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Design Thinking for Everyone: A Guide for Product Development Teams

8 Nov 2017 by Tammy Lawlor

Have you ever started working with an amazing development team but later realized they spent more than a year building a product barely anyone uses? Or maybe during a requirements gathering session you encountered a stakeholder who jumped to the solution before actually knowing the problem he or she was trying to solve, basing solution ideas off personal preferences.

If you’ve been in software product development long enough, you've probably experienced scenarios like these. You’ve also most likely experienced your fair share of project or product failures, as well as questioned the value of what you or your team were developing.

A methodology proven to be successful for product teams traversing multiple industries is a concept called "design thinking." Let's explore the definition and steps involved in design thinking, as well as some tools to apply the design thinking process in the workplace.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking in and of itself is not new, but the definition and process of employing design thinking as described here are based on views that emerged from design firm IDEO and its founders, Tim Brown, David Kelley and Tom Kelley, as well as views popularized by Richard Buchanan. What all of these design thinkers have in common are their theories around applying design thinking across disciplines, in a more integrative approach to service and product development.

Design thinking at its core takes a human-centered approach to innovating, drawing on design tools to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology and the requirements for business success (Tim Brown, IDEO).

Design thinking in 5 steps

Design thinking can be applied to any product or process development efforts, and it involves five steps. The five-step process originated by Tim Brown and IDEO and includes:

  1. Empathize: This is a step that should remain front and center throughout the design thinking process. Are you and your product development team spending enough time with your current or potential customer(s)? Understand what's important to them, what they value and what problems they're trying to solve. By understanding your usersand what matters to them, you can create solutions that will resonate and actually be used — and valued.

  2. Define: Once you and your team have immersed yourselves in the empathize step, and you've asked your customers about what they value and what problems they're trying to solve, you can land on a clearer definition of what needs to happen during the development process.

  3. Ideate: This is the step that's easiest for teams and stakeholders to skip to before spending the necessary time on the first two steps. Once you know your users and have defined what problems you need to resolve or what value you need to deliver to them, then you can ideate or start to come up with potential solutions. Otherwise, you'll develop solutions based on your own preferences versus from the viewpoint of your users.

  4. Prototype: Now you’re ready to make those ideas more tangible. Prototypes are low-fidelity designs created for the purpose of testing with users. And because I said “designs” does not mean they need to be highly creative or beautiful aesthetic. In fact, the less perfect, the better. Otherwise, you and your team will waste too much time before getting a prototype out there in front of people. I’ll talk about prototypes in more detail a little later in this article.

  5. Test: Prototypes are for testing, and testing those prototypes will ensure you're engaging with your customers and understanding what they need or desire before you and your team build the wrong product. It costs a lot more to jump to a solution in the ideate phase and build the wrong product (or implement an errant process) than it does to reserve time for prototyping and testing.

The steps should follow this order, but you and your team may decide you need to return to prior steps — and that’s OK. It’s better, for example, to create a few prototypes and retest versus releasing an undesirable product to customers. Also, you may discover the product, feature or process isn't valuable enough to pursue — and that’s OK too. Think of the time, money and effort you'll save your organization as a result. Lastly, the empathize step is one, in particular, that should carry through the entire process so that you and your team maintain that human-centric perspective.

Dispelling design thinking myths

When you started to read even the title of this article, “Design Thinking,” did you have negative thoughts such as, “This doesn’t apply to me,” or, “The steps in this process aren't what I would have originally thought they were”? If so, keep reading these common misconceptions:

  • “I need to be creative.” 
    Your job title doesn't need to be graphic designer or have the word “designer” in it in order for you to lead or facilitate design thinking in your product team. Working with an experienced User Experience (UX) designer is vital in creating and sustaining a meaningful product experience. However, design thinking is for everyone on the software development team. If you excel at problem-solving and are willing to tackle tough challenges for customers, you have a valuable skill set that's invaluable in the design thinking process.

  • “My product is old … or boring.” 
    So, what if you don’t work on a high-end website or mobile app? The tenets of design thinking still apply. And their level of importance doesn't diminish just because the product isn’t consumer-facing or it involves a web or mobile presence. Even if it’s an internal application, you still need to empathize with your users and understand what problems they're trying to solve or what value you need to deliver in order to build a successful product or feature.

  • “We don’t have time to think about this differently.” 
    The universal excuse that goes something like, “We're too busy to try something new or change X, Y or Z now,” is a universal fear when confronting aggressive timelines and changes outside our control, such as regulatory changes that have to be addressed. But there are simple ways to interject design thinking into your current work.

    You can interview a current or potential user(s) of your product or feature or create a simple survey to gain empathy for your customer(s). Even showing a prototype of what your team is working on with co-workers outside of your product/project team can provide a fresh perspective and test if your team is headed in a clear direction.

Design thinking tool set

Now that we've covered the definition and steps in the design thinking process, you’re probably wondering what tools you can use that will help you and your team walk through this process. There are a number of design thinking tools, but I’ll briefly share three that cover the facets of the design thinking process:

  1. User personas are fictional characters that represent the people your product or new feature is supposed to help. At a glance, a persona should tell you some of the following pieces of information: name, role, demographic info, key activities, behaviors and a goal/problem the user is trying to solve. You'll want to create user personas before writing user stories, and doing so encompasses the first step of the design thinking process: empathize. You and your team can use the persona as a constant point of reference to help you stay focused on creating value-add features and products a real person will want to use. Roman Pichler created a simple overview that provides more details about user personas.

  2. User story maps offer a visual exercise for teams to talk through a user’s journey while defining the activities and tasks the user will have to complete on the journey. You can create it using sticky notes or digitally with a tool such as RealtimeBoard. The user story map is organized with the top, horizontal row forming the backbone of user activities, and with vertical rows underneath representing the steps needed to achieve the user activity. Since the process is much easier to understand with a visual, I recommend Jeff Patton’s User Story Mapping. User story maps are especially helpful for new projects or larger-scale features. The maps involve the first three steps of the design thinking process: empathize, define and ideate.

  3. Prototypes should be reserved for certain times and reasons. They're used when you're ready to test an idea to validate whether you and your product development team are headed in the right direction (or not). It can take the form of simple sketches, a PowerPoint presentation, objects taped together … anything that requires just enough effort to produce and place in front of a customer or stakeholder for feedback. Prototypes take you through all of the design thinking process steps when used at the right time.

Now, you try it.

Are you ready to try design thinking? Remember, it involves a human-centered mindset, so it’s possible to take even small steps to get your team to start thinking and experimenting from this perspective. Not only will your users benefit from design thinking, but you and your team will also be more motivated by your work as you connect what you're doing with the people who will benefit.

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About Tammy Lawlor
Senior Consultant, Project Services

Tammy is passionate about creating meaningful digital product solutions for clients and loves the challenge of solving client problems. She's also a certified product owner and Scrum Master Professional. Outside of work, you can find her planning her next travel adventure or deep in a book or conversation.

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