10 Tips on Design Thinking and Problem Solving

Design-oriented firms such as Apple and IDEO have demonstrated the business impacts of design thinking, a powerful discipline that can be applied in B2B and B2C settings. Design thinking has been used effectively for improving internal processes and culture at for-profit and non-profit organisations, as described in the book ‘Solving problems with design thinking: ten stories of what works.’Authors Jeanne Liedtka, Andrew King and Kevin Bennett describe useful tips and tools for design thinking via a range of 10 practical stories. The 216-page book makes for an absorbing read and is a useful reference for designers, managers and entrepreneurs.

See also my reviews of the books ‘101 design methods’ (by Vijay Kumar) and ‘Design thinking for strategic innovation’ (by Idris Mootee), and my article ‘The ‘8 Is’ of design thinking for startups.’ Design thinking in the context of experience design and product design is a popular topic at regional events like Singapore Design Week.

“Innate genius isn’t the only way to solve business problems creatively,” the authors begin. Here are my key takeaways on their design thinking tips, tools and stories.

Four key questions

The design thinking approach consists of phases driven by four key questions: what is, what if, what wows and what works. What if explores the current reality: it frames the problem definition and uncovers unarticulated needs. What if moves from data-based exploration to more creative idea generation and hypotheses.

What wows moves from divergence to convergence, and narrows down the solution options to a few promising candidates. What works rolls out low-fidelity prototypes for testing and refining via experimentation.


There are several effective design thinking tools recommended by the authors. Reframing involves stepping back from business as usual and asking new questions about user needs. Visualisation uses imagery to envision possibilities. Metaphor and analogy help create new mental models by morphing existing ones.

Ethnography studies people in their natural environments. Journey mapping and journaling chart the steps and daily lives of users. Personas classify users into archetypes based on behaviour and qualities. Value chain analysis plots and sequences the flows of value in the customer journey.

Brainstorming generates new possibilities and models. Concept development creates coherent frameworks for solutions. Power of play involves breaking free from formal structures and exploring pathways in a fun and relaxed way. World Cafe is a method for holding meaningful conversations among a large group of diverse people.

Assumption testing verifies pre-conditions and attitudes. Mind mapping generates insights from exploration activities. Rapid prototyping builds solutions via testing and iteration (‘show, don’t tell’). Customer co-creation ropes in customers to create the solution that best meets their needs. Learning launch is an experiment to let customers experiment with the new solution for a fixed period of time.

Case studies of design thinking in action

The core questions and tools described above are shown in action in ten stories, gathered and developed by the authors via an open call to collaboration.

Chris Cartter was CEO of the startup QuitNet.com (aimed at helping people quit smoking), and then became head of MeYou Health, the Internet strategy division of healthcare services giant Healthways. He used design thinking techniques like journaling to understand consumer health attitudes and practices, and personas to map out different behavioural clusters, eg. idle, excuse makers, validation seekers, enlightened and ‘me-time impoverished.’ Prototyping on MVPs via social media eventually led to the Daily Challenge, a gamified approach to help people with their health-improving actions.

Intuit launched its ‘Design for Delight’ initiative to move beyond ‘design for ease of use’ of its business software products. This was particularly evident in its marketing team for which mobile banking was a key focus. Consultants were roped in to educate the broader workforce about design thinking, including Ben Blank and Aaron Eden of StartIn, and Eric Ries, author of ‘Lean Startup’ (see my book review). Internal and external experiments were conducted to make employees more familiar with techniques like rapid prototyping and customer immersion.

Enterprise software giant SAP used design thinking to better understand how it could meet the disruptive challenge of social media and transform itself into a business process platform. Hasso Plattner, one of SAP’s founders, was intrigued with design thinking and wanted to establish it as a core competency in the company. An internal initiative called Project Torrent used problem framing, social graphs, and decision flow prototypes to create a more experimentative and customer-facing view of Enterprise 2.0 strategy.

Experience marketing firm George P. Johnson helped IBM transform its trade show experience for customers from spectacles into conversations, from monologue to dialogue. This was achieved by a combination of seating and standing areas, public and private spaces, and formal and informal settings to accommodate different learning styles of audiences. Card games were used as internal learning tools, and the focus shifted from just quantitative ‘badge’ metrics to ‘behavioural metrics’ of client engagement based on learning models. Ethnographic research was used to study customers as well as IBM employees at trade show booths.

3M used ‘design provocation’ to transform its B2B sales process. Ethnographic research was used to better understand potential customers in the context of sales pitches, and ‘future use-case’ videos, photographs and stories were used to excite and inspire customers. Finding internal change champions helped create new kinds of formal and informal conversations via quantitative and qualitative tools.

Toyota used design thinking to speed up and improve customer service responses in its California centre. It created a cross-functional team of call reps, software engineers, business leaders and change agents for better human-centred design. Journey mapping was used to understand customers and contact centre reps, and new ideas were circulated and tested via contests and ‘ice-cream socials.’ Local knowledge was treated as importantly as strategic vision, and an inclusive culture was created by giving employees not just a vote but a voice on key decisions. The re-designed solution reduced call numbers and duration, leading to savings of millions of dollars.

Entrepreneurship champions Jean Byrne and Jim Dunne, co-founders of consultancy firm Design21C, helped the city of Dublin move away from its bureaucratic approach and engage citizens more actively to rebuild the city. The World Cafe approach, along with numerous surveys, helped pick three clusters for change: water, waste and community. Nine potential projects for urban renewal were shortlisted and described via online and cardboard models in public spaces. A spirit of fun, citizen engagement and self-selection helped win broad support across the board.

Australian financial services firm Suncorp used design thinking after its merger with Promina Group to create a better ‘strategic conversation’ for organisational alignment. Visualisation, storytelling and metaphor were used to creatively map out emerging opportunities and develop a new shared vision.

European consulting firm Altran helped create a consortium of French retail banks and insurance companies, and used design thinking to foster a collaborative spirit among the competitors. Their FiDJI project (Finance, Design and the Joy of Innovation) jointly explored the human elements of their industry such as the customers’ need of 24-hour support and concierge service. Videos were used to capture key customer story highlights and uncover qualitative insights not always visible in quantitative reports. Outputs included better Internet banking solutions.

Denmark’s Municipality of Holstebro used design thinking to get deeper insights into the health needs of the elderly as well as kitchen employees and thus come up with better nutrition solutions. Ethnography and co-creation were used to design meals that were not seen as boring to prepare or whose only advantage was low cost. Kitchen staff were given training workshops and re-branded as chefs, the food service itself was re-branded, feedback was sought from diners, and a newsletter was launched to share employee and service highlights.

In sum, the book shows how design thinking can be used not just for physical products but also for service delivery, internal processes, change management, customer engagement, individual skill building and holistic revitalisation of citizen services. Direct contributions include better reframing of problems, increased diversity and collaboration, richer conversations, and more ‘comfort with emptiness’ via creative confidence.

Design thinking will only become more valuable in an increasingly global, unpredictable and complex world, the authors conclude.

About the authors:

Jeanne Liedtka is a Professor of Management at the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia. She was previously Chief Learning Officer for UTC. Her earlier books include ‘The catalyst: how you can lead extraordinary growth’ and ‘Designing for growth: a design toolkit for managers.’

via Design Thinking op Flipboard.