What is Design Thinking & How do we use it for delivering the best possible solutions?

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By Eric Tornquist

August 26, 2020

So, first things first, What is Design Thinking?

There’s been a lot of fuss around this concept. The number of articles in management literature and weekly magazines, as well as in the academic research has taken it to the level of hype or even the status of “a fad”, some may argue. The term was coined in 2008 by Tim Brown, current Executive Chair of IDEO, the global design company that is one of the main promoters of this tool and an organization responsible without a doubt for its increased popularity. However, discourse around design methodologies application to other fields is much older, being around 50 years old with the first attempts to scientize design reaching back to the 60s.

Trying to define Design Thinking (DT) is easy and hard, which is not a contradiction. We can simplify it, and address it as a packaged solution to approach it in a more practical and pragmatic way, and we will take this path here. But one can’t avoid pointing out a key issue: we are talking about design. Design, as a term, exists in many contexts and has many connotations, and as a discipline, it seems to be constantly growing and evolving, which also means the definitions evolve and change continuously.

If we try to explain it shortly, Design Thinking was described as “a methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centered design ethos” (Brown, 2008). But what does this all mean? Design thinking provides a framework for product development in which we place the user at the center of it all, and that tackles the designer’s empathy to match the user’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what is viable from a business perspective.

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.

Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO

Design thinking is all about empathizing, asking the right questions, powerful creative collaboration, and prototyping, all these in an iterative process. But in order to get each of these right, there are some core mindsets that teams need in order to develop their full innovative potential, which is the basis of what is known as “Psychological safety”. Powerful mindsets that can unleash not only the full power of the teams but of each individual at the organization, and at Arion we have imbued them in every aspect of our culture as we believe that an environment where everyone can feel comfortable voicing their ideas and where trust and respect are the basis of all interactions, is the core for a place where great ideas can flourish. (Check out Adrian’s article to get more insights on our culture!) This was well documented by Google in a humongous research effort (2 years and 280 teams) done to shed light on what makes successful teams different.

The trait singled out in the quest for the perfect team: Psychological safety.

Frederik Pferdt, Chief Innovation Evangelist at Google

Teams with psychological safety are teams where people can share their ideas freely, feel safe taking risks and trying new things, and are comfortable asking each other for help and acknowledging mistakes. Getting a team to feel this way is no easy task, but it is fundamental for creativity to flow. Psychological safety efficiency and its importance in teams’ performance has been well documented, as well as its fragility.

So, how do we foster such teams at Arion? Promoting 3 mindsets that are tricky to achieve but have a great impact on our everyday work and help build psychological safety:

● Surf the vulnerability loops with pride and honor
● Look through learning lenses
● Keep your senses honed, curiosity unveils great treasures

Surf the vulnerability loops with pride and honor

Vulnerability is always about loops, the way the receiver reacts is as important as the one sending the message, be it asking for help or admitting a mistake. Jeffrey T. Polzer, an organizational behavior researcher at Harvard is the one to have pointed to these “vulnerability loops” that are created when we share a fault and our counterpart that feels the vulnerability reacts doing the same, bringing both parts closer to each other. At some point, we all get the feeling that deeper bonds are developed when we give space to being more open and vulnerable, and this makes cooperation across teams much easier.

Getting comfortable with being vulnerable, especially taking into account how fierce competition is outside and how much it’s been drilled into our heads the relevance of striving for individual success, is never a simple task. We’ve all been there once, starting a project or a document, not really sure of how to or where to start from or dreading having made a mistake, but struggled with whether to say something about it. How would others react? When is it right to say it? Who should we talk to about it? and would there be consequences? All this uncertainty creates barriers and robs us of precious time and brain energy.

The earlier we tackle mistakes the faster they get solved, and the same goes for asking for help: the earlier one asks for help the faster things get going. That is how we encourage everyone at Arion to see it. Every team member is responsible for their work, but all teams members are also responsible for the success of all team members. The success of all and every member is what makes our teams, squads, and tribes excel (If you haven’t read this piece on our Operational model check it out!). So, team members are encouraged to guide each other towards success, learning, and growing together.

Look through learning lenses

This is quite straightforward: if we knew everything, and everything had already been solved, then there would be nothing left to create or discover. It’s not about knowing the answers, it’s about finding them, exploring the unknown, experimenting with new things, and learning all the time that there is always space to go beyond. And mistakes are the most fertile grounds for learning, a great source of insights. That’s how we want our people to experience them, so they may take risks with bold solutions!

Keep your senses honed, curiosity unveils great treasures

Curiosity is what helps us understand better everything and anything. It’s what takes us in exploration quests about topics, that lead us to a deeper understanding of the matter in front of us. It’s also what keeps us open to new information and knowledge. We encourage our teams to ask a lot of questions, the more they ask the better they will be prepared to deliver the best solution.
This is the stepping stone, the foundation for the process: arming the teams with psychological safety so that they can embrace a truthful creative collaboration process as design thinking. So how do we start to apply it?

Let’s start with the general step-by-step of Design Thinking. There are several
“schools” regarding this: D-School Stanford’s Design School, The British Design Council, IDEO, and others. Each has its proposed naming and stage division. Regardless of this, in spirit, they are all the same. Let’s take a look at it.

Stages of Design Thinking

Empathize and Discover. The first step is understanding the quest at hand and
connecting with the people we are designing for. It’s a stage for gathering insights and deepening the understanding of the matter, and the needs and expectations of users and other stakeholders.

Define and Frame. With the information gathered the next step is to define the problem and unveil the core challenge.

Ideate. We’ve found an opportunity to address a problem, now it’s time to search how to solve it. How might your product help solve the matter at hand? Multiple ideas will be proposed through searching diverging ideas in brainstorming and then prioritized, searching for the best fit.

Experiment and Prototype. It’s the moment to start shaping the solution and bring the product to reality. By building prototypes and experimenting with them, the solution is honed and polished.

Assess and Evolve. Testing with users helps to get new insights and deepen our empathy with them. With the feedback and new insights gathered, it’s time to evaluate, give and receive feedback, and integrate it into the product.

What is divergent and convergent thinking?
These two types of thinking are key to the DT process, as one fuel the bundle of ideas and the other helps pinpoint the path to follow.

Divergent thinking is when the team looks to propose all different types of ideas, no common point is searched nor needed. On the contrary, the challenge resides in being able to voice even the most absurd and wacky ideas without being embarrassed or questioned. The way each member reacts is key to creating the proper space, it’s important to encourage the proposal of ideas instead of questioning what is proposed. Sometimes in order to break the ice, it’s a good idea to start by saying the idea that seems taken out of the blue, completely from another galaxy. This helps set the tone and create a safe space to talk. When focused on tasks that require this mindset it’s important to avoid convergent thinking, which can be quite the challenge as it is easy to fall into the: “Hey, that’s great and what if..” type of idea building discourse, or the “Yes, and” thinking used in improvisation comedy.

Convergent thinking is when the teams are looking to narrow down ideas, to select a few concepts to keep working on. In this type of activity, we look for affinities between ideas, similarities, potential synergies, try to group them or categorize them. A good practice is trying to set a group of variables or constraints to prioritize ideas.

Now that we’ve gone through what DT is about, let’s see why and how we integrate it into our agile product development process.

Why applying DT to software development?

Maybe that was a trick question, as we at Arion strive to provide integrated solutions, and not only an isolated software product. We strive to discover and create value along with our customers, and this means we need to understand them the best we can. Their business, their expectations, and them as persons.

In the end, all businesses are run by humans for humans. We seek to understand the people behind us, as well as the people they are working for. DT’s discovery and empathy phases provide a prolific toolkit to understand the problem we face, and the people we are designing and developing for. And this is what powers its core strength, which is that: with its continuous strive for a better understanding of the problem and promoting the continuous search for users’ insights & feedback, it provides that the best solution possible is shaped through an iterative process.

In addition, DT is to be powered by diverse teams — multidisciplinary teams, with diverse backgrounds and different personality styles — as it leverages from this, and by encouraging divergent thinking in the first phases, it taps into an immense pool of possibilities. Divergent thinking from such rich teams, empowered by a mindful methodology and ample toolkit, takes the exploration of solutions to another level and brings to the surface innovative points of view and ideas.

How we apply Design Thinking at Arion, step by step.

Combining agile methodologies with DT in product development is not new in the software industry. Several models have been proposed through the years: take DT@Scrum for example. We’ve gathered the insights from many experiences in the industry, mixed it with our business knowledge, great technical team experience, and a kick-ass design team background, and concocted our own methodology and way of living it. (By the way, check out our Tech team’s article on Constraint Programming).

At Arion we’ve strived for a seamless connection between idea generation and product development, to avoid letting any great ideas go to waste but also to provide an agile delivery process. We involve the whole squad throughout the process, ensuring a diverse configuration of profiles that will boost its creative potential. They are empowered by our culture: we take very seriously the building of psychological safety within the squad and the company as a whole, so each one of our people can bring their full selves to work and deploy their full potential.

DT activities are present throughout the whole process, but are more intense in the first stages, as they are essential to deepening our understanding of the problem and people, and once we get to polish the requirements, we get more into developing. As soon as we start to experiment with wireframes, and develop mock-ups to test the solutions, we tap again DT tools and get feedback with further insights. It is an iterative and agile process, where we work in sprints not only in the development phase but also in the first design stages.

Let’s take a quick look at our steps.

The starting point: Because we are solution-oriented, this is our phase zero and we call it Business Reach. Here, the value of understanding DT’s framework for problem-solving becomes crystal clear. In our case, Arion’s executive experience and business consultancy background make us emphasize even more the value of understanding our clients’ business needs
and model, to properly discover what they are trying to solve. Now is the time when making the right questions is paramount, and this phase is quite superimposed with the next one. Some of the questions we try to answer are: What is the problem or need to be addressed? How is it framed by the shareholders involved? How might we interpret their discourse? How is it related and integrated to the whole business? And what about
the user? How is it related to other aspects of people’s lives and other systems?

The challenge: This stage is closely related to the previous one and implies lots of research, observation, ethnographic techniques, talking with the users and different stakeholders. It’s intensive in information gathering and therefore in DT. We will be looking to deepen our understanding of the questions proposed above and by challenging the status quo we start to make some definitions. How might we frame the problem? What’s its scope? How do we turn it into a question? How do we approach the challenge we face?
We like challenging assumptions and discovering new perspectives to address the solution. We seek to understand the key outcome we are trying to achieve and set clear impact goals. Our squads are committed to being curious and learning as much as possible in this stage, in order to be able to come out with impactful solutions that will provide the maximum benefit possible for the end-user.

The Ideation: Now is when we open our minds the most and get into divergent thinking and solution-finding mode. With the changes our solution needs to tackle in mind, we explore all the possible solutions, then we start going from this abundance of ideas to shaping fully-fledged concepts. We look into the impact we are trying to accomplish, and stress tests our concepts. We are almost getting into development! So now is when we will be taking full leverage of our organization structure, since every squad member can get inputs from the different chapters, in order to get more insights regarding best practices in UX for the solution being proposed, new technologies available, or alternative technological solutions that the squad might have not considered. All this will enrich the final proposed concept we’ve developed.

The Solution: We are dev mode on! Sprint to sprint the squad will be shaping the final solution, and at the same time will be assessing it. The first wireframe will help us gather more insights from clients and users, as well as a polished mock-up will be key to challenge once again the assumptions we’ve made for the solution. We prize the customer experience in the designs of our solutions and keep the end-user at the heart of the process, channeling the Human-Centered Design principles of DT. We focus on the user journey we’ve imagined, striving to provide a functional design. Is it possible to accomplish the impact goals set with this solution? Will it perform the changes we’ve identified necessary to tackle the problem? What needs to be modified for it to be the best possible solution?

The delivery: The squad brings to life the solution through code, and our products are always coded to be scalable and easy to maintain. That is our commitment. A clean code and infrastructure are our focus, and we consider it every step of the way. And our journey with our clients does not end here: We are committed to the goals we’ve set for the product. Once it’s been launched, once the solution is implemented, we study how it performs to see if it’s reaching the expected outcome.

To sum up

This is our process from a DT point of view. We’ve mixed Human-Centered Design principles into our product development process, as well as Creative Collaboration principles, we’ve also built a creative and innovation fit culture and environment, and an agile organization in order to provide solutions suited to our clients needs.

Embracing DT in our methodology arms us with a bountiful toolkit, to dive into problem discovery, inspiration search, understanding of users, ideation, brainstorming, and even up to the implementation. These tools help us design the best possible solution, as we pride ourselves on being committed to delivering impactful solutions and excellent products.