Elaheh Nazari

Posted on 4th October 2021

The Design Thinking Playbook: the Highlights (Part 1)

news-paper News | Service Design |

Every company wants to create something new in this fast-changing world to survive. To do that, they must have a better understanding of the user’s hidden needs. Design thinking is a mindset that can help.

Creating a persona of a typical user can help with that. For that, we must consider them as real users with their preferences and goals and our main goal is to find out their true needs. After sketching the persona of a typical user, we must look for that type of person in the real world, and through interviews and observations of the participants, we can readjust the persona. A persona is never complete if we never dig for deeper insights. Asking “why” will get us to the real situations and events that the persona may get in thus resulting in a better understanding of it.

If our persona is too brief and under-described, it might make “persona twins” which are two or more personas that share the same characteristics without having anything specific about them.

After making the persona, we try to build up empathy with it. In the best-case scenario, try to find a potential user that fits the persona, interview him or her, and document your understanding. You have to “walk in the shoes of the potential user”. To achieve this, you can use the AEIOU questions which are questions about activities, environment, interaction, objects, and user and you also need to consider the user’s habits.

Knowing where you stand in a process is important and is called process awareness. It means that you understand whether you have gathered enough information and ideas and it is time to start transforming them into solutions and products or not. If you spend too much time coming with ideas (the divergent phase) you will miss the opportunities to use them. So you must know when to leave the divergent phase and filter the good ideas out of the many ideas (the convergent phase) and start working on them.

Pushing the deadline or the expected prototype forward will automatically help us get into the convergent phase. In this phase, it is advised to share the ideas with our community because if the ideas get analyzed by our small group, favoring some ideas based on personal preference will increase and our judgment will let us down.

Micro cycles and macrocycles are design thinking processes that are used to help us come up with solutions and test them in a period. The microcycle emphasizes implementation because ideas are worthless if they remain ideas.

UNDERSTAND the task, the market, the clients, the technology, the limiting conditions, restrictions, and optimization criteria. OBSERVE and ANALYZE the behavior of real people in real situations and in relation to the specific task. VISUALIZE the first solution drafts (3D, simulation, prototypes, graphics, drawings, etc.). EVALUATE and OPTIMIZE the prototypes in a fast succession of continuous repetitions. IMPLEMENT the new concept in reality (the most time-consuming phase).

The initial phases of macrocycles are of divergent characteristics meaning we have to run through some microcycles to obtain insight about the situation and then use that to make a change based on them. This cycle concerns itself with making prototypes and testing them and improving them based on the feedback.

Micro cycles can be broken down into three simpler phases: Hear, Create, and Deliver.

Hear phase is where you try to understand the project and customer’s needs and gather information and experience directly from the customer. Create phase is about turning the information we gathered into solutions and ideas. Deliver phase is about accepting or rejecting ideas and turning them into prototypes and testing them to gain more insight on them. 

Micro cycles are the backbone of this design thinking process so we have to understand each phase to a certain depth to be able to use it:

Understand Phase

Problems are categorized into three groups:

  • Well-defined problems that have a clear solution that is achievable by different paths. 
  • Ill-defined problems that are unclear and different paths lead to different solutions. 
  • Wicked problems that are unknown and different paths lead to partial solutions that help us to get a clearer understanding of the problem.

Understanding a problem is required for a design thinking team to come up with a solution. Describe a problem and design challenge but be short and to the point. A design brief will help both the design team and customer get on the same page in terms of the definition of the problem.

Design Brief
Who?Target customer
With What?Available material
Who else?Competitions, alternatives
How much?Budget, restrictions
When?Schedule, scenarios
How?Next steps

Observe Phase

It is wrong to assume that we are fully familiar with the lifestyles of our customers and we must maintain a regular and direct connection with them to observe their life and find their needs. We do not represent our customers and we must not transfer our needs onto theirs.

We observe so that we can be aware of the wrong assumptions that we had made and terminate them. Traditionally, companies relied on customer interviews conducted not by themselves but by consultants that did not know about the company’s plans. Then they would pick the points from interviews that matched their plan whilst ignoring the rest of them. Need-finding was considered a risk to the success of their current projects.

In need-finding, we must be curious and willing to learn new things and add to our knowledge. Leaving our comfort zone and connecting with people will help us do that. To dig deep and find the hidden needs in interviews, we should build up empathy with the interviewees.

WH questions will take our observation to specific situations and help us discover more deeply. They can also help us with the analysis of the data that we have gathered.

What is the problem?Who is involved?Why is the problem important?Where does the problem occur?When did the problem begin?How could this problem be an opportunity?
What would we like to know?Who is affected by the situation?Why does it occur?Where was it already resolved before?When do people want to see results?How could it be solved?
What are the assumptions that are scrutinized?Who decides?Why was it not yet solved?Where did similar situations exist?When can the project be started?What has already been tried to resolve the problem?

Define Point of View Phase

Design thinking must be empathetic to be able to shape the future. Empathy will help us get under the skin of our customers and see from their point of view.

To be more empathetic, keep in mind:

  1. Understanding the language of the customer.
  2. Experiencing the world of the customer.
  3. Having an open mind.
  4. Daring to change the perspective.
  5. Giving full attention to a topic and listening actively.
  6. Exploring feelings and needs.
  7. Asking open questions.

To obtain a better point of view you can use this approach:

  1. Analyze information: collect and analyze all information.
  2. Infer insights: Summarize the important parts and infer the design principles.
  3. Formulate possible questions: determine the important parts and key themes and formulate questions about them.
  4. Specify questions: discuss the questions and try refining and improving them.

And our main focus in the point of view phase must be on:

  1. Finding patterns in customers’ needs and fully understanding them.
  2. Trying to find opportunities in what others see as problems.
  3. Analyzing information and emphasizing important parts.

A simple method for analyzing potential application cases and customer needs is the 9-window tool. It helps us see the future by analyzing the past and present development that happened in the system considering time and space.

Space / TimePastPresentFuture
Super SystemPast SupersystemPresent SupersystemFuture Supersystem
SystemPast SystemPresent SystemFuture System
SubsystemPast SubsystemPresent SystemFuture System

Ideate Phase

Coming up with ideas is a design thinker’s job. Ideas do not always come to us during brainstorming sessions; they might come to us at unexpected times like when we are taking a shower! Even some companies use this human ability and give their employees working days in which they can do whatever they want but report back at the end of the day. But we do not always have the luxury of time so we will use some methods for structured ideation.

The warm-up for a good brainstorming session is laughing! It is better to start the session with happy faces and people smiling at each other. This way the employees will not try to make impressions for the leader when sharing their ideas and this will help with better ideation. A brainstorming session must be a safe place for a person possessing any role in the company, to have the opportunity to come up with good ideas.

After the brainstorming sessions, we are left with many ideas and we must be able to structure and select the ideas from the dozens at hand. After selecting an idea, we must structure it and put it into its target group. We define the groups based on the problems we are trying to find solutions to. After grouping the ideas, we can work on analyzing them in their groups and talk about the pros and cons of each idea compared to others in the groups.

Prototype Phase

Prototyping is important in design thinking and it allows us to bring the ideas to reality and test them or use the UX and feedback to improve an ongoing project. In this phase, you must have an open mind and be ready to make significant changes to the prototype and not hold onto your preferred ideas.

To make a good prototype, there are some principles that you must follow:

  1.  “Love it! Change it! Leave it!”

Ideas are sometimes based on assumptions and when bringing them to reality, these assumptions might prove to be wrong. If right, we keep them; if it needs changes, we refine them; and if they were not correct, we simply discard them. DO NOT hold onto the ideas.

  1.  “Never fall in love with your prototype!”

Investing in a prototype will increase its maturity and it will get better results in tests. The idea behind prototypes is that we can constantly change them to make them better. Sometimes a prototype may reach a limit at which it cannot be improved anymore and it is necessary to know that not all prototypes are going to make it to the final stage.

  1.  ”Prototyping means to iterate, iterate, and iterate still again.”

Getting a prototype right the first time is impossible. That is why we test it and make marginal improvements to it over time. These tests and iterations are what lead a prototype to its final degree of development.

Test Phase

Prototypes generate valuable feedback from customers and potential users. In tests, it is important to look for the reason and motive by asking “why” even if we think we know the answer. Testing is not about giving reasons or selling a prototype, but learning about it and its strong and weak points.

Web-based tools are great digital tools to carry out our tests and get many user feedbacks at a time.

A test consists of four steps:

  1. Test preparation

First, we must set the reason for our test by asking questions. What do we want to learn? What do we want to test? And who are the users?

After answering these questions, we get more specific on the problems by asking more specific questions about them.

  1.  Conducting the test

When we test different ideas for a solution, we tend to get more differentiated feedback which will lead us to have more options to improve the prototype. The user that undergoes multiple tests, will be able to compare the ideas and give more accurate feedback.

  1. Document results

For example, a user taking our test might not know how to use the product properly. We do not correct or guide them, but we document these actions, with photos or videos preferably, (and of course with their permission!), and later, on we use these to make our product simpler to use.

We see documented feedback as gifts and not as complaints. We do not justify ourselves but rather try to listen and understand the feedback to improve the prototype.

  1. Infer learnings

“Fail fast—fail often.” It is important to repeat the tests and modify them each time for they are our source of learning our prototype and will lead it on the road to constant improvement.

Coming up with ideas is the first step of design thinking. We have learned by using processes such as micro and macro tools, we can make a plan to bring those ideas into reality and adjust them to the customer’s needs. If you would like to know about how we do service designing and product development, feel free to have a remote coffee with us.


The Design Thinking Playbook: Mindful Digital Transformation of Teams, Products, Services, Businesses, and Ecosystems