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Design Thinking, Essential Problem Solving 101- It’s More Than Scientific
The term “ Design Thinking ” dates back to the 1987 book by Peter Rowe; “Design Thinking.” In that book he describes the way that architects and urban planners would approach design problems. However, the idea that there was a specific pattern of problem solving in “design thought” came much earlier in Herbert A Simon’s book, “The Science of the Artificial” which was published in 1969. The concept was popularized in the early 1990s by Richard Buchanan in his article “ Wicked Problems in Design Thinking”.
Ralph Caplan, the design consultant, sums up the need for design thinking with; “Thinking about design is hard, but not thinking about it can be disastrous.”
Author/Copyright holder: Christine Prefontaine. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 2.0
A simple overview of design thinking as a problem solving process.
Problem-Solving and Two Schools of Thought
Design thinking is concerned with solving problems through design. The idea being that the future output of the process will provide a better answer than the one already available or if nothing is available – something entirely new.
It is an unconstrained methodology where it is possible that the designer (or design team) will work on many possible solutions at once. It enables designers to consider the problem in many different ways and speculate on both the past and future of the problem too.
This is in contrast to the scientific method of problem solving which requires a highly-defined problem which focuses on delivering a single solution.
This difference was first noted by Brian Lawson, a psychologist, in 1972. He conducted an experiment in which scientists and architects were asked to build a structure from colored blocks. He provided some basic rules for the project and observed how they approached it. The scientists looked to move through a simple series of solutions based on the outcome and entire rule set. The architects, in contrast, simply focused on the desired end-state and then tested to see if the solution they had found met the rules.
This led to the idea that scientists solve problems by a process of analysis, whilst designers solve problems by synthesis. However, later evidence suggests that designers apply both forms of problem solving to attain “design thinking”.
They do this via a process of divergent thinking . A designer will examine as many possible solutions at the beginning of a process as they can think of – then they will apply the scientific side ( convergent thinking ) to narrow these solutions down to the best output.
Design thinking can be as simple or as complex as the business and users require. This IDEO process can be seen as a 3 part process or a 9 part process .
The Design Thinking Process
Design thinking is essentially a process which moves from problem to solution via some clear intermediate points. The classic approach, as proposed by Herbert A Simon, is offered here:
- Definition – where the problem is defined as best as possible prior to solving it
- Research – where the designers examine as much data as they feel necessary to be able to fully contribute to the problem solving process
- Ideation – where the designer commences creating possible solutions without examining their practicality until a large number of solutions has been proposed. Once this is done, impractical solutions are eliminated or played with until they become practical.
- Prototyping – where the best ideas are simulated in some means so that their value can be explored with users
- Choosing – where the best idea is selected from the multiple prototypes
- Implementing – where that idea is built and delivered as a product
- Testing – where the product is tested with the user in order to ensure that it solves the original problem in an effective manner
There are many other design thinking processes outlined in literature – most of which are a truncated version of the above process combining or skipping stages.
Here we see a more complex interpretation of the design thinking process and how it fits into the larger business sphere.
The Principles of Design Thinking
In the book, Design thinking: Understand, Improve Apply, Plattner and Meinel offer four underlying principles for design thinking:
- Human – all design is of a social nature
- Ambiguity – design thinking preserves and embraces ambiguity
- Re-design – all design processes are in fact re-design of existing processes
- Tangibility – the design process to make something tangible will facilitate communication of that design
It is also worth noting that design thinking functions independently of the design methods employed in any given design process. Design methods are the tools employed (such as interviews, user research , prototypes, etc.) and the assumption is that there are many paths that may be used (e.g. different sets of methods applied) to reach the same “best” result.
Visuals and Design Thinking
Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that design thinking is not about graphic design per se. However, designers are often used to communicating their thinking visually and drawings, sketches, prototypes, etc. are often used to convey the ideas created within a design thinking process.
In fact, ideas which are hard to express easily in words are often given shape in the form of visual metaphors. Design thinking thus easily incorporates abstract thought processes – something that scientific thinking may find more challenging to accommodate.
Visual representations of how those involved in the design process might be thinking about a problem.
The Take Away
Design thinking is a process by which designers approach problem solving. It incorporates analytical, synthetic, divergent and convergent thinking to create a wide number of potential solutions and then narrow these down to a “best fit” solution. There are many ways to use a design thinking process to incorporate different methodologies to still reach the same end point. Designers must solve problems in order to add value through design.
Richard Buchanan’s original article "Wicked Problems in Design Thinking," was published in Design Issues , vol. 8, no. 2, Spring 1992.
Peter Rowe’s book from 1987 Design Thinking was published byCambridge: The MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-68067-7.
Herbert A Simon’s book from 1969 The Sciences of the Artificial . Was published by Cambridge: MIT Press.
Plattner, Hasso; Meinel, Christoph; Leifer, Larry J., eds. (2011). Design thinking: understand, improve, apply . Understanding innovation . Berlin; Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag. pp. xiv–xvi.doi:10.1007/978-3-642-13757-0. ISBN 3642137563.
This fascinating case study looks at how IBM plans to bring design thinking to large scale businesses - http://www.wired.com/2016/01/ibms-got-a-plan-to-bring-design-thinking-to-big-business/
See how Pepsi’s CEO, Indra Nooyi, implemented design thinking in her organization - https://hbr.org/2015/09/how-indra-nooyi-turned-design-thinking-into-strategy
Harvard Business Review examines design thinking and how it translates into action here - https://hbr.org/2015/09/design-for-action
Hero Image: Author/Copyright holder: Wikimedia Deutschland e. V. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-SA 4.0
Creativity: Methods to Design Better Products and Services
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Design thinking, explained
Sep 14, 2017
What is design thinking?
Design thinking is an innovative problem-solving process rooted in a set of skills.The approach has been around for decades, but it only started gaining traction outside of the design community after the 2008 Harvard Business Review article [subscription required] titled “Design Thinking” by Tim Brown, CEO and president of design company IDEO.
Since then, the design thinking process has been applied to developing new products and services, and to a whole range of problems, from creating a business model for selling solar panels in Africa to the operation of Airbnb .
At a high level, the steps involved in the design thinking process are simple: first, fully understand the problem; second, explore a wide range of possible solutions; third, iterate extensively through prototyping and testing; and finally, implement through the customary deployment mechanisms.
The skills associated with these steps help people apply creativity to effectively solve real-world problems better than they otherwise would. They can be readily learned, but take effort. For instance, when trying to understand a problem, setting aside your own preconceptions is vital, but it’s hard.
Creative brainstorming is necessary for developing possible solutions, but many people don’t do it particularly well. And throughout the process it is critical to engage in modeling, analysis, prototyping, and testing, and to really learn from these many iterations.
Once you master the skills central to the design thinking approach, they can be applied to solve problems in daily life and any industry.
Here’s what you need to know to get started.
Understand the problem
The first step in design thinking is to understand the problem you are trying to solve before searching for solutions. Sometimes, the problem you need to address is not the one you originally set out to tackle.
“Most people don’t make much of an effort to explore the problem space before exploring the solution space,” said MIT Sloan professor Steve Eppinger. The mistake they make is to try and empathize, connecting the stated problem only to their own experiences. This falsely leads to the belief that you completely understand the situation. But the actual problem is always broader, more nuanced, or different than people originally assume.
Take the example of a meal delivery service in Holstebro, Denmark. When a team first began looking at the problem of poor nutrition and malnourishment among the elderly in the city, many of whom received meals from the service, it thought that simply updating the menu options would be a sufficient solution. But after closer observation, the team realized the scope of the problem was much larger , and that they would need to redesign the entire experience, not only for those receiving the meals, but for those preparing the meals as well. While the company changed almost everything about itself, including rebranding as The Good Kitchen, the most important change the company made when rethinking its business model was shifting how employees viewed themselves and their work. That, in turn, helped them create better meals (which were also drastically changed), yielding happier, better nourished customers.
Imagine you are designing a new walker for rehabilitation patients and the elderly, but you have never used one. Could you fully understand what customers need? Certainly not, if you haven’t extensively observed and spoken with real customers. There is a reason that design thinking is often referred to as human-centered design.
“You have to immerse yourself in the problem,” Eppinger said.
How do you start to understand how to build a better walker? When a team from MIT’s Integrated Design and Management program together with the design firm Altitude took on that task, they met with walker users to interview them, observe them, and understand their experiences.
“We center the design process on human beings by understanding their needs at the beginning, and then include them throughout the development and testing process,” Eppinger said.
Central to the design thinking process is prototyping and testing (more on that later) which allows designers to try, to fail, and to learn what works. Testing also involves customers, and that continued involvement provides essential user feedback on potential designs and use cases. If the MIT-Altitude team studying walkers had ended user involvement after its initial interviews, it would likely have ended up with a walker that didn’t work very well for customers.
It is also important to interview and understand other stakeholders, like people selling the product, or those who are supporting the users throughout the product life cycle.
The second phase of design thinking is developing solutions to the problem (which you now fully understand). This begins with what most people know as brainstorming.
Hold nothing back during brainstorming sessions — except criticism. Infeasible ideas can generate useful solutions, but you’d never get there if you shoot down every impractical idea from the start.
“One of the key principles of brainstorming is to suspend judgment,” Eppinger said. “When we're exploring the solution space, we first broaden the search and generate lots of possibilities, including the wild and crazy ideas. Of course, the only way we're going to build on the wild and crazy ideas is if we consider them in the first place.”
That doesn’t mean you never judge the ideas, Eppinger said. That part comes later, in downselection. “But if we want 100 ideas to choose from, we can’t be very critical.”
In the case of The Good Kitchen, the kitchen employees were given new uniforms. Why? Uniforms don’t directly affect the competence of the cooks or the taste of the food.
But during interviews conducted with kitchen employees, designers realized that morale was low, in part because employees were bored preparing the same dishes over and over again, in part because they felt that others had a poor perception of them. The new, chef-style uniforms gave the cooks a greater sense of pride. It was only part of the solution, but if the idea had been rejected outright, or perhaps not even suggested, the company would have missed an important aspect of the solution.
Prototype and test. Repeat.
You’ve defined the problem. You’ve spoken to customers. You’ve brainstormed, come up with all sorts of ideas, and worked with your team to boil those ideas down to the ones you think may actually solve the problem you’ve defined.
“We don’t develop a good solution just by thinking about a list of ideas, bullet points and rough sketches,” Eppinger said. “We explore potential solutions through modeling and prototyping. We design, we build, we test, and repeat — this design iteration process is absolutely critical to effective design thinking.”
Repeating this loop of prototyping, testing, and gathering user feedback is crucial for making sure the design is right — that is, it works for customers, you can build it, and you can support it.
“After several iterations, we might get something that works, we validate it with real customers, and we often find that what we thought was a great solution is actually only just OK. But then we can make it a lot better through even just a few more iterations,” Eppinger said.
The goal of all the steps that come before this is to have the best possible solution before you move into implementing the design. Your team will spend most of its time, its money, and its energy on this stage.
“Implementation involves detailed design, training, tooling, and ramping up. It is a huge amount of effort, so get it right before you expend that effort,” said Eppinger.
Design thinking isn’t just for “things.” If you are only applying the approach to physical products, you aren’t getting the most out of it. Design thinking can be applied to any problem that needs a creative solution. When Eppinger ran into a primary school educator who told him design thinking was big in his school, Eppinger thought he meant that they were teaching students the tenets of design thinking.
“It turns out they meant they were using design thinking in running their operations and improving the school programs. It’s being applied everywhere these days,” Eppinger said.
In another example from the education field, Peruvian entrepreneur Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor hired design consulting firm IDEO to redesign every aspect of the learning experience in a network of schools in Peru. The ultimate goal? To elevate Peru’s middle class.
As you’d expect, many large corporations have also adopted design thinking. IBM has adopted it at a company-wide level, training many of its nearly 400,000 employees in design thinking principles .
What can design thinking do for your business?
The impact of all the buzz around design thinking today is that people are realizing that “anybody who has a challenge that needs creative problem solving could benefit from this approach,” Eppinger said. That means that managers can use it, not only to design a new product or service, “but anytime they’ve got a challenge, a problem to solve.”
Applying design thinking techniques to business problems can help executives across industries rethink their product offerings, grow their markets, offer greater value to customers, or innovate and stay relevant. “I don’t know industries that can’t use design thinking,” said Eppinger.
Ready to go deeper?
Read “ The Designful Company ” by Marty Neumeier, a book that focuses on how businesses can benefit from design thinking, and “ Product Design and Development ,” co-authored by Eppinger, to better understand the detailed methods.
Register for an MIT Sloan Executive Education course:
Systematic Innovation of Products, Processes, and Services , a five-day course taught by Eppinger and other MIT professors.
- Leadership by Design: Innovation Process and Culture , a two-day course taught by MIT Integrated Design and Management director Matthew Kressy.
- Managing Complex Technical Projects , a two-day course taught by Eppinger.
- Apply for M astering Design Thinking , a 3-month online certificate course taught by Eppinger and MIT Sloan senior lecturers Renée Richardson Gosline and David Robertson.
Steve Eppinger is a professor of management science and innovation at MIT Sloan. He holds the General Motors Leaders for Global Operations Chair and has a PhD from MIT in engineering. He is the faculty co-director of MIT's System Design and Management program and Integrated Design and Management program, both master’s degrees joint between the MIT Sloan and Engineering schools. His research focuses on product development and technical project management, and has been applied to improving complex engineering processes in many industries.
Read next: 10 agile ideas worth sharing
Contemporary Issues in Science and Technology Education pp 253–265 Cite as
Problem-Solving in Science and Technology Education
- Bulent Çavaş 13 ,
- Pınar Çavaş 14 &
- Yasemin Özdem Yılmaz 15
- First Online: 25 February 2023
Part of the Contemporary Trends and Issues in Science Education book series (CTISE,volume 56)
This chapter focuses on problem-solving, which involves describing a problem, figuring out its root cause, locating, ranking and choosing potential solutions, as well as putting those solutions into action in science and technology education. This chapter covers (1) what problem-solving means for science and technology education; (2) what the problem-solving processes are and how these processes can be used step-by-step for effective problem-solving and (3) the use of problem-solving in citizen science projects supported by the European Union. The chapter also includes discussion of and recommendations for future scientific research in the field of science and technology education.
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Faculty of Education, Dokuz Eylül University, Buca, Izmir, Türkiye
Faculty of Education, Ege University, Bornova, Izmir, Türkiye
Muğla Sıtkı Koçman University, Faculty of Education, Muğla, Türkiye
Yasemin Özdem Yılmaz
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Çavaş, B., Çavaş, P., Yılmaz, Y.Ö. (2023). Problem-Solving in Science and Technology Education. In: Akpan, B., Cavas, B., Kennedy, T. (eds) Contemporary Issues in Science and Technology Education. Contemporary Trends and Issues in Science Education, vol 56. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-24259-5_18
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