Design thinking: Going beyond the hype

What is the most effective “idea killer” out there in the market? It is two words used during any discussion: “Yes, but…”. Often, the biggest hindrance to spot a new opportunity or potential solution to a problem comes from our existing prejudices. These filter their way into our reasoning and are spoken as a “yes, but…”. 

My earliest interactions with creative thinking, facilitation, and problem-solving in the workplace was through Dr. Edward De Bono. I was fascinated with the topic of lateral thinking and using his “Six Thinking Hats” technique to improve meeting productivity. After participating in a series of workshops on design thinking (DT) recently, I had an opportunity to reflect on how the principles of lateral thinking, facilitation, problem-solving, and user experience design have converged. 

DT is especially useful when attempting to deal with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, involve multiple interdependencies and stakeholders, where both the problem and potential solutions are hard to pin down. In this article, I will explore the principles of DT, key roles when facilitating a DT workshop, along with a few examples of supporting tools you can use.


Principles of design thinking

Our mind uses thousands of experiences to derive patterns that often subconsciously guide our responses. This allows us to deal with complexities around us without becoming paralysed as unknown elements appear. These patterns guide us not only in how we solve a problem, but even in how we see a problem in the first place.

As our brains work with patterns, these guide us to see a part of the picture we may want to see and ignore what does not seem to fit. These perceptual filters determine how we see and respond to the world around us. Sometimes, the more familiar we are with a subject, the greater the chance of subconsciously falling into previous furrows of thought. The principles of DT encourage you to first identify and understand the problem, then ideate potential approaches to solve the problem, and finally select and test solutions.

Adopt a learner’s mindset: Approach the problem putting aside existing prejudices (i.e. our patterns, perceptions). Become a learner and ask questions. Be ready to let the story emerge without forming conclusions. As in the quote, “when you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”, avoid attacking the issue from your comfort zone. 

Engage the users: Reach out to a broad group of users to understand the requirement. Gather their views and derive insights from your research. Aim to understand the mental, behavioural, and emotional aspects of their problem. Eliminate bias by collaborating as you form insights, to avoid one person’s views influencing the outcomes.

Avoid getting into solution mode too early: We are prone to try and solve a problem even before it is well understood. As a result, we either go after the wrong problem or fail to resolve it fully. DT promotes creating solutions in an iterative approach, where the most important elements of a solution are first experimented and tested. 



Stages of the design thinking process

A DT process follows a structure covering the following aspects. While these are presented as successive stages, they do iterate and influence each other. The first is to empathise and understand the problem area thoroughly, through as many points of view. Next, this information is processed to define the problem. The third stage is to ideate, where you creatively devise as many potential solutions as possible to solve the problem. During the prototype stage, the team will build fast, cheap, scaled-down versions of one or more solutions. These provide an opportunity to learn how the solutions would work and how potential users will engage with the solution. Finally, the solution enters a test stage, where potential users can experience the solution, while providing feedback.

Each of these stages move through a diverging and converging set of activities. For example, you would try to understand as much as you can about the problem from as many people (diverge) and then synthesise this information to form insights to the most important areas (converge). You will apply creativity and idea-generation techniques to brainstorm and produce a variety of possible solutions (diverge) before using other techniques to refine and choose the most important few (converge).



There are many roles that contribute towards a successful workshop using DT. It is important to identify and engage a multi-disciplinary team with diverse professional backgrounds. This helps to reframe a problem differently as well as to generate new ideas. One important role is the facilitator or coach, who will guide the team, conduct the event, encourage participation, and summarise progress. This will require a knowledge of DT and facilitation tools, and the ability to tailor these to the specific audience and requirement. The team can also identify a decision-maker, who can step in when the group fails to reach a consensus. 



DT also has a wide range of tools drawn from lateral thinking and facilitation techniques that the facilitator can draw from at every stage of the process. The problem, experience of participants, and time available will dictate what tools can and should be used. Examples of tools when framing problems include stakeholder maps, personas, affinity diagrams, and customer journey maps. Tools such as Crazy8s, storyboards, and roleplays can also be used during later stages. In the current setting, much of the facilitation would be virtual, using tools like Mural or Miro in combination with platforms such as Teams or Zoom.



In conclusion, DT does provide a fresh approach to understand the right problem from a user’s point of view, while engaging your stakeholders to allow a solution to emerge. The successful outcome is both an individual and collective effort. As an individual you must be willing to step out of your comfort zone. As a person, I am more comfortable describing something using words instead of drawing pictures to communicate it visually. So, when I had to sketch my ideas or solution, I could sense this “freeze” in what to do next. However, through this experience I learnt that if you are willing to share your “half-baked” idea, how easy it is for others to collaborate and build on it to arrive at something greater. Step out of your comfort zone and share!


(The writer is the Chief Marketing and Corporate Affairs Officer at 99x and spearheads marketing activities while supporting business development and customer success initiatives. He is an accomplished practitioner with over 25 years of experience in the tech industry with complementary roles in programme management and corporate consulting. Before joining 99x, he was the Executive Director of SLASSCOM. His industry experience includes banking and financial services and global IT services with Virtusa, Societe Generale [SOCGEN], Nations Trust Bank, and Union Bank of Colombo)