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Design Thinking in Practice – Requirements, Use Cases and Limitations

Digitalization is increasing the pressure for innovation in companies across all industries. In order to secure competitiveness or achieve further growth, it is necessary to develop new products and services. In this context, companies usually have to face the following challenges:

  1. Customer needs change rapidly due to technological progress and have to be re-explored on a regular basis.
  2. Digitisation leads to low market entry barriers and increasing competition from small innovative companies.
  3. In order to be able to react to market changes on time, product development cycles have to be more flexible and in more frequent intervals.
  4. If a good idea has been developed which meets the needs of the target group, the business case must also be suitable to ensure profitability for the company.

In order to meet these challenges, agile methods are increasingly being used. As an innovative approach, Design Thinking has found its way into many companies and is used in all kinds of projects. However, the project results are often sobering and do not meet the expectations. Some companies try to dogmatically implement the methods of Design Thinking without meeting the organisational and cultural requirements of Design Thinking. In order to not only remember many colorful post-its in fancy meeting rooms when we will talk about Design Thinking in a few years, this article takes a critical look at the requirements, possible uses and limits of Design Thinking.

Design Thinking in Practice: Organizational and Cultural Requirements


Design Thinking is currently often used either in an entertaining or superficial way, hoping that a few workshops will put the company on the right path towards a culture of innovation. A lot of executives visit the well-known Design Thinking Schools for a few days to get a taste of Silicon Valley. Back in the company, they create outsourced hubs with stylish rooms and technologies that serve as a showcase for their company. However, the agile structures and ways of thinking are rarely used and implemented at companies headquarters and neither in day-to-day business.

Design Thinking in five days is not a panacea that turns controllers, marketing managers and IT experts into creative product- and service designers. Rather, design thinking is a skill that must be learned and a way of thinking that should be also practised by top management and should be anchored in the corporate culture. Both require motivation, perseverance and discipline as well as serious willingness to make a difference.

Design Thinking projects can only be successful if the way of thinking and the way of working have been changed to an agile way. If this does not happen, design thinking becomes a small unsuccessful adventure.

Design Thinking in Practice: Teams and Design Thinking Coaches


Frequently underestimated factors in Design Thinking are the confidence in dealing with the methods and processes, a common understanding of the project along with the right mindset in the Design Thinking Team. If these conditions are missing, projects often end in chaos and are not very effective: Designers don’t like to be tampered with in their area of responsibility, marketing experts believe that they understand the target group best anyway, IT experts finally want to get back to their computers and develop something meaningful while controllers are constantly asking themselves about the costs of this “kindergarten”. To avoid such situations, the Design Thinking Coach must have certain experiences and skills  in this field and the team has to be selected and trained carefully.

Well-qualified Design Thinking Coaches and Moderators are distinguished by a profound knowledge of methodologies and processes, natural authority, assertiveness as well as empathy. Empathy is particularly important in order to overcome distrust and motivate and support team members where it is needed. Assertiveness is essential to dissolve hierarchies within the team, to gain the trust of all participants and to guide them through the process in a target-oriented manner. Throughout the coaching process, the tension between ” being too relaxed ” and “being too strict ” must be well balanced.

The Design Thinking Team should be as heterogeneous as possible, i.e. the members should have different backgrounds both professionally and personally. The ideal team consists of six to eight participants from different areas with various characteristics (unconventional thinkers, experts, external experts, mediators, etc.). Even if a mix of different personalities is desired, certain basic attitudes and values should be shared within the team: Every team member should be able to empathize with the target group. Every participant should be motivated and interested in agile methods and ways of thinking. In addition, the team should treat each other with care and appreciation.

Design Thinking in Practice: Prototype, Test, Learn as Crucial Phases


Design Thinking projects often fail in practice because they are not properly accomplished. Once the team returns to daily business after three or five days of Design Thinking Workshops, the developed ideas disappear. Testing the prototypes as well as the intended iterative process will be forgotten. In addition to the lack of persistence, the lack of (time) resources and the unwillingness of the executive level to free up these time resources are also stumbling blocks on the way toward innovation.

The aim of prototyping is to visualize the developed ideas in a simple and easy way, so the users understand the core of the idea as well as the crucial functionalities. Doing so, the Design Thinking Team can test and validate the assumptions. Prototypes made out of paper, Lego or plasticine are nice to look at, but mostly too abstract and imprecise and therefore difficult to evaluate for the users. In order to detect whether an idea can really be sold in the future, potential customers must be offered a scenario that feels real and reflects the developed, critical functionalities as precisely as possible.

In addition, the general understanding of design is a common problem in the prototyping phase: design is often understood as “making things pretty” or “making things beautiful”. However, designers do not work so, their point of view is the user needs and wishes. Customers love things and products that are easy to use and that add value to them – and that is exactly the job of the designer and also of the Design Thinking Team. Therefore, prototypes made out of paper, plasticine or Lego should be used with care, as they often struggle to illustrate the desired usability, design and functionality. Therefore, it is important to develop a product or service model that represents the idea as realistic as possible, without binding high temporal or monetary resources. The trick is to develop a product that is not too detailed nor too thin, so that the customer can understand the core of the idea.  A Lego prototype developed by the Design Team can certainly be used as a template, which is then reworked or redesigned by the Team and equipped with the critical functions in the following.
When presenting the prototype to the customer, it is important that the team is able to accept critique and does not focus too much on the prototype and the underlying idea. This is because discarding ideas or revising them on the basis of feedback and, if necessary, returning to an earlier stage is an essential part of the Design Thinking idea and all agile methods. However, Build (to think), Measure, Learn requires a high degree of fault tolerance and flexibility, which both companies and individuals must learn and internalize before starting a Design Thinking Project.

Design Thinking and Economic Viability – A Critical Review


A model is a simplified representation of reality and thus excludes some influencing factors and criteria which may lead to a structural tendency in the model. This also applies to Design Thinking: Design Thinking delivers ideas based on customer needs and wishes, while at the same time ignoring economic efficiency and feasibility. Real innovations are not only new and beneficial for the user, but also provide the profit to the company. The design researcher Dr. Sam Ladner once put it this way: “There is no shortage of creative solutions for unmet needs, only a shortage of profitable ways to provide them.” For this reason, sooner or later every idea developed in the Design Thinking Process should be checked for feasibility and profitability.

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