“Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process to understand and challenge assumptions; redefine problems and create solutions from the user’s perspective.”

When I started reading about Design Thinking, I came across a bunch of different definitions. Each more confusing than the other and just as vague as the one above. They left me with a series of complicated words and terms – human-centered design, iterative process, user-needs, creative problem solving! – but no real tangible sense of what Design Thinking really is.

One year of hands-on advanced Design training and 6 projects later, I now finally understand (or so I think) what all the hullabaloo is about. I don’t have a formal ‘definition’ yet that could explain the real essence of the process without circling back to the same words and terms, but I realize that examples make it a lot easier to understand the process and analyse its outcomes.
Let me start with this one – last year I (along with my team) at the HPI School of Design Thinking was given the task to redesign the experience of sitting in and getting out of cars for people with limited mobility. This challenge came to us from a German automobile accessories company that caters to people with mobility challenges.

A few things about the project struck me –

  • Here was a team of people with no background in engineering (let alone any expertise in automobiles) who were given the task to design a solution, potentially an actual physical product.
  • The problem of sitting in a car or getting out of it, which is the challenge that we were working on, is not really perceived as a challenge by the users.
  • We were entrusted with creating a solution in 3 months vis-à-vis the usual innovation cycle of 9-12 months that the company engineers would follow.


Three and a half months later and having gone through multiple prototyping and testing cycles, we submitted three product ideas to our client. One of them is in the process of being added to their product line.

What is so magical about Design thinking that despite the three points that I listed above, we were able to crack this problem? It’s actually quite simple – the three points above are exactly why the process works. 

Humans struggle most while challenging their assumptions and knowledge. Once we train our brain to think a certain way, it’s hard to break that pattern. But sometimes, to solve challenges that are not as simple it is necessary to challenge our normal way of solutioning and think ‘out of the box’. By bringing people with diverse backgrounds and thinking patterns together in an organized manner, Design Thinking enables collective problem solving. If you ever have a chance to participate in a Design sprint, you’ll be surprised at the variety of ideas and their effect on the different participants. 

Second, it is crucial to go out and talk to your customers. Most marketing courses also highlight the importance of surveys and target groups. But what happens when you are designing for a future where even the user does not know what they need? Henry Ford famously said- ‘If I had asked my customers what they want, they would have said better horses’. Without immersing into the user’s experiences and understanding what the future holds for them, it is not possible to create products that transform user experience. While this cannot be learnt in a mere sprint, a well-designed Design workshop will definitely give you a good flavor of what this means. 

Third, prototyping and testing is key. Fail early, fail fast – truly works. Innovation and product cycles are typically long because we invest a significant amount of time and effort to create a product that would definitely (in our opinion) work for the user. The Design thinking process urges you to make quick and dirty prototypes that can help you validate your assumptions quickly and eliminate ideas if they don’t work. For us, one of our early prototypes was a retractable dog leash suspended from the car door that allowed users to tug at it and pull themselves out. The final product is obviously not a leash, but by using a readily available product we were able to test our hypothesis of pulling oneself out of the car with a device.

In the end, I’d like to conclude with this story I read on Interaction Design Foundation’s blog – 

“Some years ago, an incident occurred where a truck driver tried to pass under a low bridge. But he failed, and the truck was lodged firmly under the bridge. The driver was unable to continue driving through or reverse out.

The story goes that as the truck became stuck, it caused massive traffic problems, which resulted in emergency personnel, engineers, firefighters and truck drivers gathering to devise and negotiate various solutions for dislodging the trapped vehicle.

Emergency workers were debating whether to dismantle parts of the truck or chip away at parts of the bridge. Each spoke of a solution which fitted within his or her respective level of expertise.

A boy walking by and witnessing the intense debate looked at the truck, at the bridge, then looked at the road and said nonchalantly, “Why not just let the air out of the tires?” to the absolute amazement of all the specialists and experts trying to unpick the problem.

When the solution was tested, the truck was able to drive free with ease, having suffered only the damage caused by its initial attempt to pass underneath the bridge.”

This to me is the intended outcome of Design Thinking.

Want to know more? Join the Design Thinking workshop on the 12th & 13th of October 2019.

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Mahak Chhajer

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