The Design Thinking Workbook (2022) provides a guide and template for problem-solving in creative, innovative ways. Meadows and Parikh share foundational skills, tools, and techniques essential to effectively addressing challenges and increasing productivity in any field of work. Their advice will help practitioners of design thinking – from beginners to experts – upgrade their creativity and increase their effectiveness when pursuing goals.
Table of Contents
Companies are ever on the lookout for better and more efficient ways of creating designs to solve their consumers’ toughest issues, but they sometimes find themselves lost in a sea of ideas without knowing how to proceed. Designers Charvi Parikh and C. J. Meadows’s handbook of design thinking tools will guide you through the innovation process, from challenge to prototype. Whether you’re a start-up founder or part of a well-established organization, this text will help you learn skills to boost your creativity, understand your customers and identify the right problems to solve.
- Design thinking solves human-centered problems.
- Hone your empathy, observation, listening and critical thinking skills.
- Get your creativity flowing.
- Understand your customer’s perspective.
- Identify the right problem.
- Prototype and experiment with your design.
Introduction: Learn a better approach to solving today’s challenges.
What do Amazon, improv, and Castle High School in Hawaii have in common?
Well, all three have used or do use a design thinking, or DT, process or technique to achieve their goals. Improv includes games like storywording, where a group tells a story together by saying one word per person, one after the other. This can be a great team-building activity, as well as one to help loosen the mind and open it to possibilities in the creative phases of DT. Castle High School conducted a needs study – design-based thinking – to codevelop better educational programs and improve student achievement. And you’ll hear a story about Amazon’s design thinking later in this summary.
But why should you incorporate design thinking into your company, team, or personal project? You’re right to wonder! Transitioning to a design thinking approach takes time and effort, after all. But the end results are well worth it.
A study in 2018 found that design-focused companies grew at double the pace of the rest of their industry. And if that’s not enticing enough, consider this – those design-focused companies realized shareholder returns of up to 75 percent higher than their industry. That’s right, up to 75 percent higher returns from using a design thinking process.
And a study in 2013 by the Design Management Institute found that design-focused companies performed 228 percent better than the S&P index – for 10 years in a row.
There are many more such studies, but you’ve probably already got the picture. This is an incredibly useful skill to cultivate, especially in the professional world. The Design Thinking Workbook focuses mostly on business applications of design thinking, or DT. But you can also apply this approach to personal problems.
This summary focuses on the corporate applications of DT but, as you learn tips and tricks, think about how they might also be helpful in a personal setting. First, we’ll learn about the authors’ design thinking methodology, then delve into some of the foundational skills and tools and techniques you’ll find helpful as you begin using this DT process.
What is design thinking?
Think about the last failures you faced on a team project. Communication issues? Creativity issues? Were you focused on the right problem? Or did you have to reorient after you’d already done a bunch of work? These are the kinds of failures DT helps prevent.
So what exactly is DT, or design thinking?
Basically, it’s a human-focused approach to problem-solving meant to help you figure out what the real problem is and solve the issue in creative, innovative ways meant to both benefit all stakeholders and increase business growth.
Though there are several DT methodologies, the one Meadows and Parikh use focuses on a six-step method – challenge, observe, understand, envision, solve, and prototype.
First, you define the challenge – the problem you need to solve. It can be difficult to clarify, but it’s an important step in the process. You don’t want to get months – or even years – into a project only to discover you’ve been working on the wrong issue the entire time.
Next, you observe the people who might be having the problem you’re trying to address. In this step, you observe what your target users or clients do, how they act, and what behaviors they engage in.
The third step is to understand the behaviors your targets engage in. This step is deeply concerned with the whys behind target users’ actions – the motivations they have and the goals they’re pursuing. Sometimes this includes results they’re trying to avoid.
The fourth step is to envision a solution or future. This involves dreaming up how you want things to end up. Are you looking to make something easier for a user? Are you trying to create an enjoyable experience? A calming experience? What do you want users’ behaviors or experiences to look like in the future, as opposed to what they look like now? A key thing to keep in mind at this stage is that it’s easier to tame a wild idea than to make a mediocre idea truly wonderful. So dream big!
The penultimate step is to solve. This is where brainstorming and other techniques for generating creative ideas come into play. It also involves making key design decisions – focusing on ideas for bridging the gap between the current issue or situation and the future that you envisioned in the previous step.
The final step of the DT process is to prototype – once you decide on a solution to pursue, you’ll prototype and experiment to see whether the solution is feasible and how well it fits the needs of your users. You’ll probably need at least a few rounds of prototyping as you learn more about your users and your proposed design. Once you find the best solution, you can scale up.
Of course, this isn’t always a linear process. As you engage in DT projects, you might find yourself repeating some of the steps. That’s totally normal, and an expected part of the process! You just need to stay focused and open as you keep working toward the best solution.
As with most things, a DT approach isn’t the best choice for every situation. DT is a human-centered mindset. So if you’re looking to solve a problem that’s unrelated or just not centered on humans, this isn’t the approach you’d want. For example, if you were trying to solve the problem of a storm snapping electrical wires, or of a fence shifting because of erosion, DT probably wouldn’t be too helpful.
Then again, sometimes we think something’s a technical problem when really it’s a human one, or vice versa. The methodology DT uses to clarify an issue and find the root cause of a problem can help figure out which type of problem you’re addressing.
For example, a new manager found himself with a stack of complaints about the elevators in the 30-story building. Each complaint centered on how slow the elevators were.
So, which type of problem is this? Human or technical?
Take a moment to think about it, then we’ll move on to learning some foundational skills needed for DT. And don’t worry, we’ll come back to the elevator problem in a bit!
Would you believe you’ve probably already heard of and might even employ some of the foundational skills of DT?
These skills include empathy, observing, listening, and critical thinking. There’s also insight, creativity, collaboration, and storytelling. Sound familiar, right?
Let’s dig a little deeper into some of these key skills.
You might already know that empathy is the ability to feel and share the emotions of others. But did you know there are different aspects to empathy? Meadows and Parikh label these aspects as cognitive, emotional, and active.
Cognitive empathy is being able to understand another’s perspective.
Emotional empathy is the kind we often think of as empathy in general – the ability to feel others’ feelings.
And active empathy is acting in a way that benefits others.
To practice empathy, you can consciously seek to understand others’ perspectives and feelings. Talk to them about what’s important to their part of a project, or why they do the work they do. Try to understand their thoughts, goals, motivations, and feelings. Think about how you might feel if you were in their shoes.
It might feel awkward at first, you might need to remind yourself to do it, but eventually empathizing with others will begin to feel more natural.
Another important foundational skill for DT – and it’s important to empathizing too – is listening. But wait, you say, I already know how to listen. Perhaps you do, in which case this will just be a gentle reminder. But many people think they’re listening when what they’re actually doing is just hearing.
What’s the difference?
Hearing is the physiological phenomenon of the ear recognizing sounds in the environment around it. But listening is a focused activity, concentrated on trying to understand the message behind sounds. Think about it – when you put on music in the background while working, are you listening to that music and its message, or are you just hearing the sound in the background while focusing on the work in front of you? Now, think about attending a concert. Are you just hearing the music as background noise, or are you actively listening to the songs, feeling the emotion of the message behind the words and music?
To apply design thinking, you need to cultivate the skill of listening, not just hearing. As you interview stakeholders or discuss with your teammates, focus on their words and the message they’re trying to get across. Don’t skip ahead in your mind to what you plan on saying in response. Devote yourself to paying attention to what the person speaking means and what they’re trying to communicate. Remember to listen to tone of voice as well – someone saying “oh!” in response to seeing your product could be saying it with excitement, disappointment, or even confusion. And that difference is important!
You haven’t forgotten about the slow elevators problem, have you? Don’t worry, we’ll get back to it soon!
Tools and techniques
So, a six-step process with eight foundational skills – how many tools and techniques do you think are involved?
Meadows and Parikh include almost 30! We can’t cover them all in this summary, but let’s go over a few of them.
Have you heard of the five whys? This technique is especially useful in figuring out if the right problem is being looked at. This is a crucial issue when solving any challenge – if you’re not looking at the right challenge in the first place, there’s no way you’ll be able to solve it!
So how do the five whys work? This technique has a physical aspect, so before you start, gather some post-its and something to write with and bring your team together in one place.
First, agree on a problem statement. Perhaps the statement is something like, an associate injured his thumb. Write this problem statement on a sticky note and stick it to your working surface – a wall or whiteboard.
Then, draw an arrow downward, beneath the note, and ask yourselves why the problem exists. Write all the answers your team thinks of on Post-its and put them under the arrow and original Post-it. Decide on the answer that seems most correct. This is the level two problem. In our example, perhaps the associate injured his thumb because it got caught in a conveyor belt.
Repeat the process – add an arrow beneath the level two problem note, come up with possible answers for why it happened, and decide on the most correct one. Continue until you find what seems to be the root cause. Most often, it will emerge after five or so rounds of whys. But if it emerges before or after that, no worries. You can take this process as far as it needs to go to find the root cause.
So, in our example, we have an associate who injured his thumb. Why was his thumb hurt? Because it got caught in a conveyor belt. Why did it get caught? Because he’d tried to grab his bag from the moving belt. Why was he trying to grab his bag from a moving belt? Because he’d set his bag on the belt and it surprised him by turning on. Why did he set the bag on the belt? Because he was using it as a table.
And there we have the root of the problem – the associate needed a table surface near the conveyor belt.
Does this example seem a little random? It’s actually a real-world example of the five whys at work – the incident happened at an Amazon fulfillment center in 2004. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of the company, used the five whys to drill down to the root cause of the problem and find the simple solution – adding a table near the conveyor – to avoid any future safety incidents of the same kind.
Another DT technique is HMW – How might we … ? This is a technique for generating ideas, similar to brainstorming, but focused on answering questions that begin with How might we. For example, How might we make brushing your teeth fun for teenagers? Using the HMW sentence stem elicits a state of wondering, of ideation, which can help generate the breadth of ideas needed for successful brainstorming.
A third technique useful in DT is the SCAMPER technique. This acronym prompts teams to think of whether there’s anything in existing products or solutions that can be substituted, combined, modified/magnified/minimized, put to another use, eliminated, or reversed/rearranged. It’s another tool helpful in finding creative solutions.
Design thinking solves human-centered problems.
While new technology, like artificial intelligence, can measure and predict human behavior, it doesn’t answer the question of why people act they way they do – such as why people buy one type of soap over another. Creating solutions that actually address human-centered problems involves designing from the consumer’s point of view.
Companies that embrace this style of design thinking grow twice as fast and receive 75% higher returns for their stakeholders. Focusing on customer insights – such as, people buy soap based on how refreshing it sounds – rather than market trends – such as, people buy a lot of colorful soap – leads to three times the “operating income” and twice the amount of “return on assets.”
“Even if you have a hammer in your hand, not all the world is a nail.”
Design thinking is a lengthy process that works particularly well in solving complex, unclear people problems. For example, if you work at a hospital and notice that patients almost never return for their follow-up appointments, design thinking can help you determine why, and how you could innovate a solution to get people to come back.
Many people have come up with different approaches to design thinking, such as the process that involves breaking down behavioral patterns to form insights, and the IBM method that oscillates from customer observation to reflection to creation and back again. However, these approaches are most useful to experts who already know what they want and what to look for. As a beginner, it’s better to start with the basics.
Hone your empathy, observation, listening and critical thinking skills.
Before you start designing a new product or service that you think will help your customers, step back and take a look at how you perceive the world. Examine how you think about your customers, what aspects of their behaviors you focus on and how you process the insights they give you.The way you feel, watch, listen and analyze all play a major role in how you design.
For instance, some designers burn out quickly because they spend all their energy trying to meet their customers’ emotional needs, and fail to consider their own. A proper use of empathy should allow you to tap into the customer’s thoughts and points of view without becoming consumed by them. Designers who can objectively empathize create value that benefits everyone.
The opposite is true for observation – you need to go all in. Many designers hold focus groups to observe how people interact with their products. But, this setup won’t reflect real-life usage. You must go out into the field and watch how people use the product. If you were designing a new kind of bike pedal, to see how well it works, you should put it on a bike and ride down the street, because that’s what your customers will do.
“You absolutely, positively have to be there and observe!”
Once your customers come back from testing your new pedal, listen to their feedback. Don’t just listen to their words – focus on tone. Do they sound excited, confused or disappointed? Use active listening techniques, such as repeated responses or silence, to coax more information out of the customer. Think about what makes you feel heard and use that.
Take all the newly gained insights and start breaking the information down into facts, patterns and usable data. Critical thinking takes information and turns it into logical conclusions. First, ask a lot of “what if” questions that will put your product into different contexts, such as, “What if customers want to use your pedal for mountain biking?” Then, taking the data from your observations and tests, start connecting the dots and make objective judgments about what you see: For example, ”People said the pedal kept falling off, therefore it needs better screws.”
Get your creativity flowing.
A lot of design work involves using exercises to get your creative juices going. While, as a child, your imagination did most of the heavy lifting, as an adult, getting creative involves opening your mind and being curious.
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have. (Poet Maya Angelou) ”
One easy tool for boosting creativity is “storywording.” Originating from improv, storywording involves co-creating a story: One person starts the narrative, the next person adds a word, and so forth. Each individual builds off the others’ ideas, adding twists with every new word said. It’s an effective, and often humorous, icebreaker: People get to know one another and glimpse how each participant thinks.
Another tool you can use is the “diverge-converge” method. In this exercise, your goal is quantity over quality of ideas. Begin by writing down every possible idea in response to a challenge your team faces. The wilder, the better; remember not to judge at this point, just keep writing. Once you have at least 50 ideas, take the same amount of time it took to come up with them, and narrow them down until you have one to pursue.
If you still feel stuck, try using analogies to think about your challenge in a different light. For example, a hospital’s emergency room staff wanted to gain more efficiency in handling patients in the ER. So they spent a day at a Formula 1 racetrack, watching the pit crews. They learned how delegating certain tasks increased efficiency. Similarly, Henry Ford got the idea to break car manufacturing down into an assembly line by visiting slaughterhouses and watching how butchers cut the meat. When looking at a problem you want to solve, break it down into the attributes you think are the most important, such as speed and accuracy. Then look at other industries or jobs that excel in those attributes.
Understand your customer’s perspective.
Getting to know your customers, what they want, how they think and why they act a certain is way is imperative for successful design. Great designers spend a lot of time thinking about their products from their customers’ points of view. Without obtaining customers’ insights, you won’t know who your product will help, or how you can sell it.
“Design is the intermediary between information and understanding.” (Artist and teacher Hans Hoffman)
Start with looking for the “extreme” customers. They are the consumers that either hate or love your product. For example, if you owned a coffee house, someone who comes in every day, buys your merchandise, befriends the staff and raves about your bean selection is an extreme customer compared to a “mainstream” customer who only comes in occasionally. Extremes teach you a lot about what works or doesn’t with your product. They usually will point out their needs much sooner than regular customers, and therefore allow you to address those needs and innovate before the competition catches up.
When looking at the extremes and their needs, try using some behavioral study tools. Start with observing the customer as they interact with the product. Next, interview them to gain their opinions, emotional responses and underlying motivations. Look and listen for why they do what they do. Then, analyze. Don’t try to guide answers or ask leading questions in an attempt to prove a hunch.
Try a structured interview method: Prepare a set of questions to ask beforehand. Collect the same information from each interviewed customer, such as demographics, opinions and knowledge of the product. This way you can identify patterns with greater ease. You may also find, however, that unstructured interviews yield those magical insights that your prepared questions could have overlooked. It’s worth trying both approaches, because both can serve your goal to capture honest answers that will help you pinpoint the right problem to solve.
Identify the right problem.
If you spend months designing, building and creating a new type of smartphone holder to help people keep their credit cards, ID and phone all together only to realize that no one wants to buy it because people would rather use the AppleWallet app, then you’ve missed the real problem. Correctly identifying a problem worth solving involves truly understanding customers’ challenges at their core.
“Design is a formal response to a strategic question.” (Business owner, Mariona Lopez)
One tool you can start with is the “five whys.” This method helps find the root cause of an issue. Start with asking “why does this problem exist?” For each answer, form another “why” question until you’ve done it five times. For example, if someone injured themselves on an assembly line, the answer to the first “why” might be because the person got his or her hand stuck in the machine. Why did the person get his or her hand stuck? The employee didn’t pay attention to where he or she put the hand down. Why didn’t the person pay attention? The employee had been working for 10 hours straight and felt tired. Why was the person working for that long? The company is short staffed. Why? The company cut costs by firing essential workers to provide bigger bonuses to executives. Now, you’ve gotten to the root of the problem and can work to fix it.
Another way to use the “why” question is with a “challenge map.” If you feel uncertain about the problem, try asking why you want to solve it in the first place. Say a company wanted to outdo their competitors by copying their striped bar of soap. Yet, after making a replica, no one wanted to buy it. The design team didn’t discover why until they looked into the reasons people preferred one type of soap to another. The challenge was not how to sell the same soap better, but what characteristics of bathing, such as feeling fresh like the ocean, make people want to buy soap. Upon redefining the issue and making a sea-themed soap, with stripes, the team sold millions.
If you still feel stumped, look to your own perspective on the problem. If you don’t test your product or service out yourself, you end up relying on the opinions of others to guide your decisions. You need to experience the problem firsthand to make sure you solve the right one.
Prototype and experiment with your design.
Now that you thoroughly understand your customers and have identified the right problem, start solving. It’s good to think big, at first, when picturing solutions. For instance, when designer Eero Saarinen came to Australia to pick the design for the Sydney Opera House, a team had laid out many decent designs on the table for him to see. However, the design he picked was one he found in the waste bin that he claimed was far better than the rest. The team responded that they had thought that design was too “far out.” Saarinen replied that that was the point. There are usually ways to make a “far out” idea work, but not many ways to make a mediocre idea better. So aim high when envisioning possibilities.
Come up with as many solutions as you can think of, at first. As you go, you will most likely notice other problems that need addressing. For example, a father noticed his daughter staying up really late at night to talk to her overseas friends who were in a different time zone. As the dad and daughter brainstormed ways to fix this, he recognized that her friends also needed to make a sacrifice on their part in terms of skipping some sleep. His daughter couldn’t be the only one who stayed up late or got up early. Once you have a list of solutions, narrow them down to the one you think will work best. In this case, the solution was to develop a schedule for the daughter and her friends’ calls.
Next, start testing out your solution through experimentation. For example, if you want your office to stop using Styrofoam cups for coffee, and your solution involves people using ceramic cups instead, put ceramic mugs by the coffee maker to see if anyone uses them. Maybe, at first, some people use them, but you quickly realize that no one wants to wash their mug and that you’ve now angered the janitor who has to clean up the mess. You have learned that your proposed solution doesn’t work, and you need to start over.
“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” (Writer and poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)
Designing takes a lot of tries to get right, so don’t feel discouraged if your first solution doesn’t work. Keep circling back through the process until you get it right.
But wait, what about the slow elevators? Was it a technical or a human-based problem? And how did the manager solve the issue?
When looking into the problem, the manager began by observing people using the elevators. He found that people hated waiting in the lobby for the elevators to arrive. They had no problem with how fast the elevators moved once they’d boarded them. So the real issue was riders’ irritation while waiting in the lobby. As a prototype of a solution, the manager hung several cheap, full-length mirrors next to the elevator doors in the lobby. The result? People were so satisfied doing last-minute checks on their clothes, hair, and faces, that they no longer cared about the time they spent waiting.
So, the slow elevators problem turned out to be a human-centered problem after all – nothing to do with the mechanics of the machinery. And the manager solved the issue with some creative design thinking techniques. A satisfying end, don’t you think?
Clearly, we couldn’t cover everything Meadows and Parikh share in their workbook. But you’ve learned the six steps of their DT methodology – challenge, observe, understand, envision, solve, and prototype. You know the three aspects of empathy – cognitive, emotional, and active. And you’ve learned or been reminded of the difference between hearing and listening – passive versus intentional. In the last section, you learned about the five whys, HMWs, and SCAMPER. All of these will be helpful as you begin using the design thinking approach to solving problems. And if you want to learn more skills, tools, and techniques, you know where to find them!
About the Author
Charvi Parikh and Dr. C. J. Meadows are both designers and innovation consultants.
Productivity, Entrepreneurship, Creativity
The Design Thinking Workbook: Essential Skills for Creativity and Business Growth, written by C. J. Meadows and Charvi Parikh, is a comprehensive guide that takes readers on a practical journey through the principles and techniques of design thinking. This workbook serves as an invaluable resource for individuals and teams looking to enhance their creativity and drive business growth.
The book starts by introducing the concept of design thinking and its relevance in today’s fast-paced and innovation-driven world. The authors emphasize the importance of adopting a human-centered approach to problem-solving and the role of empathy in understanding the needs and desires of users.
The workbook is structured in a way that allows readers to actively engage with the material through various exercises and activities. It provides step-by-step instructions and templates to guide readers through the design thinking process, making it a hands-on and interactive experience.
Throughout the book, Meadows and Parikh provide real-world examples and case studies that illustrate the application of design thinking in different industries and contexts. These examples help readers grasp the practical implications of the concepts and techniques discussed.
One of the strengths of this workbook is its emphasis on collaboration and teamwork. The authors highlight the importance of diverse perspectives and interdisciplinary collaboration in the design thinking process. They provide tools and strategies for facilitating effective teamwork and encourage readers to leverage the collective intelligence of a group to generate innovative ideas and solutions.
Furthermore, the workbook covers various design thinking tools and methods, such as brainstorming, prototyping, and user testing. It provides guidance on how to effectively apply these tools at each stage of the design thinking process, from problem definition to ideation, iteration, and implementation.
The Design Thinking Workbook also addresses the integration of design thinking into business strategies. The authors discuss how design thinking can drive business growth, enhance customer experiences, and create a competitive advantage in the market. They provide insights into how organizations can foster a culture of innovation and embed design thinking principles into their day-to-day operations.
The book is divided into five parts:
- Part I: The Design Thinking Process
- Part II: Empathize
- Part III: Define
- Part IV: Ideate
- Part V: Prototype
- Part VI: Test
In Part I, the authors introduce the design thinking process and explain how it works. They also discuss the benefits of using design thinking to solve problems.
In Part II, the authors discuss the importance of empathy in the design thinking process. They provide exercises and activities to help you develop your empathy skills.
In Part III, the authors discuss how to define the problem you are trying to solve. They provide exercises and activities to help you clarify your problem statement.
In Part IV, the authors discuss how to generate creative ideas to solve the problem. They provide exercises and activities to help you come up with innovative solutions.
In Part V, the authors discuss how to create prototypes of your ideas. They provide exercises and activities to help you test and refine your solutions.
In Part VI, the authors discuss how to test your solutions with real users. They provide exercises and activities to help you gather feedback and iterate on your solutions.
Here are some of the pros and cons of the book:
- Well-written and informative
- Provides a comprehensive overview of the design thinking process
- Full of practical exercises and activities
- Some of the exercises may be too time-consuming for some readers
- The book can be expensive
Overall, The Design Thinking Workbook: Essential Skills for Creativity and Business Growth is an excellent resource for individuals and teams seeking to harness the power of design thinking. It provides a practical and actionable guide to applying design thinking principles, techniques, and tools in a variety of contexts. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced practitioner, this workbook offers valuable insights and exercises to enhance your creative problem-solving skills and drive innovation.
Here are some additional thoughts on the book:
- I appreciate that the authors provide a clear and concise explanation of the design thinking process. This makes it easy to understand the concept and start applying it in your own work.
- I also appreciate that the authors provide a variety of practical exercises and activities. This gives you a lot of options to choose from and helps you to find the approach that works best for you.
- I think the book is most helpful for people who are already working on solving a problem. It can help you to clarify your problem statement, generate creative ideas, and test and refine your solutions.
If you are interested in learning more about the design thinking process, I highly recommend reading The Design Thinking Workbook.
- The workbook provides a practical journey through the principles and techniques of design thinking.
- It emphasizes the importance of a human-centered approach and empathy in problem-solving.
- The book offers step-by-step instructions, templates, and exercises for an interactive learning experience.
- Real-world examples and case studies illustrate the application of design thinking in different industries.
- Collaboration and teamwork are highlighted as essential elements of the design thinking process.
- Various design thinking tools and methods, such as brainstorming and prototyping, are covered.
- The integration of design thinking into business strategies is explored, focusing on driving growth and innovation.
- Suitable for beginners and experienced practitioners alike, offering valuable insights and exercises to enhance creative problem-solving skills.