Three Characteristics of Design Thinking

Last week I attempted to explain what I meant by “design thinking” to someone who was new to the idea, and I failed. Not a problem; I’m a fan of failure because it points me to where I can learn. So, I’ve poked around a bit since then and here are some thoughts on three key characteristics of design thinking, and pointers to where you can learn more. Hopefully you’ll have a more solid answer the next time you face a question about what design thinking is and why anyone should care.

Three characteristics of design thinking:

1. Building your way forward

What if you allowed yourself to move forward step by step without having to know how it (the decision, the journey, the relationship…) would look in the end?  In a design thinking mindset, you build your way forward by asking questions, seeking feedback, prototyping, and improving along the way. So in the end you have a solution that works, and most likely one that you could not have imagined at the start.

2. Designing (versus engineering) a solution

Design thinking is a good fit for adaptive challenges, or what Dave Evans, co-author of  Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, calls “wicked problems“. Wicked problems are in motion, multi-faceted and have many dependencies — like poverty, homelessness, or how to fill your nonprofit organization’s fundraising gap.

Wicked problems call for a different solution-finding process than “tame” problems where, as Evans puts it “the conditions remain the same, and once you solve the problem (for example engineering and building a bridge) you can transfer that knowledge to other locations and build more bridges. Arriving at the solution can be difficult, but once you get there, it’s final. File it under done and dusted.”

3. Prototyping and iteration

Stop for a moment and think of an item that you use daily that works well. It could be a vegetable peeler, a bicycle, the buttons on your jacket… Got an item in mind? Good. Now name for yourself what it is about that item that works well for you. Hold that thought for a moment.

In contrast with things that don’t work well (the counter edge that sticks out just far enough to snag your sweater, the sweater that snags so damned easily…) the well-designed items in your life probably resulted from an iterative design process. Iterative means repeating, and my mental image of an iterative design process is a spiral where you move to a different level with each turn, rather than a circle where you wear a rut into the ground.  In an iterative process, a design team creates a prototype, then observes while people use the item or learning solution, all the while challenging their assumptions about the solution, and goes back to the drawing board to make changes in response to the feedback.

Back to that item you have in mind: what if the next learning solution you design has the equivalent design “smarts” and appeal? Wouldn’t you like your learners to love what you produce and to enjoy using your work daily? Design — it’s not just for vegetable peelers.

Resources to learn more:

  • Pamela Hogle’s article on using design thinking to improve e-learning experiences is where I started, and she calls out several resources
  • A fun example of prototyping and iteration is a classic video of the IDEO shopping cart challenge, as seen on ABC Nightline circa 2009



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