Design Thinking


While the Design Thinking method was largely popularized by Tim Brown of IDEO in 2008 in the Harvard Business Review, it has begun gaining ground in Northern European countries and more recently in the rest of Europe!


The world is rapidly becoming more and more complex due to digitalization, crisis, and globalization. Businesses, the public sector, and NGO’s need to innovate in order to reinvent themselves and survive.

Creating value by optimizing internal processes/cost structure, or by inventing new products and incremental services, is no longer enough in today’s world.

Today, creating value requires improving the customer experience.

Traditional linear approaches are no longer enough. And that is exactly what Design Thinking can do.

How can Design Thinking help?

It takes a keen interest in users’ needs by empathizing with them. It builds a user-centered solution where human desirability, economic viability, and technical feasibility intersect.

Désirable. Viable. Faisable.

“Design Thinking is an innovative approach centered on the human being, that uses the designer’s toolbox to integrate people’s needs, technological possibilities, and the business’s requirements for success.” (Tim Brown)


The name “Design Thinking” can be misinterpreted. It is not design in the artistic sense, nor is it merely a thought. Design should be understood here

in the sense of conception.

So, what is Design Thinking?

“The design way, putting people first in planning and managing projects” (Michael Shanks, Stanford)

1. What to expect with Design Thinking

A publication in October 2018 of the McKinsey Design Index (MDI), shows how design-driven and user-centric organizations outperform their industry standard in matter of revenue growth and returns to shareholders.

In the different industries studied (consumer packaged goods, medical technology, and retail banking), top-performing companies share the same characteristics related to a design-centric vision impulsed from the top management:

• Analytical leadership: Measuring and driving design performance with the same rigor as revenues and costs

• User experience: Breaking down internal walls between physical, digital, and service design

• Cross-functional talent: Making user-centric design everyone’s responsibility

• Continuous iteration: De-risking development by continually listening, testing, and iterating with end users

2. Challenges to solve with DT

Design Thinking can apply across all domains and can prove very effective. It is even more so for tackling problems that fit the following characteristics:

• Is the team enthusiastic about the challenge?

• Is user comprehension key for this product or service?

• Is the challenge to be resolved still vague?

• Is it found in a complex environment?

• Is there a high level of uncertainty surrounding the result/solution?

• Is it solvable analytically?

3. The 4 elements

Innovation depends on 4 elements which complement each other and influence each other.

They are as follows:

- A user-centered challenge

- A collaborative team

- An innovation process: design thinking or business thinking (lean startup or business model canvas)

- A modular space

3.1. The team

"The emotional ambience of a design team correlates with success and failure - 70% accuracy" (center for Design Research at Stanford)

It is the most critical element that determines the success of any innovation activity. It only takes a few hours for an experienced coach to assess the quality of the team and therefore its potential success.

It is characterized by

- Its collaborative work. The individual strengthens the power of the group while retaining his individuality

- Its multidisciplinarity. Varied and complementary skills to enrich the team

- Its internal and external opening. Feedback between team members is permanent and the team is oriented towards the outside world: the user. It can even include deconstruction workshops with users.

Its ability to work together depends on the attitude of each of its members. Design thinking is based on 8 injunctions shown in the following photo. They are constantly reinforced during the workshops to promote collaborative work.

As with other agile methods, a coach per team can boost performance. He is responsible for the innovation process while the team is responsible for the result.

3.2. The process

It is characterized by

- Its iterations. Unlike linear processes that are very common in business, teams oscillate between the different phases in a very fluid manner

- Its phases. They allow each step to be formalized flexibly

- Its speed. From a few hours to a few months depending on the complexity of the challenge

- His mind. Everything is prototyping until the final implementation. This gives the necessary openness to continuously innovate until a satisfactory solution is reached.

- Its divergence and convergence. Divergence opens up possibilities while convergence makes it possible to select and make tangible certain ideas and to test them

This process in itself makes good sense and borrows many existing elements from other methods.

What makes the difference in this apparently simple process is its holistic implementation facilitated by the coach to find solutions to complex problems

3.3. The space

It is essential to create an environment conducive to creativity, exchange and action. This is done by breaking the codes of traditional workspaces.

Here are the characteristics:

- Variable. The space must be able to organize itself in different ways quickly

- In a standing position to encourage action

- Multiple windows, walls and whiteboards for writing and sticking post-it notes

- Friendly spaces

- A kitchen with tea, coffee, snacks

- A workshop and prototyping equipment.

This illustration represents such innovation spaces that are far from our usual meeting rooms

And here is what such a space gives live:

4. Time boxing

Time boxing - facilitated by a time timer - is one of the time management tools commonly used in innovation teams.

Instead of working on a task until it's finished, you only work on it for a specific time. This makes it possible to increase the efficiency of a team by avoiding procrastination and perfectionism and by boosting its motivation!

80% of the task is done in 20% of the time while the remaining 20% would take 80% of the time ...

And here is an example of a time timer:

5. The process

Type 'design thinking process' into a search engine and select 'images'.

This will show you dozens of different processes which are all equally valid!

We chose to define one that explicitly includes iterations with loops, with a ball size to evoke divergence and convergence, and with a color code to indicate the more difficult phases.

All the phases in the following sections are sufficiently explained for an overall understanding of the process.

5.1. Understand

This is the most understandable phase because it is closer to current methods. It is the understanding of the ecosystem in which innovations are needed. This involves identifying all the stakeholders, benchmarking and / or discussing with experts. This also includes quantitative research if the field of study allows. This phase is optional. It depends on the subject and has the risk of guiding the teams too much ...

5.2. Observe

This is without a doubt the most difficult and the most important. It invites us to come out of ourselves. And it costs time and energy.

"Get out of the building" as Steve Blank frequently puts it. It is about meeting the various stakeholders and in particular the users. And even more, it's about empathizing with others so that you think and feel like them!

Why ?

The intention is to develop products and services for users other than us… This is done by deeply understanding the difficulties they face, their wants and needs, their environment.

It makes so much sense and… so difficult…

The Qualitative methods used in Design Thinking are sometimes referred to as ethnographic or user research.

There are 3 ways with many variations to enter into empathy:

- Interviewer. In their environment where a solution is expected

- Observe. Watch, photograph, film users

- Try it out. Simply take the place of users by immersing themselves in their context

Refer to the tools section for more details on the interview and feedback technique.

Using the interview feedback and other material, the team chooses the findings that are most important

- Surprises

- Contradictions

- Tensions

5.3. Define

Now is the time to use the results of the "observe" phase to infer users' wants and needs.

The goal is to reformulate an actionable challenge for the 'generating ideas' phase.

This is done in 3 steps:

1. Define a persona

2. Choose a point of view

3. Reformulate the challenge

Creating a persona is optional. It allows you to group characteristics drawn from your observation into a hypothetical character. This can help the team stay focused and make decisions by refocusing on a user.

Choosing a point of view always requires an effort of understanding for those new to DesignThinking. It is simply a definition of the problem to be solved - rather even a vision - based on your understanding of users today. This perspective often evolves over time with the addition of new observations.

A point of view is articulated as follows:

1. We met… (user)

2. We think / feel he / she (needs)

3. Because we have observed ... (discoveries) ‍

Based on this it is possible to rephrase the challenge (s) ‘how could we…?’ Turned towards action. It is common to write more than one to allow richer ideation.

At that point, the team is ready to generate solutions based on the reformulated challenge.

As in any problem solving, 50% of the work is in a good definition of it. You don't have to get it right since it is an iterative process. The most important thing is to constantly improve. Mistakes themselves will lead to a better point of view.

A good point of view is one that allows:


- To focus on a specific problem

- To inspire your team

- To provide a benchmark for the evaluation of competing ideas

- To empower team members to make decisions in response to objectives

- To enrich brainstorming sessions by asking questions like “How could we…?”

- To reach out to the people you have met

- To avoid the impossible task of designing a solution that must answer all the problems

- To be rethought as you go and as you learn by doing

- To guide your innovation efforts

‘’ ( Stanford)

5.4. Generate ideas

This phase is the culmination of the 'observe' and 'define' phase.

It consists of 2 very distinct steps to avoid judgment in the idea generation phase:

1. Generation of ideas

2. Selection

The generation of ideas seeks quantity and diversity in order to broaden the range of possibilities as much as possible without focusing on solutions per se. The goal is to go beyond the obvious solutions.

Many brainstorming techniques exist. Good facilitation is essential for an optimum result. And they can start from the rephrased challenges of how could we…? ’Finally comes the moment of selection.

In other words, how to move from divergence to convergence. It is important to keep several ideas representative of the whole.

This can be done in different ways. For example:

- Vote by drawing a circle on the post its

- The exciting idea for the team

- One that leads to different prototypes: digital, physical, new user experience

- Using the following 2x2 matrix


5.5. Prototype & test

Prototyping makes one or more of your ideas tangible. This can take a variety of forms: a mockup, an object, a role-playing game, a storyboard ...

The primary objective of the prototyping phase is to get rapid feedback from your users on your concept or on just one of these variables. It doesn't have to be perfect ... just good enough for your users to experience your solution. And that leads you - based on this turn - to build the next prototype.

The other objectives are - during the prototyping activity - to clarify the solution as a team, to identify points of attention or to resolve team disagreements.

The key attitude in this phase is not to attach to its prototype, but in the opinion of the user. This is another opportunity to empathize with him / her. Hence the importance of not investing too much time and therefore emotionally in the prototype.

It may also be that the angle of attack needs to be rephrased following observations during the test. Then the iteration loop goes back to 'define' or even 'observe'.

It is important to pay attention to the way of testing to get as much objective information as possible from the tester.

Here is one way to do it:

1. Distribute roles within the team

a. Facilitator interacting with the user

b. Observers noting what is said and done as in the 'observe' phase

2. Give your prototype to your user and give them the minimum amount of information so that they can start using it. Do not explain your logic to him

3. Observe the user

4. Ask them what they experience, live and think

After the test, it is a question of collecting opinions using a grid with 4 frames:

- + what worked

- Δ the constructive critiques

-? questions

- new ideas

Such a grid can also be used during the test.

Then the team decides on the next phase: "observe", "define", "generate ideas", "prototype" or "implement" when the solution is convincing.

The benefit of such an approach is the speed towards a solution closer to the real needs of the user.

5.6. Implement

This phase is seldom integrated into the process.

Too often the innovation team validates a new concept and passes it on to a different team for implementation. This usually leads to loss of information that is damaging to the end product.

It is therefore important:

- To integrate sufficiently early in the innovation team one or more members who will participate in the implementation

- To remain in a design thinking attitude during this phase to possibly even start again in an earlier phase

6. A few methodological precisions

Many tools exist for each phase of the process. We describe a few to facilitate introductory design thinking training.

6.1. Interview

The purpose of an interview is to understand the thoughts, emotions and motivations of the interviewee.

There are 3 steps to conducting such an interview effectively:

1. Its preparation

2. Interviews

3. The restitution of the interview

The time with and of your users is precious. It's a chance to learn from them ...

And this is optimized with good team preparation in 3 stages:

a. Brainstorm all possible questions

b. Group and order your questions to allow for a fluid interview.

c. Take out redundant questions and add 'why', 'how are you feeling', 'tell us how it went'

For interviews, pair up. One asks the questions, the other takes notes and observes the behavior. At the end of the interview, ask if he / she would like to be photographed. The goal is to get the interviewee to speak as much as possible, for example 80% of the time, to make him tell stories.

Then, as a team, it is the restitution of the interviews to synthesize this qualitative research. One way is the empathy map. It can itself be used directly during interviews. It is in all cases completed afterwards for what is deduced from it.

This is done in 2 stages:

a. What is objective

i. "Said. What the user said verbatim

ii. Fact. What you observed about his behavior during the interview

b. What is deduced by yourself

i. 'Think'. What do you think the thoughts of user ii might be.

ii. Smell ’. What might their emotions be?

The inference appeals to all of the interviewer's senses, paying attention to all indirect cues such as behavior, tone and choice of words.

6.2. Extreme users

One way to look at user needs is to look at extreme users. Their needs are generally magnified and their workaround much more visible.

For example, professional cooks are the end users of kitchen equipment.

A range of utensils has been derived from it to facilitate their work and that of any home cook!

6.3. Brainstorm

Generating ideas as a team with facilitation is the most productive way.

The steps are as follows:

1. Stand close to each other

2. Distribute roles:

a. Facilitator

b. Keeper of time

c. Reporter or everyone write on post-its and verbalize them by pasting them on the wall

3. Rewrite the reformulated point of view and challenges 'how could we ...'

4. Recall the rules of brainstorming

5. Do a warmup

6. Brainstorm multiple times one 'how could we' question. Do them over 10-15 min times to keep the energy high

7. Group ideas by topic

8. Select ideas

The rules of brainstorming are kindly reminded when necessary:

- One conversation at a time

- Go for quantity

- Build on other people's ideas

- Encourage crazy ideas

- Be visual

- Stay focused on the subject

- Defer criticism

- YES and…


The facilitator has a key role. Its tasks are:

- To maintain a high level of energy. It starts with the rephrased challenges and continues when necessary with provocative questions

- To set constraints like timeboxing and result criteria: 30 ideas in 10 min

- To ensure that the space is suitable with enough shots of writing and that the material is available, eg, markers, Post-Its.

64. Warmups

These are 5-10 min exercises repeated regularly as a team ... which apparently have little to do with the challenge!

They actually have multiple goals

- Letting go to be more creative

- Boosting energy to be more present mentally and physically

- Making us aware of our behaviors

The performance of a team is proportional to the atmosphere there. To be used without moderation before team workshops!

7. Coachs & facilitators

An experienced design thinker uses the tools of facilitation and team coaching. As a facilitator, he is responsible for the process. As a coach, he helps the team build up strength.


Although he is not responsible for the result, he is instrumental in boosting the performance of the team!

Each coach / facilitator has their own style. Some will be more result oriented, sometimes even getting involved in the content at the risk of "polluting" the team. Others are more for the empowerment of their team by letting them run away at the risk of reduced production in the short term. ‍

The learning by doing workshop design thinker

And for those who would like to practice it to integrate such a professional skill, we have designed an experiential training: design thinker. You become a certified design thinker facilitator.

Other roles are based on design thinking such as service designer, UX designer or sustainable designer. Discover it in the online workshop catalogu.