Why Design Thinking is Shaking Up Conventional Thought

I watched a product video recently that really blew me away. It wasn’t a cool car commercial or a fun beer ad. It was part of a museum exhibit about product design, and I kept thinking about it long after my visit.

The video is for the Leveraged Freedom Chair, an all-terrain wheelchair designed specifically for disabled people living in developing countries. Amos Winter, the MIT engineer who invented it, said he wanted to create something that was cheap, easy to repair and could go long distances over broken pavement, rutted dirt roads and the other types of difficult terrain prevalent in poor nations. The end result is beautiful in its simplicity: A manual, three-wheeled chair with levers that the user can manipulate to get more traction. Push low on the levers to roll across a mostly flat surface; push high on the levers for greater torque in tight situations.

The wheelchair is a great example of design thinking, an engineering concept that’s been getting a lot of attention in the business world lately. It’s one of those terms that we think we know but usually have trouble explaining to other people. I’m going to borrow an explanation from the late Steve Jobs:

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Design thinking has evolved from being about looks to being about how a product functions in the real world and what problem it solves for the end-user. In other words, design thinking is about innovation. Now, we’re talking! But before you go running back to your officemates with the notion crystallized in your mind, give me a few more minutes.

One of the fundamental aspects of design thinking  is the laser-like focus on the consumer, which is often referred to as customer empathy or consumer-centricity. This makes sense, especially if your end goal is profit. If you want people to buy your gizmo or use your service, you’d better know exactly what they want. This is where design thinking marries the rigors of the scientific method (if it doesn’t work, tweak the formula and try, try again!) with good old capitalism (how can we create something that fills a market niche and makes us all filthy rich?). The product could be something completely new or an improved version of something old, such as Spanx or Uber.

“Design thinking minimizes the uncertainty and risk of innovation by engaging customers or users through a series of prototypes to learn, test and refine concepts. Design thinkers rely on customer insights gained from real-world experiments, not just historical data or market research,” says Linda Naiman, founder of Creativity at Work.

In the case of the wheelchair, Winter said the product went from a sketch in his notebook to a prototype to a final product only because his team engaged with many stakeholders along the way, including wheelchair users, parts manufacturers and disability advocates .

“What’s powerful about this model is when you bring together all these stakeholders that represent each link in the chain, from inception of an idea all the way to implementation in the field, that’s where the magic happens,” Winter said during a 2012 TED Talk.

Most of us in the working world aren’t building a wheelchair to help the disadvantaged or designing the next iPhone that will have people camping out in front of stores. But whatever you do matters — or you wouldn’t be getting paid to do it, right? And I’ll bet there are ways to incorporate design thinking into your work to make it better.

There are a myriad of resources online to get your creative juices flowing, or you can ask everyone to bring at least one design-think idea to your next project meeting. The key is to keep an open mind.

The Design Management Institute in Boston has this to say about it: “Beyond customer-centric empathy, beyond creative iteration, beyond the bias to a maker mentality, design thinking has more to offer the modern organization as a means to cultivate creativity and innovation in an organization. “

I co-host a design thinking meetup in the Triangle. We meet monthly exploring this concept and other real-live-no-jive innovation practices. If you are local to the Raligh-Durham area, check us out: Carolinas Innovators & Design Thinkers or feel free to chime in the After the Meetup Tweetup by following #InnovatorsMeetup.

Now, over to you. I’d love to hear your thoughts on design thinking or some examples of how you’re implementing it in your work. Please share in the comments below or send me an email.

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K. Melissa Kennedy

Chief Innovation Officer, Founder, Intrapreneur. Entrepreneur. Enthusiastic leader and speaker. Teller of truths at 48 Innovate
I spent many years working for and building successful companies. I parlayed that experience into a unique process for harnessing hidden assets inside organizations and turning them into big-idea-generating, $1-billion-revenue-producing resources. (Spoiler alert: it’s the people.) I'm an internationally acclaimed expert, happy to share the not-so-secrets that have led to impressive outcomes for Fortune 100 corporations, major educational institutions, start-up companies and entrepreneurs. Working with companies like Cisco, Lancope, Arby's, Capitol Broadcasting Company New Media - WRAL, PRSONAS, Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog, REVO Communications, Erno Group, Focus Carolina, Madan Global, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, INZONE Brands, Albright Digital, Spring Metrics and NC State Kenan Fellows.

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