Learn to think like a designer

Image via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0
Image via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

Designers of all stripes—software designers, graphic designers, and even interior designers—have a unique way of thinking that can solve a whole host of business and marketing problems. It’s more of a process than a business plan, but it creates an environment that fosters creative solutions, innovative ideas, and the opportunity to learn and grow from mistakes. How can you empower your team using design thinking? Consider planning your next project using the following steps.

Big-Picture Planning

Most design thinking processes start with the big picture. What do we have? What do we need? What steps can we take to get there? These steps can go by many different names, but they usually include things like customer/audience research, leveraging available assets, and planning out the whole process from the beginning, paying careful attention to detail.

Design thinking is emphatically human-centered, so it relies on a thorough understanding of the people the product will serve. What are their needs? What are their pain points? How can this product or idea simplify their lives? How can we make their jobs or lives more interactive and engaging? By keeping the intended audience front and center throughout the process, design thinking provides built-in values that streamline decision making. If it doesn’t benefit the end user, it doesn’t get included. Period.

At this stage, it’s also vital to take stock of the assets and limitations you and your team have to work with. This includes manpower, funding, timeline, and specific requests from your client or team. Design thinking is meant to be holistic, balancing the needs of the business, team members, and clients throughout the process, creating a supportive environment that promotes teamwork and motivation. Making this list now also allows for better decision-making later on.

Brainstorming

Once the process is laid out, it’s time to start generating solutions. This can happen in several formal sessions or informally over a longer period of time and usually involves a fair amount of research, interdisciplinary teams, discussions, and focus groups, and prototyping of the most promising options. Many teams also incorporate “refresher” activities into this phase of the process that boost creativity and prevent burnout. This can include attending conferences, participating in enrichment projects like visits to art galleries or film showings, and anything else that feeds creativity and introduces new ideas into the mix. This keeps people’s minds fresh, sharp, and engaged during the most creative part of the process.

In order to generate the broadest variety of options, it is vital to make space for brainstorming and to use it exclusively for idea generation, not idea critique. This protected space promotes new ideas, encourages lateral thinking, and enables creative solutions by making team members feel free to propose unique or even radical solutions without fear of criticism. If you’re working on your own, separate brainstorming from critique to give you the space to explore all possibilities.

Once a list of ideas has been researched and generated, prototypes can be built based on the most promising ideas and evaluated by focus groups and interdisciplinary teams. This step highlights potential issues both on the user/client side and in the production process. If multiple teams will be involved in the implementation of the product (like marketing and tech support, for instance), it’s important to ask for insights from representatives from all of them to red flag any potential issues.

At the same time, when making the final decisions, guiding principles should remain focused on solving problems for end users. This means prioritizing aspects like functionality, aesthetics, experience, and simplicity, even if it requires a little more work in development (within the limitations of available resources).

Launch

The final stage of the process sees the production and implementation of the product. But it doesn’t stop there! Design thinking is iterative, so this part of the process involves collecting user feedback and refining the product as well as taking any lessons learned into account for the next project. This can also be a good time to review all the ideas generated during brainstorming and seeing whether any of them should be applied to other problems before restarting the process.

A “post-mortem” with the design team can also be helpful in order to review any mistakes or difficulties and resolve any outstanding issues before the next project begins.

This structure may be a little different from what your team is used to, so it’s OK to implement it slowly. But if you need an injection of creative ideas, start by focusing on the needs of users and making space for brainstorming, and you’ll quickly begin to see the benefits of design thinking.

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