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Design thinking – buzzword or the new magic formula?

So what is design thinking? Take a close look and you’ll see that it is a wonderful toolbox that should absolutely be tested out with relish.

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When it comes to creativity, practice takes precedence over study. Design thinking goes even further: practice and study are combined. In this case, study is more about observing and empathising. The conclusions drawn from that are then used practically, in brainstorming, sketches, mock-ups and ideas about ideas. We explain what design thinking is all about.

Design thinking – what is it exactly?

The basic principles can be explained quickly, but once you examine the details, you develop the desire to create a walk-in exploded-view drawing of the possible applications and paths.

In short: design thinking is an approach to complex problems that always focuses on the target group of the product or service (e.g. the user of a product) and their requirements. To this end, an interdisciplinary group of people work together in an environment that promotes creativity. As a team, they want to develop the right questions with which they can develop solutions to convince the user. With this in mind, the team proceeds in this order: understand the problem and observe the basic situation, develop and refine ideas on the topic, implement them, learn in the process and design them in a way that is user-friendly and oriented to the personal requirements of the target group.

Design thinking is about getting to the root of a problem, rather than just treating some of the symptoms.

Prof. Hasso Plattner

Who uses design thinking?

The Swiss telecommunications company Swisscom has successfully given consideration to providing more space for inspiration and creativity. Researchers and software developers from Siemens Corporate Technology work with design thinking methods in Europe, North America and Asia to connect the real and virtual worlds and establish innovations on the market. Solar energy specialist Mobisol has developed ideas to make electricity available in countries that up to now have suffered from severe bottlenecks. From the European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, which uses design thinking for knowledge transfer, to the eye hospital in Rotterdam, where they discovered how you can feel a lot better as a patient – design thinking is helping people find clever solutions with unusual ideas.

Hooray! We have a problem.

Hmm, that sounds like people searching for a problem to every solution. In fact, it is about finding the right problem first, in order to be able to ask the right questions and thus find solutions to the real problem. If you want to get to the bottom of things, which is, of course, easier as a team than alone, it is unfortunately unavoidable that you will make mistakes and go down the wrong track. But in the process, you find out where a solution is definitely not to be found. You will also find your way to the source of the problematic situation, and discover what the problem to be dealt with is actually composed of. As a result, the open-minded design thinker and their team can also find entirely different solutions.

At conventional schools of engineering, students are taught very well how to find the right solution to a problem. At the, we teach them to find the right problem.

Prof. Terry Winograd

The magic triangle: team – room – process

All three components have to be right. The team must be composed of open-minded people from different disciplines. The room should encourage thought. Boards for sketches, scribbles, notes and Post-its should always be available, as should materials for handicrafts. There should be no limits to immediately making note of ideas and trying them out. Standing desk, table, chair, sofa, cushions? The main thing is that everyone feels at ease and that the most important point is not sitting around a meeting table in an orderly fashion. The room has to provide space for ideas.

Rule number one: there are no fixed rules.

Think of possible design thinking processes like a toolbox. What is inside? What tool shall we try? Should we combine different tools? Let’s give it a go!


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Keep the Change – the pop star among design thinking cases

A prominent example of how a smart, innovative solution was found using design thinking is the ‘Keep the Change’ campaign from Bank of America. Bank of America employees and the innovation agency IDEO spent two months researching the life situations, desires and needs of baby-boomer mothers in Atlanta, Baltimore and San Francisco. They visited the families at their homes, and looked over their shoulder as they did their household accounts, their shopping and made payments in restaurants. They carried out lots of spontaneous interviews on the streets and in shopping centres and gained insights into people’s real everyday lives everywhere where using money was involved.

Is small change the key to success?

It became clear that many of them rounded up their entries in the household accounts so that they would be pleasantly surprised at having more money available at the end of the month. For card payments in shops, too, some of the women rounded up amounts for the sake of convenience. Another finding was that, for various reasons, many mothers found saving difficult. The team members put themselves in their place and saw two aims that they could support with a product from the bank: firstly, for a better overview, rounded amounts should be shown when checking finances. Secondly, savings should be bigger than expected. A suitable new product idea was developed with product managers, financial experts, software developers and business managers.

20 brainstorming sessions, one idea makes it through

After more than 80 concepts were developed in 20 brainstorming sessions, just one idea was preferred. With every card payment, the amount should be rounded up and the difference transferred to a savings account. 1,600 female customers tested the product, which was a roaring success. New features were added during the implementation phase and the idea was refined to make it market-ready. The name ‘Keep the Change’ was developed in a focus group.

Design thinking is mainly about building innovators who can use the design thinking paradigm to transform ideas into reality, to transform organisations and to transform all aspects of life.

Prof. Larry Leifer

Gold-digging atmosphere on the red sofa

A focus group helped the public relations work with the idea: ‘Let people search for change down the back of the sofa and keep what they find!’ One day, a 20-metre-long red velvet couch with lots of small change between the cushions was set up in the Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. Of course, that attracted a lot of attention and PR hype. Oversized red sofas were also set up in shopping centres in various other major US cities. And each of these promotions became a major media event.

The proof of how impressed customers have been by the product is in the fact that 99% of those who open a Keep the Change account stick with it. The offer continues successfully to this day.


Where does the term ‘design thinking’ come from?

The engineer David M. Kelley, founder and to this day Chairman of the design and innovation agency IDEO, developed this method to innovatively approach problem solving together with his colleagues at Stanford University, Larry Leifer and computer scientist Terry Winograd. Symposia on the subject of ‘Design Thinking Research’ have been taking place since 1991, the year IDEO was founded. Kelley, Leifer and Winograd founded ‘’ Stanford in 2003, with the support of Hasso Plattner, who founded the HPI School of Design Thinking Potsdam in 2007.

Design thinking was initially exclusively used for the development of innovative product and service solutions. Other areas of application have since been added, such as:

  • Expansion of company-internal knowledge transfer
  • Optimisation of organisational processes
  • Further education and training
  • Empathising with customers more effectively
  • Better target group orientation of marketing campaigns
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