Design Thinking – It’s Not Just for Designers

Image: Jessie Zevaka

I was sitting in the restaurant of a hotel overlooking the beautiful Brisbane River at night. Deep in conversation with my dinner partner, chatting about my experience at College. I commented on one of the tasks I had done that I’d found surprisingly hard. 

One of our assessments required us to draw up high fidelity wireframes for an app we were pitching. This task was my first experience designing an app interface, and if I’m honest, it was the first time I’d even looked at an app interface in such detail. The strange thing was, I use many apps daily. Most of the time, I don’t even take note of what’s happening on the screen.

The conversation then turned to the design of things, and that may be the mark of good design is not that it’s made to stand out, but that it’s made to blend in? Be used seamlessly without us even noticing? We both acknowledged the times we’d been aware of the design of something, and that was when it didn’t function well or do what we expectedDid we ever notice the times where everyday things just worked? Do we witness the innovation and decision making that goes into the items we use every day? This got me wondering.

Later, when I arrived back home in Sydney, I started to investigate user experience design; this was when I came across a concept called design thinking. 

What is Design Thinking?

The simplest definition of design thinking is that it’s a problem-solving method. Teams and individuals use this approach to generate ideas and implement them into projects (Brown 2019).

Design thinking is human-centred. It brings the needs of people together with what’s technologically possible and what’s practical for business success.

(Brown 2019) 

The goal of design thinking is to remind us of our capabilities. It makes us listen to our intuition, recognise patterns, and construct ideas with emotional meaning – in addition to functionality (Brown 2019).

Design thinking blooms with storytelling, and the skills are acquired best through doing. There’s an unstructured framework that helps to guide people. Knowing these principles helps make great design thinkers (Brown 2019).

What are the Design Thinking Principles and Processes? 

One of the main things you’ll need to know is that there isn’t a single ‘best way’ or strictly defined path to using design thinking (Brown 2019). 

There are places to start and helpful milestones, but as innovation happens in an ongoing process, projects cycle through the key areas more than once (Brown 2019).  

Design thinking is fundamentally an exploratory process; done right, it will invariably make unexpected discoveries along the way, and it would be foolish not to find out where they lead’.

(Brown 2019)

The continuum of innovation is best imagined as overlapping spaces rather than ordered steps. The first stage discovers the constraints you have to work within and establishes criteria to evaluate them. These lie in three core areas – technology, business and human, and are labelled: feasibility, viability, and desirability (Brown 2019).

Feasibility – What is technologically possible?

Viability – Will it integrate into the business?

Desirability – Do people want it?

A competent designer will resolve each of these three constraints, but a design thinker will bring them into a harmonious balance’.

(Brown 2019)

In the overlap of these three constraints, you will find: inspiration, ideation and implementation

As the team passes through the inspiration space, they gather as many insights from as many sources as possible. In the ideation space, they convert those insights to numerous ideas and test them through prototyping and iteration. In the implementation space, the best ideas are converted into an actionable plan and made concrete (Brown 2019).

These stages go through divergent and convergent phases: 

The divergent phase – the team, works on multiplying their options to create a wide range of choices and potential solutions.

The convergent phase – the time to narrow the possibilities and make decisions.

Projects loop through these areas as ideas are refined and new concepts come to light (Brown 2019).

In the centre, and at the heart of design thinking, is where you’ll find innovation (Brown 2019).

Confused? I was too, don’t fret; I created an animation to help explain. 

Still unsure where to start? Here are some prompts for beginners.

Seek Inspiration (Research & Empathise)
Observe people, discover what they need, ask questions.

Refine your question (Define)
What problem are you solving?

Gather Your Ideas (Ideate)
Use brainstorming to come up with as many new solutions to your problem as you can. Be creative; there are no wrong answers at this stage!

Make as many rough prototypes as you can. They don’t need to be perfect.

Test (Iterate)
Test your prototypes, get feedback, improve upon them, and test again.

What Opportunities are Available When the Design Thinking Process is Used? 

• Design thinking is open-ended and open-minded.

• It produces results that differ from those made by traditional, linear business processes.

• The principles apply to a wide range of organisations.

• It helps us use media other than language and symbols to convey our ideas.

• It encourages the collective ownership of ideas and enables team members to learn from one another.

• By testing many ideas, the chances are, the outcome will be more creative, disruptive, and compelling (Brown 2019).

Finally, you don’t need to be a designer to use design thinking; it’s available to anyone who wishes to learn the mindset and methods.

Design thinking puts the tools designers have crafted over many years into the hands of everyday people, so a broader range of problems of varying complexity can be solved.

(Brown 2019)

A Design Thinking Case Study

Back to the topic of hotels, let’s look at a recent case study of a design thinking challenge in action from IDEO.

InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) asked IDEO and their colleagues at forpeople to help define and launch a new hotel brand. IHG had noticed a gap in the market for hotels in the mid-level range (IDEO 2018).  

IDEO started by pondering the desirability and viability constraints. What offering might resonate with guests? What would investors/operators need to buy into the new brand and bring it to life? Then they set about using design thinking to answer those questions (IDEO 2018). 

The next step was to investigate and define the consumers’ needs. IDEO talked to travellers and tried to understand best (empathise) who these people were, what they valued and wanted when it came to this accommodation type (IDEO 2018). 

Insights pointed towards two distinctively different concepts. They made these into two full-scale prototypes. They led guests and potential hotel owners through the model hotels and collected feedback on the overall feel, booking experience, service, even breakfast (IDEO 2018). 

Image: IDEO 2018

This image shows prototyping stages (ideation) to the hotel’s breakfast offering’s finished product (implementation). 

One of the main insights IDEO and the IHG team uncovered was that customers at this level tended to face the anxiety that the hotel they were booking may not be clean, safe and comfortable (IDEO 2018). In their prototyping and testing, IDEO focused on these areas.

The outcome – the first Avid Hotel opened in Oklahoma City in 2018. In the first year of the project, IHG had 150 Avid Hotel licensees across the USA, Mexico and Canada, and a development deal for 15 locations in Germany. The implementation was an unprecedented success for the industry regarding speed and project outcomes (IDEO 2018). 

Image: IDEO 2018

The design process is now a model, showing how collaboration and inclusive design can help hotels deliver a guest-centred experience (IDEO 2018). 

IDEO are thought leaders in design thinking. It is so great that they are willing to share examples of their projects to learn from. I wonder if they could have used one or more of IHG’s existing locations to house their experiments and test with real customers?

I hope that you have learnt something new, improved your existing knowledge, or feel inspired to try out some of the design thinking practices on your next project.

Thanks for stopping by my blog. Feel free to leave a message in the comments and chat with me about design thinking 😊 .


Reference List

Brown, T. (2019), Change by Design, Revised and Updated: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, HarperCollins, NYC, NY. 

IDEO (2018), Reimagining Everyday Travel for America and Beyond, IDEO, viewed July 14 2021, <;.