What is Design Thinking?

In basic terms, design thinking is a creative process of problem solving. It was first curated as a method that designers would use which later came in popularity after big names in business started using it. Design thinking is just not basic problem solving but a human centred problem-solving methodology which is based upon relating to the customer empathy (Curedale, 2015). This includes a set of methods that can be applied by anyone in order to solve problems. In 1959, John E. Arnold published a paper named “Creative Engineering” which became one of the bases in the establishment of design thinking. (Stevens, 2020).  

“What is design thinking?” Advisio https://www.adviso.ca/en/blog/guides-en/what-is-design-thinking/

When it comes to the types of problems that design thinking can solve, there is no particular can and cannot. Its uniqueness comes from the problems themselves. Instead of well defined problems that has a particular solution, which are always solved, design thinking is mainly focused on ill defined or wicked problems. These kind of problems do not have a particular solution to them. They are always dynamic and never really solved. Some examples of such wicked problems can be climate change, change in management in a business or achieving a sustainable growth. Such problems never have a particular solution to them. In order to solve such problems, there are some principles of design thinking. Let’s have a look at them.

Principles of Design Thinking

“Design Thinking 101” nngroup https://www.nngroup.com/articles/design-thinking/

Design thinking follows 5 step by step process while generating a solution. These steps start from connecting to the users and ends with a feasible and practical solution. The steps are as follows 

1. Empathy

This is the first step in the design thinking process, which is all about connecting to the user or customer. Trying to understand the problem from the perspective of the users and experiencing the problem first hand is the main aim of this step. Empathy is one of the crucial emotions of a human being and empathizing with the users helps the problem solvers to set their assumptions aside. (Dam, R., 2021).  

2. Define

After empathizing with the user and observing their problems, the next step is to define the problem in a human-centred manner. This step focuses on gathering all the information that we got from the empathy phase and raising major question. These questions can be: What are the barriers that we came up against? What is the major problem that is to be solved? What are the difficulties that may arise while generating a solution? (Stevens, 2021) 

This design phase will allow designer to come up with an idea about the features and other elements that will come useful in solving the problem.  

3. Ideate

In the ideate stage, the designers brainstorm heaps of ideas that tries to fulfil the user’s needs. As long as the idea provided tries to solve the issue in some way, there is no crazy or bad idea. These heaps of ideas are later filtered and the best and practical ones are chosen. By doing so, the designers can get an idea of what is possible to be done and what is not.  

4. Prototype

This step includes creating inexpensive and fast prototypes. The main goal of this is to figure out what need to be changed in the product and what are the features that can be added. Prototypes are dynamic and are regularly changed which is why they are made as inexpensive as possible.  By doing so, the designers can get an idea of what is possible to be done and what is not. In this step the designers compare the impact vs the feasibility of the ideas. (Gibbons, 2016) 

5. Test

This is the final step of the process where the prototypes are handed to the users in order to test them and figure out what worked and what not. This helps the designers to verify if the aimed goal is achieved or not. It also helps them answer questions like; What are the changes to be made? What features can be added? What would be the cost of the production?  

How IBM Adapted Design Thinking?

“IBM: Design Thinking.” Iconoclast http://iconoclast.com/portfolio/ibm-design-thinking/

International Business Machine (IBM) is an American hardware and software developing company which has its operations in over 171 countries. IBM manufactures and sells hardware and software from mainframe computers to nano computing. Some of the easily known inventions from IBM are the automated teller machine (ATM), the floppy disk, the hard disk, the SQL programming language and the relational database.  

IBM is also known for its adaptation of design thinking process in a large scale. It managed to create a fast-paced design thinking process of its own which was a step away from the traditional design thinking process. IBM took its big leap into design thinking in 2013 when it brought in 750 designers and 10,000 employees in order to achieve a design-based culture within the company. (Evertt, 2019). After the big change, IBM modified the generic design thinking processes and added its own flare to it. (Schmiedgen, Rauth, 2019). IBM added three governing constructs on top of the typical design thinking which the company calls these practices, “keys”. These three keys are:

1. Playback

The design team at IBM came up with an idea of a safe space for the employees to share their works and exchange their feedbacks. This would allow other members to constructively critique the work of others, thus calling them playbacks. This would allow the team members to figure out the limitations of their work and come up with improvements more frequently.  

2. Hill

Hill is another practice that IBM has which is based upon the military commands. It was inspired by the military command “Take the hill.” The command was given to staffs within the military without any further instructions. Such instructions would allow the members to focus on the end goal without fixating just on one particular solution.  

3. Sponsor User

Sponsor users are the potential or actual users that are paid to spend time with the IBM design team in order to solve problems. These users not only represent the end users but can also help the team to make improvements much quicker.  


All these practices have benefited IBM in a large scale. From reduced time initial time for design to the financial costs of development, IBM has benefited a lot from their own refined form of design thinking. Just by following its own design thinking principles, IBM saved $196k on minor projects and $872k on major projects. This comes with the 75% reduced time for designs and alignment as well. (Forrester, 2018). This was possible by allowing the designers to work or meet the intended user groups in an early development phase.  

These practices also helped IBM to push its produces to the market 2 times faster. Minor projects were reduced to 20 weeks from 40 weeks and major projects were reduced to 50 weeks instead of its double. This resulted in a $182,096 profit in minor projects and $1,050,240 in major projects. This was achieved by keeping the meetings and decision making as human centered and need driven as possible which would later allow reduced time for design and testing. The company also had 50% less defective products than previous numbers. This was allowed by better definition of the user in the early designing phases. (Forrester, 2018).

As the numbers speak for themselves, IBM has benefited a lot from design thinking. Not only financially but also by providing quality products to customers in time. With such a strong methodology within the company it might not seem to have any flaws but there are always some. For instance, IBM uses relatively small size of people for their testing group. It can increase the size of its testing group in the early phase so that it can further improve its designs and products. Also it can further its testing in countries where IBM is not established yet, in order to discover the possibilities.


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