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March 13, 2018
What is Design Thinking anyway?
By: Jen Sheahan

Design Thinking is nothing new. I often refer to it as Applied Common Sense (the consultant in me would love to call it ACS, but I’ll resist in the spirit of transparency). Perhaps that’s what so good about it – it has been in around for so long that by the time David Kelley brought it to the attention of the corporate world in the early 90s, it had a litany of proven success stories to support its usage.

The most important thing to understand about Design Thinking is that latter word – Thinking. Design Thinking is a mindset. It’s a way of approaching problems. Methods and processes have been created to help with the application of Design Thinking; these are extremely useful and important to learn, but of greater importance is the understanding of the key principles and the infusion of these into how you think and work. There are variations of these principles that all boil down to pretty much the same thing – at Accenture we define them as follows:

  • Design Thinking is human centred. It is based on empathy and understanding of users through research. If you don’t understand the person who will use the thing you’re creating, then it will not work.
  • Design Thinking is creative and playful. Breaking out of restrictive environments and generating a playful atmosphere is critical to creativity.
  • Design Thinking is iterative. Get used to the fact that your first ideas and solutions are probably crap. Keep challenging and reframing the problem. Test, iterate, test and test again; the earlier and more often, the better. The best way to do this is to use the divergent-convergent approach throughout the process.
  • Design Thinking is prototype driven. There is much debate about the definition of a prototype – for this blog, I define it as any tool which can be used to communicate and test your idea. That could be anything from a sketch on a piece of paper, to a clickable digital interface. Early and frequent prototyping ensures robust testing, clear communication within the team, and saves time and money down the line.
  • Design Thinking is collaborative. It involves multi-disciplinary teams in collaboration with end users, ideally working in a flat hierarchy.

Once these principles are understood, our process should then make intuitive sense:

Design Thinking Process

“Design Thinking” is easy. Good Design Thinking is hard.
That all sounds easy, right? Well this is where we discover that while the above may seem obvious, the reality is that it can be difficult to get it right. Accenture has adopted Design Thinking with admirable gusto, and has put phenomenal effort into suffusing it throughout our entire organisation through acquisitions, education, and redefining our way of working through the _FORM_ methodology. At the Dock, everything we do revolves around Design Thinking. When we work with clients, we take a collaborative approach; we trust them as experts in their business, and they trust us as experts in using Design Thinking to approach their problems and collaboratively create new ideas and solutions. And so I can say from much experience and learning that what is possibly most difficult to get right is User Research and Testing. Henry Ford has often been quoted as saying “If I’d asked them what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Whether or not he ever actually said this is up for debate, however the point holds true; user research takes much more than simply asking people what they want, as most of the time they don’t know! At the Dock, we are lucky that our colleagues in Fjord have a wealth of expertise in user research, and have taught us how important it is. For example, in a recent engagement with an airline who was trying to improve their disruption experience for passengers, our user researchers spent hours waiting around airports observing passengers affected by disruption, and talking to them at the point of disruption to build empathy with how they felt at that moment. We have spent days speaking with banking customers to understand the complex life events that lead to them falling behind on their loan repayments, and how this has affected them, so we could better design the arrears process. Collecting and analysing (or Describing) this information requires skill and expertise, but it should form the bedrock of the entire Design Thinking process. Likewise, it is crucial to test your ideas and early prototypes as often as possible with actual users. Too often we assume our ideas are amazing and will totally work, only to discover down the line that we forgot something that would have been obvious to an end user. Repeat after me: early testing saves time and money.

We are also lucky at the Dock to have experts at our fingertips, eager to solve problems and get creative. This makes Co-Creation easy. When our client come to us with their most complex issues, we can bring together experts from a wide range of disciplines - including artificial intelligence, software engineering, and design – to collaborate with them and solve their most pressing issues at pace. This results in acceleration and accuracy that is not possible otherwise. For example, we worked with a pharmaceutical client at the Dock late last summer. We spent weeks speaking to their front-line staff to build empathy. Once we better understood the challenge, we then quickly pulled together a team of experts from across the Dock. The client arrived sceptical, but ready to spend four days with our team to address the challenge. By the end of day four we had co-created a solid idea, we had tested it with end users, and it is now being implemented in their business. To quote the client: “If this is real, and it works, get ready to make a lot of money.” (Update: it’s real, and it’s working 😉)

How can you use it?
If you only take one thing from reading this, let it be that Design Thinking is a mindset that you can apply to anything. Try it everywhere, let it bleed into your life. I don’t mean that your weekly shopping should require a wall full of post-its, but the two things that I use most without even thinking about it are Divergent Thinking, and User Research and Testing.

To get you started, think about choosing a topic for a paper you have to write or a project you have to do for college. First, research the area and talk to as many people as possible about potential topics. Next, try the “10 plus 10” method to diverge, iterate, and converge on the best topic and approach. Force yourself (or, ideally, gather a group of peers to help) to write down at least 10 initial ideas for your topic. Now pick the best idea, and force yourself to write down at least 10 ways you could approach that topic. Finally, pick the best of those and ask for feedback from as many people as possible, and use this feedback to iterate and refine your idea. I promise you will have a better result. Good luck!

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