Design Thinking Handbook
01

Why we need design thinking

Tackle complex challenges


by Eli Woolery

In 1958, 4 months after Sputnik launched and President Eisenhower created NASA, a Stanford engineering professor named John Arnold proposed that design engineering should be human-centered.

This was a strange thing for Arnold to introduce. It was an era in which engineers were largely focused on twin Cold War driven goals: the space race and the optimization of the hydrogen bomb.

Inspired by Arnold’s work, engineering professor Bob McKim, with the help of art professor Matt Kahn, created an engineering program called Product Design. Within this program, McKim and others helped create a design thinking process that became the foundation for Stanford’s d.school, as well as the guiding framework for design-driven companies like IDEO.

Just as the space race resulted in the invention of Velcro and satellite communications, design thinking plays a large role in how we interact with computers (the mouse and notebook), how we deliver our healthcare, and how we do our banking now and in the future.

Why has design thinking been embraced not only by forward-thinking innovators like IDEO but large enterprises like IBM? For one, it brings everyone into the process, not just designers; using the design process helps companies solve wicked problems with clear eyes.

Design thinking also helps scale the design process through large organizations.  Business leaders who use the shared vocabulary and toolset of design thinking can confidently create better, human-centered user experiences and disruptive products.

Finally, design thinking helps to instill a bias towards action, balanced with a user-centered perspective that guides the team towards the right outcome.

The design thinking process is not necessarily linear, nor is there one canonical way to approach it; it is an iterative system with many variations. However, Stanford’s d.school teaches a framework that can help jump-start the process for almost any problem:

We’ll walk you through the 5 steps of this design thinking framework, which will provide a toolkit for design challenges large and small in your organization.

The core of the design thinking approach is a focus on empathy, or using a beginner’s mindset and immersing yourself in the user’s experience to uncover deep needs and insights.

Defining the problem with a point of view (POV) is a key part of the process: who is your user (with as many specific details as possible); what is their deep, unmet need; why is this insightful (what insights did you glean from your empathetic needfinding process?). Often, reframing the problem using a unique POV will lead to more innovative solution spaces.

The design thinking process goes through a cycle of generative flaring and selective focusing. In the definition phase, we narrowed down to a specific Point of View; now, in the ideation phase, we flare out and generate as many ideas as possible.

For many designers, prototyping is where the fun begins. Sometimes the key to good empathy is sharing or co-creating a prototype with your users and getting feedback. Prototyping helps us learn, solve disagreements, and test hypotheses quickly and with minimal repercussions.

By testing our prototypes with real users and getting feedback, we can refine our POV, learn more about our users, and make the next iteration of the product that much better. As they say at Stanford’s d.school: “Prototype as if you know you’re right, but test as if you know you’re wrong.”

These steps should be considered a way to get started with design thinking. Over time, you will adapt them to your working style and make them your own. With this flexible toolkit, you’ll be prepared to tackle any project, from a new app to—perhaps—new NASA moonshots.

With thanks to Bill Burnett, executive director of the Design Program at Stanford, for giving the lecture that inspired this introduction.

Design Thinking Handbook
03

Define

Reframe the problem

Listen to Chapter

by Eli Woolery

In 1968, when Apollo 8 became the first spacecraft to circumnavigate the moon, the crew had one photographic mission: to capture detailed images of the moon’s surface. As the astronauts rounded the dark side, Earth became visible—a brilliant blue and white marble. Earth was remarkable not only for its serene beauty from this perspective but also for its apparent fragility. The only life-sustaining planet in our solar system is dwarfed by the vast emptiness of space.

With the photograph from this event, which became known as “Earthrise,” the Apollo 8 astronauts inadvertently sparked a spontaneous reframing of the environmental problems threatening our planet. No longer were we on a vast planet with seemingly endless resources, but rather a small, very finite lifeboat in an infinite universe.  This change in perspective helped charge the modern environmental movement, inspiring the creation of Earth Day in 1970.

Reframing the way that a problem is viewed can inspire a movement, as it did in this case. It can also be a powerful way to create innovative design solutions to challenging problems and even create new and disruptive business models. During the Empathize phase of the Design Thinking process, you collected stories and insights from your users. This Define phase will give you an opportunity to synthesize these findings and come up with a problem statement, called a point of view (POV), that can help you reframe the problem and open new and innovative solution spaces.

Developing a point of view (POV)

A POV is composed of 3 elements:

  • Who is your user? (Note as many specific details as possible.)
  • What is their deep, unmet need?
  • Why is this insightful? (List the insights you gleaned from your empathetic needfinding process.)

As an example, below is a POV from the founders of AwesomeBox, a gift-giving platform, used in the early days of developing their product. They were trying to design for people who have a hard time giving thoughtful gifts. They interviewed and observed hundreds of potential customers, from which they created POVs like the following.

Let’s create some hypothetical POVs using Netflix, as they’re a good example of a company that disrupted an existing business model by reframing the problem for users.

In the early days, Netflix might have framed their POV like this:

“Caroline is a 26-year-old single mom who loves sci-fi movies. She needs a way to rent DVDs that doesn’t clutter her already-busy schedule, while making her feel relaxed after a long day of work and taking care of her daughter.”

Using this point of view, Netflix certainly could have come up with a solution that only delivers DVDs by mail—but the solution space would have been constrained and they might’ve missed a larger opportunity.

Now consider how Netflix could have reframed the problem with a different POV.

Caroline is a 26-year-old single mom who loves sci-fi movies. She needs a way to access new and entertaining content in a way that allows her to consume it at her own pace, while making her feel excited about discovering new shows to share with her friends.

With the problem statement rewritten, Netflix opened up all kinds of opportunities for innovation. Let’s unpack them.

“She needs a way to access new and entertaining content … ”

This doesn’t even mention DVDs! In the early days, a mail delivery solution may have worked, but over time Netflix developed the streaming services that helped make them so popular. Also, “new and entertaining” doesn’t necessarily limit them to licensing content. Netflix could also develop and distribute their own shows.

“ … in a way that allows her to consume it at her own pace … ”

Again, mail delivery of DVDs would be a partial solution to this constraint, but with streaming as an option, there’s an even bigger opportunity. Add in original content, and now Caroline can binge-watch House of Cards while her daughter sleeps. (We never said that innovative solutions always have a positive social impact.)

“ … while making her feel excited about discovering new shows … ”

Netflix famously developed a “recommendation algorithm” that helps viewers discover new content based on the shows they already watch—and the ratings they give to each. This feature wouldn’t have necessarily stemmed from the previous POV.

“ … which she can share with her friends.”

This last insight, while minor on its surface, is a huge reason for the viral growth of Netflix—especially after the company began developing original content. Once rave reviews about shows began to surface—with the only way to access them being Netflix—the continued growth was almost assured.

Clearly, there would have been a lot of value left on the table had Netflix used the first POV to guide their designs. In addition to helping you reframe a problem, a good POV can align your team, provide a way to compare competing ideas, and help fuel brainstorms. In fact, the d.school at Stanford came up with a great checklist of all the things that a good POV should help you accomplish:

Point of view (POV) checklist

Your POV should:

  • Provide focus and frame the problem
  • Inspire your team
  • Provide a reference for evaluating competing ideas
  • Empower team members to make decisions in response to the high level goals of the team
  • Fuel brainstorms by suggesting “how might we” statements
  • Capture the hearts and minds of people you meet
  • Save you from the impossible task of developing solution concepts that are all things to all people
  • Allow you to revisit and reformulate the POV as you learn by doing
  • Guide your innovation efforts

In the remaining sections of this chapter, we will dive into a case study where developing a POV provided inspiration for a healthcare project with a lot of impact. Then, we’ll share an exercise to help you quickly generate POVs of your own.

Case study: GE Healthcare MRI redesign

We first met Doug Dietz when doing the research for this chapter. Over the phone, Doug is a kind, affable midwesterner—the sort of guy you imagine it would be fun to go to a Milwaukee Brewers game with. But beneath his unassuming presence is a formidable design mind with over 25 years of experience at GE Healthcare. First as a principal designer and now Innovation Architect, Doug has helped develop medical equipment such as MRI and CT scanners for one of the world’s largest corporations.

In 2008, Doug ran into a problem. He was at a hospital where one of his new MRI machines had recently been installed. The machine had won a prestigious industrial design award and Doug was eager to see the machine in situ.

Before he had much of a chance to ask the technician about the machine, he was asked to step outside of the room, as a patient was scheduled to come in for an appointment. What he witnessed in the hallway changed the course of his career and helped him reframe the MRI user experience.

A young family walked in, their 7-year-old daughter obviously distressed. As the family got closer, Doug could see that she was weeping. The father leaned over and said, “Remember, we talked about this, you can be brave.”

Doug peered into the room where the young girl was about to enter the scanner. Crouching down, he had a new perspective on the room—and on the machine that he had so proudly designed. He could immediately understand why the girl was terrified: warning stickers plastered the machine and yellow and black tape marked the floor like a crash-test scene. The machine itself looked like a beige “brick with a hole in it.”

Given this new perspective, it’s no mystery why many children have to be sedated to get MRI or CT scans. Everything about the experience can be frightening, from the room and the machine to the claustrophobia and loud noises. Doug came away with a new mission: to understand how GE might redesign this experience for children so that it’s a positive experience and not something to be dreaded.

Doug’s boss recommended he attend an executive education workshop at the d.school at Stanford to get the Design Thinking toolkit and help him solve this big, emotionally-charged problem. The workshop helped him frame the problem as a POV, in the form of a Madlib which was structured in the following way:

“We met … ”

“We were amazed to realize that … ”

“It would change the world if … ”

Using this framework, Doug and his team were able to iterate on their POV until they came up with a statement more aligned with the goal.

“We met scared families trying not to fall apart during the hospital visit.

We were amazed to realize that they have to sedate 80% of children between 3 and 8 years old, in order to have them scanned.

It would change the world if we could capitalize on the child’s amazing imagination to transform the radiology experience into a positive, memorable adventure.”

By reframing the problem using this POV, Doug and his team realized that the beginning of the user experience started at home, when the parents were trying to figure out what the procedure was like and how to explain it to their children. They were able to outline the whole user journey for the family and determine the different touchpoints that they could influence or redesign.

The team didn’t have the budget to do a full redesign of the machines, so once they had identified a few promising opportunities, they decided to implement a low-fidelity prototype. By applying decals to the exterior of the machine and the walls of the scanning room, they were able to transform the dull, monotone experience into a colorful pirate adventure, where the captain’s helm led to the inside of the “ship” (this feature had the added benefit of making the opening seem much larger and less claustrophobic). They created a script for the operator, who led the children through the pirate adventure.

The results from this redesign and from others like it were no less than amazing. Sedation rates dropped from 80% to fractions of one percent. But to Doug, the human stories behind the numbers are just as important.

While visiting the pirate-themed scanner, Doug talked to the parents of a little girl about the room’s piña colada scented aroma, something they were getting a kick out of. The little girl came up to the mom and tugged at her shirt. “Can we come back tomorrow?” she asked.

For at least one family, Doug and his team had transformed the experience from something terrifying to something to look forward to. By using their POV as a way to reframe the problem, his team was able to change the world.

The exponential power of reframing

In their wonderful 1977 film for IBM, designers Charles and Ray Eames explored how perspectives change by looking at the relative scale of objects. For example, the film zooms out from a man and woman on a picnic blanket to the grass surrounding them.

The short film Powers of Ten by designers Charles and Ray Eames

The film quickly progresses through Earth to the edge of the universe, then zooms back into the nucleus of a carbon atom. In the process, viewers get a wonderful understanding of extremes at both ends of the scale, but also of how reframing your viewpoint can create a new perspective on something familiar and ordinary.

As designers, we can leverage the power of reframing to help us innovate and solve wicked problems. We can create POVs to help guide our product design process and connect us to our users. And if we’re lucky, we might just see the world in a new light along the way.

About the Authors

Eli Woolery
Director of Design Education, InVision

Eli is the Director of Design Education at InVision. His design career spans both physical and digital products, and he has worked with companies ranging from startups (his own and others) to Fortune 500 companies.

In addition to his background in product and industrial design, he has been a professional photographer and filmmaker. He teaches the senior capstone class Implementation to undergraduate Product Designers at Stanford University. You can find Eli on Twitter and Medium.

  • Currently listening to: audio book version of Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
  • Currently giving me inspiration: MasterClass series from folks like Neil Gaiman and Aaron Sorkin
  • Cultural thing I’m loving: Nerding out on the last season of Game of Thrones