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Design Thinking Tools: how to use them to solve complex problems

Design Thinking tools are essential in companies’ innovation efforts. But they go beyond that.

Knowing how to use DT tools can transform even your daily routine into a problem-solving strategy. This is because they break down the complexity of processes so that the designer has a full 360-degree view of the problem, anchoring them in their way of thinking.

Do you know what these tools are? 

That’s what we’ll be covering in this article. Continue reading to understand what Design Thinking is and how DT tools can be the turning point for your business!

What is Design Thinking

When we talk about Design Thinking, we are referring primarily to the way designers think. They use unconventional reasoning in the business world, abstract thinking to: 

  • Formulate questions through the assumption or understanding of the current situation or scenario. 
  • Elaborate questions from information collected during the observation of the universe that surrounds a problem. 
  • Create solutions that derive from the problem or specific pain-points. 

Innovative Solutions

We can define Design Thinking as: “A structured, human-centered approach to innovation which seeks to generate solutions that align user’s desires and needs with business value generation.” 

To make it even simpler, you could say that Design Thinking is an innovative approach based on the designer’s thoughts, combining creativity and empathy to create innovative solutions. 

What are some Design Thinking tools?

To list the Design Thinking tools, we need to remember that it is a process generally divided into four phases:

  1. Immersion: research to contextualize the problem.
  2. Analysis and Synthesis: grouping collected data and reframing the initial situation based on transforming data into insights. 
  3. Ideation: collaborative brainstorming sessions with the help of tools to create innovative solutions. 
  4. Prototyping: testing to validate the effectiveness of the solutions at bringing value to the end-user.

→ Related: The essential role of prototyping in Design Thinking.

Check out which Design Thinking tools are used in each of these phases:

1. Immersion Tools

  • Exploratory research: preliminary field research for the team to understand the context surrounding the problem.
  • Desk Research: search for information on the project’s theme from different sources: websites, books, magazines, blogs, articles, etc.
  • Interviews: obtaining information through dialogue, mainly with users/developers about the product/service/process.
  • Awareness Notebooks: instruments used to obtain data, usually when the user is physically distant. 
  • A Day in the Life: Simulation of a person’s life or specific situation.
  • Generation Sessions: meetings with team members and stakeholders to carry out activities to present their views and share their experience with the project thus far.
  • Shadowing: monitoring a user over a certain period that includes their interaction with the product or service under analysis.

2. Analysis and Synthesis Tools

  • Insight Cards: reflections based on real data from Exploratory, Desk, and In-Depth surveys, transformed into cards that facilitate the visualization of information.
  • Affinity Diagram: organization, analysis, and grouping of Insight Cards based on premises such as affinity, similarity, dependency, or proximity.
  • Concept Map: simplified visual organization of complex field data, at different levels of depth, to illustrate the links between data, enabling more linear reasoning and allowing new meaning to being extracted from the information. 
  • Guiding Criteria: guidelines that must be followed continuously during the development of a project, which determine the limits of tasks, maintaining the proposed focus.
  • Empathy Map: a matrix that synthesizes information about the client, what they say, do, think, and feel. When there is a lot of field information, it is used to better concentrate on understanding the target audience.
  • Personas: fictional archetypes that embody the brand’s values ​​and represent the ideal customer’s perspective.
  • User Journey: graphical representation of the stages of users’ relationship with the product or service.
  • Blueprint: a visual schematic matrix representing the whole system of interactions that straightforwardly characterize a service.
  • Reframing: examining unanswered questions in a company from different perspectives, allowing for the deconstruction of biases and assumptions about a business, product, or service.

3. Ideation Tools

  • Brainstorming: It is a creative process to encourage those involved in the project to generate many ideas quickly.
  • Co-creation Workshop: collaborative meeting held by the Design team, which brings together individuals from different areas to foster innovative solutions.
  • Ideas Menu: catalog that summarizes and makes tangible all the ideas generated in the project.
  • Positioning Matrix: a matrix that communicates the benefits and challenges in implementing each solution. This way, the most strategic ideas are prioritized for prototyping.
  • Brainwriting: brainstorming meetings; where before the creative discussion starts, everyone writes their ideas anonymously on pieces of paper, which are shuffled afterward.

4. Prototyping Tools

  • Prototyping on paper: simple representations of interfaces, drawn by hand, with different fidelity levels to make an idea tangible.
  • Volume Model: a three-dimensional representation of a product with varying fidelity levels is used to take the idea and transform it into something concrete.
  • Staging: an improvised simulation that can represent people’s interactions with objects or dialogues. It is used to test, build, or detail steps in a procedure to improve a product or service experience.
  • Storyboard: visual representations of a story through static frames. They are created from drawings, collages, photographs, or any other type of graphic representation.
  • Service Prototype: simulation of material artifacts, environments, or interpersonal relationships representing aspects of a service.
  • Minimum Viable Product: the simplest possible version of a product, service, or functionality to obtain your value proposition’s market validation.

Four steps to start implementing Design Thinking in your company

Design Thinking is not something that can be implemented overnight without specialized help. This does not mean that it is impossible to test it on a smaller project or work on changing your employees’ mindset. 

Below are some basic steps that must be taken to implement this process!

  1. Focus on the problem 

Companies often fail to solve problems effectively or meet goals because they do not correctly identify the problem from the beginning. Here are some tips for identifying your problem:

  • Listen: put yourself in the shoes of your users and see through their lenses.
  • Ask: who encounters this problem, and why? Why have previous attempts failed to resolve the issue at hand?
  • Have collaborative conversations: working in cubicles is an easy trap to fall into. Interact with everyone, not just your team members. 
  • Stay impartial: don’t assume that you immediately understand the problem or the solution. With an open mind, you can find something that you didn’t expect.
  1. Develop Design Thinking skills within your team

Traditionally, the Design Thinking process’s design phase was performed by project managers or engineers. But that does not mean that that only one department or function can do it. 

Since Design Thinking is the act of asking questions, understanding, and testing, everyone can and should participate in it. 

Here are some tips for developing your team’s design skills:

  • Practice the DT mindset: start implementing the process in your role whenever you can. For example, if you oversee integration, think of ways to test a new approach or understand your employees’ mindsets by collecting feedback through a survey. Stay open to new results.
  • Promote interests in Design Thinking: If you have team members who want to take the initiative and expand their skill sets, encourage that interest and experimentation within the company.
  1. Ask more questions 

It is essential to understand that Design Thinking is continuous. It is an iterative process that continually revisits topics and projects since there is always room for improvement.

However, learning can’t happen if there is no feedback process. Here are some tips for creating a learning culture by collecting feedback:

  • Be open about what went wrong: set an example by demonstrating that failure is an expected part of DT. Openly discuss which tests failed and why.
  • See failure as learning opportunities: trying and failing in a new approach serves the crucial function of narrowing down the list of possible solutions. This brings you and your team closer to the method that works best. Encourage failure!
  1. Embrace the feedback loop

The goal of Design Thinking is not perfection but the best possible answer. And the best solution is probably not the first. Thus, a constant feedback loop is essential. 

Here are some tips for implementing feedback loops:

  • Test and repeat as much as possible: find new ways and angles to test your assumptions. You’ll find something you would never have otherwise.
  • Conduct feedback sessions frequently: when you adopt feedback, it not only creates a safe space to innovate, but it also prevents the same mistakes from happening again.

As you have seen, Design Thinking is a very useful approach to solving complex problems. There is a reason why the most innovative companies have teams dedicated to it and invest in hiring specialized consultants on the subject.