An Intro to Design Thinking - Part 1

Posted by Eric Auld on 24 June
Eric Auld

Design thinking seems to be the buzzword of 2016. Since gracing the front cover of Harvard Business Review, more companies are claiming that they are a design lead organisations, many are asking how to become one and many more are asking what the hell is it?

The quick answer is, Design Thinking is a formal method for practical and creative problem solving.

Design Thinking has been around since the mid 80’s where it was commonly used in architecture and urban planning. During the 80’s and 90’s, Stanford University expanded on the concept of Design Thinking by teaching "design thinking as a method of creative action." When IDEO was established in the early 90’s, it was then adapted to the business realm where it has slowly gained traction since.

There are different methods, processes and flavours of Design Thinking, but the core fundamentals are the same regardless of the flavour you use.

Design Thinking can be broken down into two parts; the first is the approach to problem-solving while the second is the process of problem-solving. This article is going to tackle the first half – The Design Thinking approach to problem solving. Establishing what to focus on when it comes to solving problems for a project.

Design Thinking has an approach to solving problems using three spheres; Human Desires, Technology Feasibility and Business Viability.


To understand why this diagram has everyone talking about Design Thinking, let's break it down. First off, it helps to understand what type of organisations or roles operate within each sphere.

Business Viability – Management and Business Consultants, Accountants, Business Analysts, etc.

Technology Feasibility – Software Developers and Programmers, Industrial Factories, Car Manufacturing, etc.

Human Desires – Market Researchers, Psychologists, Advertising Agencies, Actors, Humanitarian Aid, etc.

Understanding how these spheres interlock will help you understand the type of organisation you are a part of. It is important to note how these approaches differ in the way they solve projects and operate.

To illustrate this, below are some examples of different types of companies using components of the Design Thinking ideology and how they operate using different sectors of the three spheres.


Startups – Many of today's startups focus on a user needs and how technology can help or solve a problem. Unfortunately, many startups don’t focus on their Business Viability. Instead, they worry about acquiring users and scaling up with the hope of working out monetisation later on. In many cases, they fold because of 'poor market fit' (meaning, they couldn't work out how to make money from their users). For example, while Twitter has millions of users, they are still struggling to solve their Business Viability at a level that is deemed successful.


Agencies and consultants – Many Advertising Agencies, Market Researchers and large consulting firms look at what will work best for customers and consumers, though mostly from an initial Business Viability problem first. Companies tend to find a way for the human needs to fit within the business model they are developing. Solutions form plans that haven't had any technology feasibility taken into consideration. Either the solution they come up with can not be delivered, or the execution is below what the customers and business expectations are.


Enterprise – Seen in many large enterprise organisations, this is the most common or default approach companies take to running projects inside their business. With a business problem in hand, project managers turn to the company technology department to create a solution. The solution may be able to be built and be considered viable from a business point of view, but uptake is lacklustre within the market. Possibly not improving the customer's experience or fulfilling any of their needs.

Where the Design Thinking approach is clearly different to the above examples, is that Design Thinking seeks to use ALL three spheres in the problem-solving process.

One of the core principles of Design Thinking is to solve a problem that the user has. In other words to take a Human Centred Design approach to each project. So, what does that mean and what does that look like?


Rather than take a business problem and move through each sphere in a clockwise direction. For example, going to your technology department with a problem, asking them to solve the problem and only then checking if customers can use the solution.


Start with the customers and move through each sphere in a counterclockwise direction. For example, see the problem from your customers point of view, Test a hypothesis with them, iterate on the learnings with customers and the technology department before closing the loop with stakeholders. This way of thinking uses Human Centred Design that not only solves the problem, but it is also technically feasible as well as desirable for customers.

If you get it right, you will land in the centre of the Venn diagram, which is sometimes called Innovation, but we prefer the term market success. Not all your projects will land in the centre of the diagram, but using a Human Centred Design approach will get you as close as possible within your constraints.

From today, you can use this approach for your projects, problems and goals. Ask yourself, who is the end user or customer? What do they want and what are their goals? Using this approach in your projects is the first step to understanding Human Centred Design and Design Thinking.

So, with your new understanding of how to approach a challenge with Design Thinking, let’s look at how to solve problems with Design Thinking coming up in part 2 of this Intro to Design Thinking.

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Topics: Design, Design Thinking, Problem Solving