Design Thinking: A Definitive Guide for Software Development

In a modern business world that’s obsessed with pragmatic concepts like data, process, and bottom line, “design” is often an afterthought, applied only to touch up a product’s aesthetic or functional value. But this kind of thinking can be problematic because it leads to solutions that fail to solve real problems for real people. Moreover, for many organizations, the ideation, innovation, and creativity that are key to great design, are often hampered by human biases and sub-optimal behaviours.

Design Thinking attempts to address these issues.

In simplest terms, Design Thinking is a framework that puts user needs at the core of any solution design. It is both an ideology and a process, and its goal is to encourage creative exploration, enhance innovation, and create useful new products, services, and processes in a hands-on, user-centric way.

Design Thinking focuses on finding constructive solutions to effectively tackle complex problems, particularly those that cannot be solved by applying tried-and-tested algorithms, processes, or logic. It blends end-user focus and multidisciplinary collaboration and learning, with rapid prototyping and iterative improvement. This “solution-based” approach is the exact opposite of the “problem-solving” approach that tends to fixate on obstacles and limitations. It can be applied to any field, including architecture, engineering, social sciences, product design, high-tech, business, and software development. And it is not just for products; it can also be applied to any problem that needs creative solutions, including services, business models, and processes.

Design Thinking has been around for hundreds of years. Although the term itself was only coined in the 1990s (and started gaining traction after the publication of this 2008 Harvard Business Review article), great designers have leveraged Design Thinking throughout documented human history. By applying a “human-centric” creative process to solution design, they built meaningful and effective solutions to address real human needs – from monuments, bridges, and automobiles, to processes, workflows, technology, and software.

In this detailed guide, we will explore the value of Design Thinking, particularly from a software development lens. We will discuss its process, principles, and benefits, and also analyze the relationship between Design Thinking and User Experience (UX) design.

The Six-Step Design Thinking Process

The Design Thinking process can be broken down into six primary steps. This step-by-step process enables organizations to come up with designs that are viable, technologically feasible, as well as useful for real users.

1: Empathize

This first stage involves research to get to know users and understand their wants, needs, motivations, objectives, and frustrations. The design team sets aside their assumptions, observes and engages with people, and gathers real insights about them.

2: Define

This stage is dedicated to pinpointing user’s unmet needs or pain points, defining the actual problem, and highlighting innovation opportunities. Formulating the problem leads to stage three, which is…

3: Ideate

“One of the key principles of brainstorming is to suspend judgment.”

— Steve Eppinger, Professor @ MIT Sloan

Here, the design team brainstorms creative ideas. No idea is considered too far-fetched, impossible, or crazy. The goal is to come up with as many new angles and perspectives as possible before a few key ideas can be identified for the next stage. A prioritization matrix can be a useful tool for this exercise. At the end of this stage, the team will have a set of multiple thoughtful, though possibly different ideas. Champions of change also usually emerge from these conversations, which greatly improves the chances of successful implementation.

4: Prototype

Here, the goal is to build real and tangible – albeit scaled-down – representations of the final product. The prototype helps highlight any constraints or flaws. Say, the solution is a new landing page. During this phase, the team draws out a wire-frame and gets internal feedback. Then they make updates, prototype it again in quick and dirty code, and once more share it with another group. Often, prototyping is carried out on far-from-finished products, which allows for radical changes, including complete redesigns to occur along the way.

5: Test

This is a critical stage in the Design Thinking process because this is where the team looks for the answer to: “does this solution meet users’ needs?” At this point, the prototype is placed in front of real customers to verify its impact. In our landing page example, the team will check if the new page helps users, and thus increases conversions or sales on the site.

In enterprise software development, the Design Thinking process rarely ends with testing. In fact, the development team often utilizes the results of testing to go back to a previous step, say Ideate or Prototype, to redefine the original problem statement, identify new software requirements, and to generate new solution ideas. This continuous and iterative process is similar to the “build-measure-learn” approach of the lean startup methodology.

6: Implement

This is the most important phase of Design Thinking but often, it is also the most forgotten. At this stage, the vision and ideas recognized in the earlier stages are put into effect. Design Thinking can lead to true innovation which can be highly impactful for any organization, but only if the execution is done right.

It’s important to note that this six-stage process is not linear, but flexible, fluid, and iterative. Each phase can – and does – yield discoveries, so the design team must constantly rethink, redefine, and re-execute what they have already done before.

Key Benefits

There are numerous reasons to engage in Design Thinking and make it a part of your organization’s DNA.

First, since it is a user-centered process and involves a lot of iterative and continuous learning through testing, it creates output that addresses the real needs of real users. This results in useful products that improve users’ lives.

Design Thinking also encourages design teams to explore multiple avenues for the same problem, rather than making assumptions, or relying on tried-and-tested methods. It offers a healthy middle ground between emotion and analytics, and intuition and rationale. It also brings multidisciplinary teams together, breaks down silos, and fosters more meaningful teamwork. Together, Design Thinking-led divergent thinking and enhanced collaboration result in greater creativity and innovation and can result in better-quality design artifacts than would be possible otherwise.

Using Design Thinking, businesses can re-evaluate their offerings to stay relevant, grow their markets, boost innovation, and offer greater value to customers. They can also significantly reduce the time spent on design and development, reduce costs, and speed up time-to-market. All of this eventually translates to happy customers, competitive advantage, and a healthy bottom line.

Design Thinking in Software Development

The growing demand for digitization across multiple areas of the human experience creates the need for more innovative technologies and software. This in turn requires a new approach to software development – an approach that prioritizes user-centric innovation and creativity, plus holistic thinking and iterative execution. This is where Design Thinking can be a true differentiator for software development firms.

In software development, the word “design” in Design Thinking is slightly misleading, in that it is not applicable only for the design stage. In fact, Design Thinking can be applied at each stage of the SDLC, all the way from planning analysis and design, to development, testing, and even maintenance.

As in every other industry or application area, Design Thinking enables software developers to consistently focus on people and their needs to design solutions that can effectively satisfy those needs. Iterative prototyping is a critical element of the process, with each idea tested to evaluate its capacity to address a customer’s problem.

Design Thinking in Software Development: How it Works

For example, consider the color of a clickable button in an app. It’s important to select the right color because it can determine whether a user will actually use the product. Design Thinking allows software development teams to do this so that users find the app useful for their needs. The process gives them a thorough knowledge of the user problem (Define). It also enables them to come up with multiple possible solutions (Ideate), choose the best one, and then create the best possible design (Prototype and Test).

At the development stage (Implement), developers are already clear on the end-users’ needs (and the business’ goals). As a result, they can logically arrange all elements, and create a tailored solution that addresses the users’ problem as effectively as possible, without causing confusion or wasting their time. And at the same time, they can (gently) move customers towards a specific action like Click here, Shop Now, Schedule Demo, Request Trial Version, etc. When users continue to utilize the product, they are more likely to turn into loyal customers.

Design Thinking offers numerous tangible benefits in software development.

1: Feasibility Checks

By keeping end-users in mind, software development companies can clearly specify all requirements, translate them into end-product features, and test the feasibility of these features right at the initial stage.

2: Greater Clarity

The iterative and collaborative nature of Design Thinking means that design teams always have clarity on the process at every stage. They can define problems, understand end goals, and visualize the solution they should eventually deliver.

3: Accountability

Since each person on the team knows what is expected of them, the process creates greater accountability and minimizes the possibility of buck-passing.

4: Continuous Improvement

Once user feedback is available, there is greater insight into which features work, and which ones need improvement. This leaves space for continuous improvement and a streamlined process so the product can be enhanced quickly and with minimal hassles.

The Interconnections Between Design Thinking and UX Design

At their core, both Design Thinking and User Experience (UX) design focus, first and foremost on users, and their needs and challenges. Both ideas are also driven by empathy and the idea of adopting a “beginner’s mind”.

“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

– Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Buddhist Monk (d. 1971)

UX designers also use many of the steps that are part of the Design Thinking process, particularly user research, prototyping, and testing. This allows them to tackle ill-defined or unknown problems (aka “wicked” problems), reframe them in human-centric ways and think out of the box to uncover new solutions.

Nonetheless, there are also certain distinctions between the two. The impact of Design Thinking is often felt on a more strategic level and across multiple areas of a business. It focuses on understanding users and business requirements, and on exploring technological feasibility to discover possible solutions to a real pain point. UX design is more concerned with solution design, and with ensuring that these solutions are usable and accessible for the user. UX designers rely on Design Thinking to get a better handle on what the user is looking for, so they can design fantastic user experiences.

A Final Word

Design Thinking can empower development teams with new perspectives. It also encourages creative exploration as they look for solutions to real user problems through innovative software.

At WayPath, we leverage the Design Thinking methodology for all our projects. In the words of Tim Brown (author of Change by Design), we “integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success”. If you have a good idea, and are looking for a reliable and experienced IT Consulting/dev partner agency to bring it to life, contact us to arrange a free discovery call.

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