Design Thinking and Innovation: A Real Life Example

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What is design thinking? How does it contribute to innovation? Are design and innovation fundamentally integrated?

design thinking and innovation

In a nutshell, design thinking is problem-solving that uses design principles: human-centered ideation, pattern recognition, marrying meaning to function, and prototyping. There aren't necessarily an orderly set of steps, but there are three major spaces, according to IDEO, who helped pioneer the modern concept of design thinking: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.

Inspiration finds a problem that inspires innovative change. Ideation creates ideas for solutions and tests them. Implementation is the process by which an idea goes from initial testing to substantial product or process that changes people’s lives.

While some people name four elements and others name ten, they all come back to the same basic process: identify the problem, come up with ideas to solve it, and test those ideas until there's a clear winner and make that winner into reality. This is the basic foundation of all design: coming up with multiple possible solutions and testing them until you have the best design within budget, time, and other constraints.

Design Thinking in Practice

So how would we apply design thinking to a real-world problem? Here's a good example. In this TED Talk, Jeff Chapin, an executive at IDEO, discusses how their design principles worked to bring sanitation systems to Cambodia and Vietnam. He discusses how they learned to communicate and help local business entrepreneurs, community leaders, and salespeople manage their own sanitation systems, and what it took to design the systems in the first place.

Chapin took multiple trips to Cambodia to design and execute cost-effective clean toilets and to Vietnam to create affordable hand-washing stations. The designers worked with villagers to create their prototypes and used villagers’ feedback to improve their designs. They designed each of these systems to be reliably sourced, manufactured, and distributed by local business people so that the innovation did not require continued outside influence.

Chapin summarizes his team's findings on design and innovation with the following points:

  • “Build upon cultural norms”: Use analogous existing practices to come up with new solutions.
  • “Learn from subtlety of communications”: Pay attention to subtle user reactions that may indicate problems with the product or how it’s being communicated.
  • “Listen to lead users”: Which people in the family and in the community make decisions about the product or process you’re trying to improve? Go to them first.
  • “Be open to serendipity”: Learn from your mistakes and unexpected developments.
  • “Support local expression and adoption”: From source materials to the location of a sink, local expression changed the designers’ thoughts.

How Design Thinking Relates to Innovation

Why is design thinking useful in the innovative process? Design thinking always has the goal of improving what was there before. And the stages of innovation as I see them correspond pretty neatly with design thinking:

Focus on a problem

Ideate solutions

Rank the solutions and pick the best one

Execute the best solution in the real world

Design thinking simply uses its own unique language and tends to focus on the user experience more than some other ways of solving problems. Taken together, these two ways of thinking provide a powerful process for creating practical, human-centered change.

  • Focus on a specific problem: Specific problems are more easily and practically solvable than general ones. Chapin's group did not go into Cambodia with the general goal of improving the lives of Cambodian villagers, rather they had the specific goal of creating cheap, effective latrines to improve sanitation and prevent disease. Specific problems clarify focus, enable goal setting, and provide a path for communication between users and designers.
  • Ideation draws on experience: In order to come up with ideas, Chapin and his team drew on the experiences of the villagers. The designers came up with an analogous process that the villagers would connect with. The villagers in Cambodia were used to slowly building up their homes one piece at a time from the most basic bare bones. This was an additive process. The team's first attempt to draw on this experience failed because they used a flow chart to communicate their ideas, and the chart’s linear nature didn’t mesh with the additive process the Cambodian villagers used. They finally were able to communicate effectively using layered slides to show the additive process and get feedback.
  • Ranking through prototyping and testing: The team went directly to the people who would use the product, determined from them what would work and what wouldn't, and where their own assumptions were wrong. For example, there was a man in Vietnam who kept giving them suggestions about their design for a hand-washing station. They sent him home with it and came back a week later to see what additions he made. The most substantial was the fact that he put it in the kitchen: the team discovered that people preferred keeping hand-washing stations in their kitchen because it was the place they were most likely to get other family members sick through contaminated food.
  • Execution: Just get the basics out there and allow the innovation process to continue. The most important elements in Chapin's example were toilets and hand-washing stations, which were pretty basic products. The end users built from simply executable designs—they didn’t need anything more than the basic plumbing necessary to have a working toilet. The rest of the work—building a business around the product, customizing it, and adding features—they do themselves, continuing the innovation process.

As with innovation, the goal of design thinking is always to make something better than what was there before. What is unique to design thinking is the language and specific processes it uses (prototyping, for example) and its focus on the experience of the people actually using the end product.

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