Have you ever wondered how some new products, or even add-ons and upgrades to existing products, are so simple yet functional — fulfilling a need felt by many — and ingenious at the same time? Many of the products constantly used in today’s world fit this description. Take a computer mouse for example: super simple, yet extremely functional and ingenious.
But how does one come up with these ideas? And more importantly, how do the people behind these ideas go from mere concept to physical product?
The answer is design thinking.
At its core, a design-thinking approach is a human-centered one. That is to say, a design-thinking approach involves empathizing with the consumer — truly putting oneself in their shoes with regard to all aspects of a potential product — in order to create a product that best serves them. Of course, this is the core, not the entirety of the approach.
A design-thinking approach blends this human empathy with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. It is an approach that seeks to understand the consumer, challenge assumptions, redefine problems in an attempt to identify strategies and solutions that may not be apparent at first and provide a solution-based method of solving problems.
Taking all this into account, design thinking, as stated by the Interaction Design Foundation, “is extremely useful in tackling problems that are ill-defined or unknown, by re-framing the problem in human-centric ways, creating many ideas in brainstorming sessions and adopting a hands-on approach in prototyping and testing. Design thinking also involves ongoing experimentation: sketching, prototyping, testing and trying out concepts and ideas.”
The design thinking process involves the following five stages:
Before solving a problem, you need to understand the problem. And when it comes to products used by consumers, before doing anything else, you need to understand the problem from the consumers’ perspective. With this in mind, during this first stage, you observe consumers and their behavior in the correct context, you engage with and interview consumers and you do your best to act as a consumer to truly experience what they experience; you put yourself in the consumer’s shoes.
Now that you’ve experienced what consumers experience, you must define the problems, plural — because there won’t just be one. Every solution to one problem can also cause other problems. Since you’ve experienced what consumers experience at this point, you are now able to flag these problems in order to try and solve all of them at the same time. Which is extremely necessary. Can you imagine if computer mouses (or perhaps computer mice?) were large, flat, square pads that you had to move around despite not being able to stretch your fingers to each edge? Thankfully, you never had to live through that nightmare because the designers, having already put themselves in your shoes, were able to define such a thing as a problem, even though, technically speaking, that device would have the same functionality as our modern computer mouses.
This is where you brainstorm. And the goal is not just to come up with a solution to the challenges you’ve identified but also develop a plethora of wide-ranging and diverse solutions to both individual problems and all of them as a whole. Once you’ve done so, you are able to mix and match different ideas to create a few altogether unique ones that cover all the bases you’ve thus far laid out.
Time to turn your ideas into a physical model. Now that you have a few ideas, you must bring them to fruition and see how they function. Which one works best? What are the flaws that you didn’t foresee? What improvements do you need to make? Prototypes, as noted by SP3, “demonstrate ideas and...get feedback to build more and more prototypes; they are tools for interaction.”
Prior to launching, there are more tests to be done. Whereas with prototypes you’re acting on the assumption that you’re right, when testing, you act on the assumption that you’re wrong. That is to say, with testing, your reframe solutions and make them even better as opposed to merely making sure your current solutions don’t fail.
The importance of design thinking is best defined by Tim Brown — CEO of the revolutionary design firm IDEO — in the introduction of his book Change by Design:
“Design thinking taps into capacities we all have but that are overlooked by more conventional problem-solving practices. It is not only human-centered; it is deeply human in and of itself. Design thinking relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognize patterns, to construct ideas that have emotional meaning as well as functionality, to express ourselves in media other than words or symbols. Nobody wants to run a business based on feeling, intuition, and inspiration, but an overreliance on the rational and the analytical can be just as dangerous. The integrated approach at the core of the design process suggests a ‘third way.’”
One of the best examples of design thinking is the process by which the computer mouse, so often referred to in this article, came to be.
In 1980, Steve Jobs and Apple asked David Kelly and IDEO (Tim Brown came to the company much, much later) to develop what would become the first-ever computer mouse for Apple’s new Lisa computer. Up to this point, there had been mouse-type devices, but all of them were far too expensive and difficult to make. Apple wanted Kelly and IDEO’s innovation to be more reliable and less than 10% of the cost of these other devices.
After considering the needs of future consumers, defining problems and ideating potential solutions, Kelly and his team went to work prototyping — but not necessarily with all the glitz and glamor that we might imagine today. As stated in an Inc. article, “Kelly and his design team pulled together household items to design a working prototype. They shopped their medicine cabinets. They grabbed stuff out of their refrigerators. A roll-on deodorant ball served as the mouse ball. A yellow butter dish cover served as the top.”
No doubt, this was a humble of humble beginnings. But after more prototypes, testing and development, IDEO created the very first computer mouse, which proved to be so mechanically and economically sound that it was barely changed when adapted for the first Macintosh computer. Just as impressively, if not more so, as stated on IDEO’s site, “This mouse’s basic mechanism design is used in virtually all mechanical mouses produced to date.”
J.P. Pressley is a writer, entrepreneur, filmmaker, and an asthmatic former two-sport college athlete (basketball and track). Is he a jockey-nerd or a nerdy-jock? The world may never know. You can learn more about him at his personal website.
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