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The term wicked problems was coined by design theorist Horst Rittel to describe the types of extremely complex, multi-dimensional problems that designers are often tasked to solve. Design thinking isn’t limited to creating new products—it can affect change at a systemic level.

Design thinking as a formal methodology has developed across multiple disciplines since the 1960s, and is commonly associated with the design and consulting firm IDEO and the Stanford School of Design (the d.school).

Design thinking puts people at the center of every process and encourages designers to set aside assumptions. For example, instead of designing a new children’s toothbrush, a design thinking approach would define “how to clean teeth” as the problem and explore a wide range of solutions.

Like the double diamond model, design thinking offers opportunities to focus on both divergent and convergent thinking across its steps to encourage both creativity and problem solving. Design thinking lives at the intersection of desirability (people), viability (business), and feasibility (technology).

A Venn Diagram illustrating the intersection of Desirability, Viability, and Feasibility.

Design thinking’s core activities are ideation, inspiration, and implementation, which occur across the five stages of the process:

  1. Empathize: Understand the user and the landscape.
  2. Define: Define the problem and align with business goals and user needs.
  3. Ideate: Generate a range of ideas for possible solutions, emphasizing creativity.
  4. Prototype: Explore potential solutions by creating prototypes of the product to gather feedback.
  5. Test: Test the best solutions developed during prototyping. Prototyping or testing may lead to redefining the problem altogether. As with the other processes we’ve covered, this is an iterative cycle.

Instructions

Think about answers to the following questions to check your understanding of design thinking.

What kind of problems was design thinking intended to solve?

Check Answer Wicked problems—complex, multi-dimensional problems.

What are the steps of the design thinking process?

Check Answer There are five steps to the process:
  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

Who does design thinking put at the center of the process?

Check Answer Design thinking puts people at the center of every stage of the process and encourages designers to fully empathize with the user.

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