold in an organization, leadership has to buy into the process — without forcing it upon employees. Instead, he suggested leadership practice what it preaches and show the value of design thinking throughout the organization — not just as something designers and innovators should be thinking about. Holistic understanding of the value of design thinking can go a long way in an organization, he explained.
Jha said organizations have also faced challenges in teaching and learning design thinking, because it can’t be treated as a one-off. She said learnings from design thinking bootcamps and training need to be brought back and practiced, not shelved and siloed.
“If you attend a workshop or a session, you might get a glimpse of what design thinking is. But that might not make you ready to start practicing it in your organization without any support or guidance,” she said.
Instead, she said, innovators, designers, and other employees who learn about design thinking should be given the space to use their knowledge to try the process, even when it may not be perfect the first time around.
“I feel like continuous involvement is something that would really help break this knowledge gap that does happen,” she said.