Design Thinking: Innovation rethought

Timo Gerhardt, Monday 18 July 2022 | Reading time: 7 min.

Project management is primarily about meeting the needs of the client. In some cases, this is relatively straightforward and the project team can rely on tried and tested methods to arrive at a sensible solution. When the project addresses a completely novel problem, traditional approaches are hardly sufficient. To find an innovative solution satisfying the needs of the stakeholders, the concept of design thinking is suitable. In the following article, we will show you what Design Thinking is all about and how this approach can help you manage projects. 

A fast-moving world, a dynamic market environment and, last but not least, intense competition make it impossible to successfully implement complex innovation projects using traditional problem-solving approaches. Design Thinking as a very target group oriented and idea generating approach can help here. The concept is being actively developed and disseminated by the Palo Alto-based design and innovation company IDEO under CEO Tim Brown.


The 3 principles

The concept of design thinking places three demands on a solution that must be met in order for it to be considered acceptable:

  1. Feasibility
  2. Desirability
  3. Viability

Feasibility refers to whether the solution can actually be realized. It is not a question of whether a solution could be implemented in principle, but whether the solution can be implemented with the resources available in the company within the specified timeframe. Consideration should also be given to the extent to which the actual effort involved in implementation is reflected in the benefits. 

Desirability means to take the client’s point of view: Is the solution really what the customer needs? Are the customers’ needs satisfied, does the solution fit into their everyday life, does it appeal to the customers’ aesthetics and lastly, do the customers actually want this solution? 

The third point, profitability, takes an economic perspective: Will the company's goals be reached, is the project result of sustainable success, can a satisfactory return on investment be expected and is the consumer’s willingness to pay high enough? 

The Design Thinking Process

The process that characterizes Design Thinking is not so much a linear process, but rather an iterative cycle. If a phase does not deliver progress, the process goes back one step. By repeating the different phases, one approaches an optimal solution. The 3 phases are as follows:

  1. Inspiration
  2. Ideation
  3. Implementation

The inspiration phase focuses on observing the environment and the people in it. By regarding people's behavior in everyday life, the team gets a sense of what needs arise and how everyday processes that are rarely questioned can be improved. Here, it is advisable to focus on "extreme" users, such as senior citizens, who are more dependent on flawless functionality for many products. This can generate particularly valuable insights. 

For the next phase, it is important to involve team members from as many different disciplines as possible. This way, a wide variety of perspectives are taken regarding these observations. A mechanical engineer e.g., will recognize other deficits and opportunities than a marketing expert. A designer will draw different conclusions again. In this way, divergent thinking is made possible. This means that ideas are developed that go in many different directions, but still meet needs in their own way. On this basis, the observations from the inspiration phase are transformed into ideas and possible solutions. 

In contrast to the second phase, in which the focus is on a divergent approach, the implementation phase is about convergent thinking. Where previously a wide variety of ideas were generated on an interdisciplinary basis, these different approaches are now united again in one solution. This solution is initially implemented in an MVP, a Minimum Viable Product. This prototype combines only the most basic features needed to satisfy the identified customer needs. Based on this MVP, feedback can be generated, which is incorporated into the next prototype. This iterative prototyping process leads to the final project result.

User orientation and creative thinking

In contrast to other development processes for products, services, processes or even strategies, Design Thinking is characterized by the fact that the human being as user is at the center. Instead of focusing on products, services or functions, Design Thinking uncompromisingly focuses on the satisfaction of human needs. Everything that stands in the way is consistently reviewed and either discarded or improved. This approach is the most direct way to satisfy the customer or client. The name of this approach is based on the fact that the developer takes the role of a designer. A designer generates ideas without any mental limitations, which means that emotional factors can also be included. Various sources of input are used for this purpose, and the participation of outsiders is always desired. Ultimately, unconventional thinking and looking beyond one's own horizon are of great importance. This distinguishes Design Thinking from other approaches. These are often characterized by rationality and fixed process thinking. However, a purely scientific approach to analysis is hardly sufficient for satisfying multidimensional human needs. 

Ultimately, the relationship between the project team and the client is also improved, since the client is permanently involved as a customer and can thus better understand the transparent development process. 

If a project team ultimately lacks the spirit of innovation or if project results often do not satisfy the real needs of the client, it is advisable to choose design thinking as a solution approach for the next development of a product, service, process or strategy.

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