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What is Design Thinking?

Interesting challenge today: my team of eight high school UX designers began their official web project, as we travel through Scandinavia with Atlas Workshops. Over the course of three hours, we had three objectives.

  1. Identify various methods of storytelling, in order to select one that might best work to convey information to our target audience of other high school students.
  2. Select a single method of storytelling, based on user interviews they conducted on one another.
  3. Learn what that phrase they keep hearing, “design thinking” means.

Though the first two items had their fair share of challenges (teaching people to conduct valuable user interviews is not really a 1hr project) the real difficulty came in defining the term “design thinking.” Though Adam (the other leader) and I are both fluent in design-speak and work daily in the human-centered-design and user-experience-design world, or perhaps because of that, we struggled to put design thinking into simple terms.

We first identified some of the problems with defining design thinking at all…

  • It’s a process, rather than a goal – but then, it’s also a goal…
  • Given that it’s a process, students want to know the steps. But there are no guaranteed steps.
  • If we can’t tell them the steps, the students at least want to know what is being designed. The answer is that anything can be designed.
  • It’s, frankly, a vague term.

Having acknowledged the limitations of the term, we began to break it down into examples. We explained the basics of HCD and UXD as, quite simply, designing products, (and services, websites, applications, and even cities, but for simplicity’s sake focusing on products) to become experiences rather than simply items, and to focus those experiences around how people will actually be able to use them.

We came up with a few examples:

  • Designing city roads while keeping in mind that visually impaired people will be using them, and taking into account how that might change the design.
  • Creating a museum exhibit or website that compels people to take an action or feel an impact in their lives after they are no longer at the exhibit or website – thus extending the experience.
  • Starting the process of creating something by learning about the people who will be using it, and then changing the plan based on all we learn.

Ultimately, the third example worked as a good segue from design thinking into user research. But it left me thinking about design thinking, and service design, and human-centric design. I became very aware of the importance of our work, and yet the unimportance of our choice of words to describe it. Ten years from now design thinking may be considered blase, and we may call our work rainbow design, but the value of speaking first to the prospective audience will remain.

I also began to wonder how many different perspectives exist around design thinking. I consider design thinking a necessary part of UX. Adam, with his focus on urban planning, thinks more in terms of service design. How do other designers define design thinking? What key elements are maintained across all of our different experiences and vocabularies? How has design thinking evolved, and how does it continue to evolve?

The only way to find out is to keep asking the question.

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a passion for the user experience. Her work spans websites, web applications, and mobile. Marli is the VP of Content Strategy at the UX design agency Mad*Pow, and she serves as managing editor at UX Booth, a publication about all areas of user experience. Marli is a frequent conference speaker, and has spoken at conferences including Content Strategy Forum and LavaCon. She can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on content strategy, literature, and Muppets.

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