Design thinking as a specific process became prominent in the mid-20th century as designers of many different things began using it to think about the end user’s experience.

By the 1950s and 1960s, people who were designing homes, technology and consumer goods were all doing so by thinking about the people who would eventually use those things. This is the origins of modern design thinking.

Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. It can be applied to anything – services, products, teams, organisations, events – and even just everyday life. And that’s why it’s great for charitable organisations because they often don’t focus on just one product or one service but a whole host of support mechanisms and relationships.

Adopting design thinking is a great way for charities to be innovative. Design thinking is human centred, as it focusses on the user, requiring empathy to really understand what is happening for them – and we know empathy is something you’ve got a lot of!

What are the Steps to Problem Solving this Way?

The key steps in design thinking are highlighted in the diagram below. Work from left to right starting with ‘Empathise’ through to Test’.

1. Empathise

It is imperative to really understand the underlying challenge. At this stage observing, engaging and empathising with people to understand their experiences and motivations, as well as immersing yourself in the physical environment so you can gain a deeper personal understanding of the issues involved. Understanding of the users, their needs, and any problems that may arise will help you with the development of any solutions to meet these needs.

2. Define (the Problem)

”If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” Albert Einstein.

Using the information gathered in the ‘Empathise’ stage, define the core problems that you and your team have identified up to this point. You should seek to define the problem as a problem statement in a human-centred manner. The way to do this is as follows:

  • 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 need-finding process.)

3. Ideate

Now’s the time to start identifying new solutions to the problem statement you’ve created, and start to look for alternative ways of viewing the problem. Typically techniques such as brainstorm, brainwrite, worst possible idea are used to stimulate free thinking. Try and generate as many ideas or problem solutions as possible at the beginning of the Ideation phase.

4. Prototype

Produce a number of inexpensive, scaled down versions of the solution, so you can investigate the possible solutions to the problem generated in the previous stage. This is an experimental phase, and the aim is to identify the best possible solution for each of the problems identified during the first three stages. The solutions are investigated and either accepted, improved and re-examined, or rejected on the basis of the users’ experiences.

5. Test

Now is the time to vigorously test the complete solution using the best approaches identified during the prototyping phase. As design thinking is an iterative process, the results generated during the testing phase may be used to reconsider some of the problem statements and how people think, behave, and feel.

6. Implement

Now you’ve identified through testing solutions what ideas have the best chance of succeeding, you decide which ones you want to expose to a wider audience. It’s over to you!

Final thoughts…

Has this article convinced you that the technique of design thinking can be applied in charitable organisations? If you’re interested in how others have used it successfully, why not have a look at IDEO – one of the leading organisations in design thinking. They’ve shared a number of case studies that highlight how they’ve used this technique to develop brilliant and innovative solutions for causes they’ve identified.

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