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What is Design Thinking, why is it so popular and how does it work?

Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius.
David Kelley

Founder, IDEO

What is Design Thinking?”

Design Thinking is a process for creative problem solving that is human centered, collaborative and  prototype driven.

Human centered

Empathetically understanding people and identifying their real pain points is the foundation of the Design Thinking method.


Design Thinking Workshops are run in teams of 4 to 12 people. The team should be interdisciplinary with each member posessing particular skills in one area and an openess and flexibility to operate effectively across other diciplines (T-shaped persons).

Prototype driven

The goal of each Design Thinking project is to get as fast as possible to a prototype that allows us to gain qualitative feedback for our solution. Although people may often not be able to tell us what they want, they will usually tell us what they don´t want.

The Design Thinking Process

Design thinking process
The Design Thinking process typically consists of five steps that lead from problem definition and empathy with the target group to prototypes that can be tested on the customer. The cycle never ends, it describes a constant striving, no way from A to B.

There are two essential success factors of the Design Thinking process:

  • Separation of problem understanding and solution creation (explore module and create module)
  • First create options then make choices (= Design Thinking diamond)

Empathy phase in Design Thinking – understanding the target group and the current experience

empathy phase in design thinking
Techniques and guidelines

  • CONSUMER JOURNEY: Keeping track of all the interactions a consumer has with a product, service, or space and identify all steps where a consumer doesn’t feel well with the experience.
  • EMPATHIC INTERVIEWS: Prompting people to tell personal stories about their experiences.
  • EXTREME USER INTERVIEWS: Talking to people, who really know – or know nothing – about a product or a service and evaluating their experience using it.

Problem statement – define a specific problem that needs to be solved for a specific user

problem statement design thinking

Techniques and guidelines

  • FORMULATE PROBLEM DEFINITION: How might we help a specific user to reach a certain goal, (because of insight?). The
    “How might we questions” sets the frame for potential solutions.

Ideation phase – generate as many ideas as possible with intense brainstorming

ideation phase design thinking

Techniques and guidelines

  • ENCOURAGE WILD IDEAS: Embrace the most out-of-the box notions because they can be the key to solutions.
  • BUILD ON THE IDEAS OF OTHERS: No „buts“ only „ands“.

Example activities:

  1. Silent brainstorming for at least 10 minutes – time needs to be long enough to experience a stagnantion, as only then team members think beyond obvious solutions.
  2. Sharing of silent brain storming ideas without any judgement. Encourage to listen and directly build on ideas of others.
  3. Gaining new perspectives that generate further ideas by asking inspirational questions, such as

    What would Google do?

    What would amazon do?

    What would Apple do?

    What would Starbucks do?

    How could solutions look like, if money wouldn’t matter? 

    Mashups – do new solutions arise, when we combine ideas?

At the end of the ideation diverge phase, often more than 100 ideas are generated in less than 1 hour by each team.  In the follwoing ideation converge phase it is all about finding the best idea quickly: We recommend the following 5 step process for selecting the best idea:

  1. Try to categorize the ideas.
  2. Ask for each idea: Does it have a great desirability from the perspective of the target user? If no, trash it. If yes =>
  3. Does the idea have a high WOW-factor (a solution journalist would be keen on reporting about, because it offers a true benefit and is an innovation). If no, trash the idea. If yes =>
  4. Is the idea viable? If no, trash the idea. If yes, keep it on the board.
  5. Apply butterfly test for the remaining ideas: Voting with sticky dots. Each team member gets 5 sticky dots.

Rapid Prototyping – visualize idea & create common understanding

rapid prototyping design thinking
Techniques and guidelines

  • PROTOTYPES SERVE AS COMMUNICATION TOOL: Visualization of possible solutions create a common understanding of the solution.
  • ROUGH & FAST: Prototypes are first created on paper in form of a storyline with screen cards: Tell the story of how the life of a persona looks like using the new product or service.
  • NO FRILLS: Prototypes shall demonstrate an idea without sweating about the details.

Test desirability and relevance of idea with target users

test phase design thinking

Techniques and guidelines

  • PRESENT PROTOTYPES TO TARGET USERS: Gain feedback to understand what aspects of the idea are attractive (= high DESIRABILITY) and weed out ruthlessly week points. Adjust solution and iterate idea to an optimal solution to the problem.

How it all started: Hasso Plattner – the greatest convert and sponsor of Design Thinking

At the top of the “Design Thinking Movement” is SAP founder and chairman of the supervisory board Hasso Plattner. In 2004, on his way to SAP’s Sapphire customer fair, he read the cover story of “Businessweek”, with David Kelley on its cover. Plattner recognized his young self in the lines and thought of the early days of SAP. Back then, in Walldorf, he and his partners were still regularly with the customers in order to better understand them. Plattner was so impressed by the Businessweek article that he threw away his original speech and gave the astonished audience a sermon on the subject of Design Thinking.

The made SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner possible with a generous donation of 35 million US dollars. Since then, Kelley’s mission has also been that of Hasso Plattner. No wonder SAP became a big, practical role model. “I did this for Germany”, Plattner is said to have said after the foundation of the, according to Kelley. Kelley had to promise him to cooperate with the German Design School in Potsdam, which Plattner also financed from his private assets. SAP people say Plattner pumps so much money and effort into disseminating the methodology because he believes that German managers are not creative enough.

For SAP the efforts have paid off, since SAP has become the most valuable company of the German stock market.

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The new contenters from Silicon Valley

Besides such individual projects, many companies are concerned with a fundamental cultural change. It is above all the fast forward button of digitisation that forces companies to rethink. The rapid changes are frightening and many companies have to reinvent themselves, but fear not to be creative enough. Hence, using an innovation methodology from Silicon Valley, which is also practiced by models such as Airbnd, Apple and Google, is certainly not the worst idea.