The Importance of Design Thinking

Design thinking has been an underrated philosophy in management and policy despite yielding great results for organizations. Beyond its empirical benefits, through rapidly prototyping new ideas and allowing for products and policies to be built with contextual knowledge, individuals gain tremendously by tackling their problems using this strategic approach. Understanding design allows people in every discipline to broaden their horizons and identify concrete real-world problems. This prevents products from experiencing the sorts of large-scale failures seen far too often, policies from harming the very people they were meant to help, or individuals from failing to better themselves and make a positive impact.

The logical method of design thinking is abductive reasoning, which differs from both the deductive and inductive methods with which people are generally familiar. Whereas deductive reasoning seeks irrefutable claims, and inductive reasoning seeks generalizations from data, abductive reasoning seeks to provide narratives around observations. While this may seem less rigorous than other logical methods, it is in fact more attuned the practical realities people and organizations face. There are not laws that can be easily elucidated for all decisions, nor is data expansive enough for every question to be a guide to decision-making. The benefit of directly observing a situation first hand and crafting a compelling story is in its enabling of an iterative, context-specific thought process.

So how does abductive reasoning work? Sherlock Holmes is the classic example of an abductive reasoner, seeking the simplest narrative to explain incomplete evidence. His approach is to first identify the relevant parties in a situation, gather the relevant pieces of evidence they provide, form ideas about the event he is studying, and then test these ideas before going back to the drawing board and repeat the process over and over again.

Drawing from abductive reasoning, the design thinking approach can be summed up in a three stage process: customer identification, idea generation, and testing. Identifying customers, or constituents of a policy, or the parties affected by your day to day actions, involves understanding their experience and making sense of it. In essence, when leveraging design thinking, one must focus on people and be an expert in empathy. The world is not made for ideas, be they brilliant technologies or efficient policies, but rather people. Understanding people must come first.

Once the relevant people are identified, the next step is to generate ideas. From observing people in context, rather than some kind of forced laboratory setting, design thinking enables genuine understanding. It provides what economists call “tacit knowledge”, and what in philosophy is known as “know-how”. There has been an excessive emphasis in modern bureaucratic organizations on increasing technical precision, and using abstract problem solving methods, at the expense of this kind of embodied knowledge. Ideas formed from context-specific knowledge are not universalizable, but they respond to real needs. This lowers their likelihood of being completely off the mark. These ideas flow naturally from observations, and simply need clear articulation in order to be tested.

The speed at which design thinking works, in preferring broad narrative ideas rather than concrete and irrefutable proofs, enables rapid prototyping. Design thinking emphasizes simplicity and usefulness, which allows ideas to be tested back in the real world without requiring complete commitment. This in turn allows the process to be repeated over and over again until the output is satisfactory. Good design has been crucial to building flourishing neighborhoods, successful corporate giants, like Apple, who have emphasized it more than anyone else, and even in the well-ordered lives of individuals who balances their own needs with their social responsibilities.

To gain from design thinking in one’s own life, the first step is to step back from the problem and avoid abstracting into neat categories. Embracing the complexity of the situation is essential for honest assessment and observation. Then, after immersing oneself in the experience of the problem, both from a personal perspective, and from those who share it, produce solutions in the form of stories. Finally, see how responding to these stories at small scales in everyday life helps better achieve goals, and refine stories as needed. This constant focus on iterative design helps people grow more each day, just as it helps improve products and policies.