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How Design Thinking Unlocks Your Team’s Full Creative Potential


LAST UPDATED: 07 June, 2023

Airbnb wasn’t always the trendy lodging giant we all know today. Expanding the hotel marketplace and our possibilities of cutesy affordable vacation spots to hunker down in has become a part of both our well-planned and impromptu getaway toolkits for over a decade. But like many startups, they ran into many mistakes while getting themselves off shaky ground. How did they learn from their mistakes? By using Design Thinking — a non-linear, iterative problem-solving process that puts the customers’ needs first.

By engaging in the Design Thinking process, the founders of Airbnb decided to crumple up and toss their old blueprint. They didn’t even let their impending bankruptcy get in the way. They realised that the quality of their photos was holding back their potential revenue stream, and they took action. When they put their heads together and confronted their mistakes head-on, they saw their revenue soar to new heights.

Design Thinking is not only useful for companies in the humble beginnings stage, but also for established companies.

It is inherent in the process to confront mistakes, not avoid them. No business is impervious to mistakes. It was through this process that Airbnb was able to put themselves in their customers’ shoes and literally get them to where they wanted to go.

So what exactly is Design Thinking? 

It’s a thorough problem-solving technique that is constructed to pinpoint ambiguous obstacles around human-centred technology, and ultimately find solutions to meet customers where they are. And this technique can be applied at every level of an organisation. There are many versions of Design Thinking, but according to the process proposed by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, it consists of five nonlinear stages — Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.

You empathise with your users, define your users’ needs and problems via collected data and insights, ideate by pushing boundaries toward innovative solutions to your users’ problems, prototype by creating those innovative solutions, and then test those solutions to see if they yield the expected outcomes for the user. The more the process is repeated, the more innovative ideas emerge from the design woodwork — meaning that more of those ideas can be made actionable to transform the user experience.

To illustrate this with our Airbnb example, the founders prototyped and tested their website and photos. By empathising with the customer, they defined their problem: their photo quality hindered the user experience and stunted potential website traffic. So, they ideated and prototyped a new platform with the customers’ perspective in mind. This Design-Thinking process would ultimately change the lodging industry forever.

These nonlinear stages encourage feedback loops to inform prior and future steps in the iterative process. Data-driven insights revealed in the testing phase inform the empathy phase as a company gathers more insight about HOW the customer is interacting with a new design and WHY they are experiencing certain problems. The testing phase can also inspire new ideas for projects, and can help redefine the problem — and it is exploring this problem space that is crucial to getting the most out of this process and growing as a team.

“Most people don’t make much of an effort to explore the problem space before exploring the solution space” said MIT Sloan Professor Steven Eppinger. 

One of the major benefits of the Design-Thinking process is that it forces everyone to step out of a ‘yes or no’ mentality and confront both successes and failures. Critical thinking is embedded in the very process itself as team members put their heads together to dive into how and why customers are experiencing certain issues and how and why customers enjoy certain aspects of a digital product.

Design Thinking merges both the qualitative and the quantitative to make informed, strategic decisions and lays the groundwork to spearhead innovation and growth. Focusing on wholly understanding the human customer experience in tandem with hard data will also ensure financial targets are achieved and exceeded.

How do you get the most out of the Design-Thinking process? 

Put simply, through cross-team collaboration and free space to critically evaluate human-centric solutions to design challenges. 

To most effectively navigate such intertwined human and technical obstacles, it’s optimal to remove divisions that separate design teams and software development teams so software teams can visualize how their code interacts with the real world, and so design teams know the nuts and bolts of how their ideas are executed at the technical level. This harkens back to the common concern of bridging the gap between designers and developers. Implementing Design Thinking company-wide would facilitate the bridging of this gap and streamline ways to think outside the box.