Saturday, December 8, 2012

4 tenets of design thinking

Design thinking (DT) means different things to different people. Here I would like to present my view of 4 core tenets of DT. This view is influenced by various champions of DT such as D-schools at Stanford and Potsdam (especially Lakshman Pachineela & Prof. Ulrich Winberg), Prof. Karl Ulrich of Wharton, Ideo folks (Kelley brothers: David & Tom, Tim Brown), Gandhi, Steve Jobs, and of course, my own experience as a practitioner and an educator.

EmpathyCensus of India (2001) says that 72% of all households in India use traditional cooking stove (chulha). This would be a useful data point. However, it doesn’t tell you what the cooking stove means to the people in the house. What all individual and social behaviours are associated with it? What does the activity of collecting wood mean to the women? Through observation and interviewing DT tries to gather insights beyond what people say – their behaviours, attitudes, artefacts, context etc. DT borrows a lot from ethnography here. “Getting people to talk: An ethnography & interviewing primer” by Gabriel Biller and Kristy Scovel is a great video tutorial on various techniques used in this kind research.

Bias for experimentation: Indian education system advocates thinking through the problem well before taking any action. Whether you are in 1st grade or doing an MBA, you are groomed and tested on analytical problem solving. DT has a different take on this – something closer to what Gandhi advocated. It says think a little – experiment a little - learn and iterate. Why experiment? Well, there are several advantages. One, a low-cost experiment reduces the anxiety of unknown. Two, the learning from the experiment generates more ideas. Three, it validates whether you have access to the right skills to put the idea into action. Four, a prototype helps you communicate your idea better. In fact, prototyping has been useful for clarifying requirements during the design of Boeing 747.

Process focus: Depending upon whom you talk to you may hear that DT as a process involves 4 (Prof. Ulrich@Wharton), 5 (Stanford D-school) or 6 (Potsdam D-school) steps. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. All perspectives incorporate immersive research, framing of the challenge or a point of view, generation of ideas, experimentation and validation. DT is not like an ISO which demands exact conformance to a standard. In fact, jumping off from research to prototyping or refining the challenge multiple times is very common and encouraged. Iteration is an expectation and typically you iterate tens or sometimes even hundreds of times.

Cross-functional collaboration: Steve Jobs-Steve Wozniak-Mike Markkula, Bill Gates-James Allen or for that matter Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker – all these winning teams had one thing common. The members brought in different perspectives to the table especially during the early phases of their innovation. Jobs was business focused while Wozniak was excited by the circuit designs. Zuckerberg knew how to keep the facebook interface simple while Parker knew how to deal with venture capitalists. DT encourages cross-functional collaboration because diversity makes a big difference especially during research and ideation phases.


  1. How do you get the empathy created for teams who are sitting far from business "offshore" and who neither feel nor know if they can feel the pain of the business?

  2. A couple of approaches -

    a) simulate such an environment (set-up and people) and role play. Not as good as face-to-face but still better

    b) request for a video recording 'a day in a life of .....'. Need not be for the whole day. Some different 4 to 5 short clips across the day.

    c) teleconferencing - the last option