17 May 2017

Design thinking to the core

By Greg Wee

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” 
Steve Jobs

Design has largely been misunderstood as the superficial, aesthetic elements attached to a product at the end of the process to make it look good and appealing – in short, design is an after-thought. Many therefore equate it as something that deals only with the look, a dispensable luxury only when one can afford it.

However, over the decades, the understanding of design has expanded tremendously. The role of design has been shifted from the end of the production process to the beginning of product development. We have seen how design has brought value to some industries and the increasingly central role it plays. For example, we make decisions on our purchases of houses, cars, phones and shoes not only based on their appearance but more importantly on such factors as the functions, ease and comfort of use. Interestingly, another aspect is the meaning a product gives us. This is the role of design and this is what it is all about – allowing us to put together disparate elements and shape them into a functional form or system that fulfils our needs, solves problems, and gives meaning. Today, it is not about marketing a product to customers only after it is made. Instead, it is first ascertaining what and why it is needed before the product reveals itself.

Let’s take it one step further. Design is also a process: it is a system of thinking that helps us to reflect on our internal processes as an individual or an organisation, to understand our customers, and how they actually behave as opposed to what they say, and to help us create an engagement (transaction) that meets the needs between these two disparate groups. This is the idea behind design thinking in simple terms.

The design thinking process consists of five phases:
1) Empathise with users to understand their “why” by observation
2) Define users’ needs and problems by asking the right questions
3) Ideate to create innovative ideas and solutions by challenging assumptions
4) Create a prototype at the minimal level that can be tested immediately
5) Tests to redefine the problem and to generate new ideas

Suzanne Howard of the design firm IDEO which champions design thinking, describes it as a process to help understand customer experiences, their needs, desires, problems and aspirations. It is only when we understand these that it becomes possible to identify real and relevant business opportunities. This is followed by the prototyping process from which we learn by observing, feedback gathering, and refining our approach. This process of trying out new business possibilities, gathering feedback and refining the ideas is a repeating loop; an iterative cycle of learning. This is the uniqueness of design thinking. In other words, it allows learning by observation and for the solutions to reveal themselves rather than dictating solutions to what we perceive to be the problem.

Therefore, this method of being open to observation and of being human-centric, allows new revelations and unexpected ideas to manifest; sometimes solutions which are disruptive and innovative but most of all, ideas which communicate the unspoken needs of the customers. Additionally, design thinking is also effective in solving complex problems that require a multidisciplinary approach. An example is when Shimano, a Japanese bicycle components company, engaged IDEO to find out why 90% of American adults do not cycle. The reason uncovered was the unpleasant experience of purchasing a bicycle, the complex design of bicycles, cost, and the risks involved with cycling in traffic. IDEO’s solution to this was multifaceted and covered the entire breadth of the problem. It proposed a new concept of cycling experience called “Coasting” where areas with safe bicycle tracks were identified and shared online. This was launched with a new line of bicycle design and new retail strategies.

Design thinking has been adopted by leading corporations such as Google, Samsung, Apple, and General Electric. Leading higher learning institutions such as Stanford, Harvard and MIT are also teaching design thinking. It is hoped that more organisations will become aware of the role of design thinking as it has the power to help reframe core understanding of ourselves and our customers, and to introduce disruptive and innovative solutions into our own internal or external processes.

Greg Wee is a Senior Lecturer (Design) with the Faculty of Business and Design at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He is contactable at gwee@swinburne.edu.my