How design thinking can be the go-to-model for problem-solving

How design thinking can be the go-to-model for problem-solving


Design thinking has come to be recognised as the go-to-model of solving wicked problems. Whether these problems pertain to improving customer experience, employee engagement, or business processes, design thinking — with its array of tools and techniques — has something to offer.

Above all, the practice of design thinking lends the much-needed discipline to the otherwise ad hoc approach of creativity. Does that mean design thinking is suitable to solve any problem? Certainly not. There is a certain class of problem that is best dealt with by embracing a design thinking approach.

In this article, I present three conditions that qualify as a problem or a context to be addressed with design thinking. The conditions are high levels of ambiguity, availability of time, and access to customers.

Embracing ambiguity

We are increasingly living in a world full of surprises and with growing difficulties of sensemaking, the so-called VUCA environment (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). However, most of us would like to engage with a sliver of the problem to lower our cognitive load and engage with the problem one piece at a time. But that piecemeal approach may cause more harm than good, for one problem solved, can certainly create another.

Think of how the creation of the COVID-19 vaccine soon followed the complex task of administering it, twice in a gap of a few weeks, to millions of people the world over. Such complex problems need complex thinking and systems thinking so that one doesn’t fall into the trap of optimising locally and not taking eyes off the global good.

Design thinking is suitable for such wicked problems, which David Epstein, in his book Range, characterises where “the rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or both”. In such situations reliance on intuition or even common sense may be counterproductive, if not hazardous.

A good problem for design thinking does not offer a clear cause-effect relationship. It has several moving parts to it, some known and a lot more unknown, and with multiple stakeholders involved.

Think of reopening of schools this academic season? The sheer number of stakeholders, ranging from students to teachers, administration, parents, transport providers, and healthcare officials that are explicitly involved and impacted.

And then the unknowns, in terms of social distancing, ensuring hygiene, early detection of infection, and containment of the infected, while ensuring that studies go on, is a non-trivial problem — it’s a wicked problem.

Design thinking, with its focus on empathy, deep discovery, rapid iteration, and deferring of judgment is designed for such problems.

Taking the necessary time

One of the most counterintuitive and yet core philosophies of design thinking, or even creative problem-solving, is to think slow. What Daniel Kahneman calls slow, deliberate, System-2 thinking, which is hard to come by, especially when confronted with a difficult situation.

Think of it – what’s your dominant way of solving a problem under time pressure? You would mostly resort to intuition, common sense, or improvisation, all of which offer inferior solutions as against the one that would come from a thorough examination of the problem and choosing the best alternate.

There are genuine situations, like a flight losing altitude rapidly, or in a hostage-rescue attempt, where time is of premium and tried-and-tested ways are available, and one must adopt those to increase the odds of success. But most day-to-day problem solving isn’t characterised by such high stakes and time criticality, and yet most people react pretty much the same way as if there isn’t an alternative.

It happens because thinking deep, buying time, considering possibilities, and, all this while, staying with the problem, isn’t natural or comfortable.

To solve a complex, ambiguous problem well-enough (read permanently) one needs time. Time to soak into the problem, and go through the motions of divergent and convergent thinking. With the paucity of time, there’s hardly any divergent thinking and hence no new insights surface and ideas emerge.

Most amateur problem solvers would rush through the problem exploration and scoping stages as a habit, even if there’s ample time, and that’s where design thinking offers discipline.

So, if you are in a real rush, design thinking isn’t for you, but if you can slow down your thinking, design thinking can offer some great perspectives.

Working ‘with’ the customer

All through the problem-solving journey, one must remember that you are solving somebody’s problem and not some problem. Often amid the problem-solving journey, one gets so absorbed in the object, which could be the product or the service, that the subject, which is the end-user or the customer, gets side-lined.

And this mostly leads to over-engineered products and services which hardly impress anybody. So, instead of working for the customer, why not work with the customer. This would mean that one must ‘co-discover’ the problem or the opportunity with the customer and later ‘co-create’ the solution, to take away the guesswork from the effort.

The division of labour that the customer knows the problem and the producer knows the solution is false at best, for now, the customer may as well know a possible solution which the producer could help refine. This certainly takes humility, but also the means of engaging with customers in a whole different way.

Let’s define a customer as anyone whose problem you wish to solve. It could be your end-user, influencer, employee, client, consumer, supplier, retailer, investor, supervisor, or subordinate. This broad definition of the customer helps us develop empathy towards a cause and look at the problem from others’ perspectives.

Effective problem solving needs constant feedback from the customer, which in the realm of design thinking, is characterized by rapid iteration and embracing a prototyping mentality.

The willingness to take paper-thin prototypes to the customers for seeking feedback and ideas helps the problem-solving team to pack in as much learning as possible in a given time and budget and this also builds customer confidence in the team and the outcome.

Think of the three phases – understanding the problem, solving the problem, and selling the solution – as happening simultaneously as against sequentially. Hence, access to the customer, preferably all through the problem-solving journey, is a desirable requirement of design thinking, else it’s very easy for the team to celebrate its genius ideas and declare victory premature.

In summary, one must be careful not to put the approach of problem-solving before the problem itself. Avoid the temptation of using design thinking and then looking for a worthwhile problem. Though this remains a largely accepted approach, the more prudent method would be to define a problem and then chose the approach to address it.

It could be lateral thinking, lean thinking, critical thinking, or any other technique, but if it were to be design thinking be sure that you are dealing with high levels of ambiguity, have sufficient time to entertain divergent thinking, and have the customer by your side.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)





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