Design thinking has long been a key component of UX design. Implemented properly, it can help design teams to develop more customer centric strategies that spend less time guessing what people want and more time delivering products and services that address their specific needs. There’s sometimes a perception that designers are like reclusive monks, walled away inside some distant ivory tower and handing down solutions they expect users to embrace.
While some designers may take the old Steve Jobs adage that people don’t know what they want until you show it to them a little too much to heart, those who embrace design thinking principles are much more inclined to engage in a productive dialogue with potential users to identify their problems and figure out how to solve them.
What’s the Problem, Exactly?
Delivering solutions that meet the needs of users isn’t as easy as it sounds. Setting aside the recurring design challenge of people not always being able to articulate what they want, sometimes it can be difficult to identify a specific problem in the first place. Conventional approaches to developing new products and services can become fixated upon pre-existing factors that actually obscure the more fundamental problem they’re trying to solve.
It’s easy to fall into this status quo bias. Take, for instance, a design team working on office furniture. The team could spend a lot of time coming up with new ideas for chairs that make people more productive and promote better health, but this would lose sight of the fact that a chair is simply a means to an end. If their task is to boost productivity and promote healthier work habits, the team’s very first question shouldn’t be what kind of chair is needed, but rather whether or not a chair is even the best choice to deliver that outcome.
In this scenario, a team driven by design thinking principles would be more likely to come up with solutions like adjustable standing desks or yoga ball seats rather than a fancy new version of an office chair (although that option may still be on the table!). By stripping away existing factors and questioning everything, design thinking can produce unique solutions that users themselves are unlikely to have considered. Identifying the “right” problem to focus on is a foundational element to effective design thinking.
Exploring the Problem
Of course, simply identifying the problem is only the first step. In order to solve the problem, designers need to know more about it. They need to understand how that problem affects users on a regular basis. Rather than thinking of the problem from a design standpoint, they need to understand it from a more customer centric perspective. Why does the problem matter to people and what solutions will they find compelling or persuasive?
Establishing empathy with users is fundamental to this process. Observational research is certainly important when it comes to understanding user behavior, but it’s the sense of empathy that really delivers powerful insight into people’s needs and wants. In the example of the office environment, creating a solution that makes for the healthiest workplace possible won’t amount to very much if users don’t embrace it. Standing desks may be great from the “objective” standpoint of a designer, but if the office employees don’t actually like or use them, they’re not going to do a very good job of solving the main problem.
The User is Always Right…Eventually
Even when the design thinking process moves into a solution phase of rapid ideation and prototyping to produce minimally viable products, it’s still important to retain that sense of empathy with customers. Designers have to put their egos aside and remember that they’re not developing products and services for themselves, but rather for the people who will actually be using them in the future. Some of these ideas will be well received and move on to a more thorough prototyping phase.
Some of them will be rejected, maybe harshly. But that’s okay. In fact, eliminating these failed ideas is a vital part of the design thinking process. Sometimes things that make sense in a wireframe or a drawing board just don’t work as well as intended once they leave the designer’s tender care and runs through the gauntlet of user testing. The sooner these ideas can be eliminated, the faster designers can hone in on more effective solutions. There’s no sense in devoting valuable time and resources to concepts that users have already rejected. This process is less about failure than about working toward a beneficial outcome. Just as with the ideation process, designers can’t afford to be precious about their solutions or take anything off the table. User feedback could always force designers to reconsider ideas they’d dismissed at an earlier stage of the design process.
It may require a lot of usability testing to arrive at a product or service that meets the users needs, but with a little patience and creative adaptability, design teams can get there eventually. Empathizing with the needs of users and working with them to create solutions that solve their problems is crucial to any customer centric strategy. While design teams might sometimes feel like they’re spinning their wheels, allowing user feedback to inform the design process will eventually result in more impactful products and services that are genuinely beneficial to customers.