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  • Writer's pictureLorenzo Colombani

What's Design Thinking Anyway? (in 2 mn or less)

Updated: Jul 28, 2023

Design thinking is heard and talked about everywhere. Let's make it fun and simple.

Let's say you see a door. Doesn't matter which one. You want to open it. What do ou do? Push, pull, turn the door knob (right or left?). Most of the time, you know: it's your door, or it's a standard door. No fuss.

Sometimes you won't. Why? Because it turns out it was a push door, not a pull. Because that knob needs to be turned left, not right. Because the door locks itself when you close it, whether or not you use your keys. And you've left they keys inside.

The point is: the door was badly designed. A well designed door doesn't have you go through trial-and-error to figure out how to operate it. A very well designed door doesn't even need explanation as to how to be operated.

Take those emergency doors, for instance (Pic.1).

Pic. 1 : Emergency doors

Do you need any explanation as to how to use them? Written or otherwise? No. Why? Because the design makes it obvious how to operate them. How does design do that?

  • There is no way to pull the door. Nothing on it indicates or shows that the door can (hence should) be pulled.

  • There is no ambiguity as to where the mechanism that opens it is. The door is black. It's equipped with a long, large white strip. Doors usually have two elements: the door itself and the opening mechanism. On the doors in Pic 1, color and placement make it unmistakable which is which.

  • You can't see it from a 2D picture, but when you approach that door, you see that the strip allows for only one action: pushing. Not turning, not pulling up, down or backward. Just pushing. Forward.

In other words, there is little to no chance that you'll fail at opening that door if you need to. That is good design*.

And it makes sense: that's a fire-emergency door. You don't want people wondering how to open the door while panicked and trying to escape from fire.

Does that mean we should use that type of door design everywhere? Absolutely not. This door is well-designed not only because is leaves no ambiguity as how to use it, but also and mainly because its design fits its purpose: letting panicked people escape. Design thinking is designing things that fit their purpose while leaving no ambiguity as to how to use them.

Def. 1 : Design thinking is designing things that fit their purpose while leaving no ambiguity as to how to use them.

Now you can't always have the emergency-door-style design for everything. Some things do need user guides or instructions. Some will be perfectly designed for certain people, but not for other. How well designed would you say the "Call" and "WhatsApp" icons are for people who are unaccustomed with smartphones and who just want a way to talk to their relatives? Yes, they would eventually figure it out. On the first try if they're lucky. But that's the point. Well-designed things don't require a second try.

Pic 2: The "Call" or Phone, and "WhatsApp" icons on iOS.

Design thinking is designing things so that their intended users can use them without ambiguity.

Def.: 2 Design thinking is designing things so that their intended users can use them without ambiguity.

Hence what some of you may have heard: design thinking is "human-centered". It requires a "process" whereby people meet and analyse the needs and state of mind of their intended users.

How does Design Thinking apply to business at all?

Let's say you're on a project with a client -a well established company with ingrained processes. You're a start-up practicing Lean, Agile, Scrum and all sorts of modern process optimization methods. They aren't. Sure, the project would benefit if everyone used your top-notch processes.

Problem is: the other company won't use them. You're at a crux: they send you 50 emails per day to keep up to date with the project; you don't even use emails for communication anymore, you use Kanbans. You end up missing most of their emails, they get angry, the project goes sour. What should you do? Design Thinking of course.

Your challenge here is to design a process that allows your team to keep using your tools and your client, their own tools. And there isn't much to it. If you're like me, a millennial with access to Google, you'll do just fine finding a solution**. You just have to put your mind to it.

Or, if you don't have time for it, you can also reach out to me. Your choice.

Post-scriptum: Guess whether the thumbnail picture for this article (the chair) is good or bad design and win a free consult!


* Here, you can see how design and aesthetics are not the same thing. Too often, professionnel "designers" are actually excellent at creating beautiful things. It doesn't mean they're well designed.

** FYI, this problem already has a solution: ticketing softwares, such as Zendesk, Hubspot, Zoho, and so on. But they're not free, so you may want to find your own and start designing it.

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