Design Thinking: My Top Ten Takeaways

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes  thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” - Albert Einstein

Key take-away #1: Understanding the problem is critical. 

If you make the effort to ask the questions, talk to the users, and validate assumptions, you cannot help but gain a better understanding of the problem.

This list summarizes my key takeaways from the recently completed course on Design Thinking*. At the onset of the course, it quickly became apparent that ‘understanding the problem’  is the catalyst for  the whole process, the importance of which, cannot be understated. It is referred to in this course as the “Exploration” phase. (I talk about this in more detail in my last post, found here.)

We learned a great deal about the actual ‘Design Thinking’ process is in this course (as one would hope, considering the title is ‘Mastering Design Thinking’) but we also learned about the nuances that go along with it that help to make it more successful. This list is not about the process so much as the nuances that, as I understand it, are key.

By definition, Design Thinking is a process that seeks to solve complex problems by approaching it from the users perspective. Which leads me to-

Takeaway #2: Empathy is the secret sauce.

Another way of looking at it is like this- if you think you understand the problem, but haven’t taken the time to see it from the user’s perspective… then do you truly understand the problem?

Fortunately, there are clear, actionable steps to doing this. In short, it’s this: interview and observe. (More about that here.)

#3. Real/Win/Worth it.

  • Real - is the need real? Is it desirable as well as useful?
  • Win - can we make it work technically? Is it better than existing alternatives? Is it feasible?
  • Worth it - can we turn it into a viable business model? Is it cost effective? What is the return on investment?

This was the mantra of the course and the essential questions for determining whether or not a solution is worth pursuing. I like it because it is easy to remember and just makes sense.

#4. Have a clear problem statement.

Before pursuing solutions, you should have a clear and concise description of the problem, otherwise known as a problem statement. We often start with problems that are so large, it's paralyzing. If you break the problem down into its smaller parts, it not only helps identify which aspect of the larger problem to address first, it also makes it easier to identify the individual solutions.

If the problem is clear, the solutions will flow and the team will be aligned.

#5. Effective design has a process. 

FIRST you explore, THEN you create, THEN you implement. This can be further broken down into five actionable phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test.

Go in order, trust the process. 

#6. The value of journey mapping.

This was a surprisingly useful exercise that consisted of mapping out the user experience (or the product/ service workflow) into a step-by-step diagram. It really helps to reveal pain points, challenges, and opportunities that may not be otherwise apparent.

#7. Clear personas

The concept of personas seems to be super popular in business planning these days and this avenue is no exception. A persona is a representation of your target user. Sometimes it is appropriate to have multiple personas identified but it helps to be as specific as possible. Regardless of how many personas you identify, make sure to have a single and consistent point of contact with whom to check-in.

#8. Brainstorming isn’t step one. 

Invention is the creation of something that didn’t exist before. Innovation is combining existing ideas in a new and useful way. For either of these paths to work, you need to generate ideas… many ideas.

“To have a great idea, have a lot of them.” - Thomas Edison

Brainstorming, ideation…

**** Brainstorming that …

  1. Prototyping that…
  2. Iterate means

#9. Make thoughtful trade-offs.

Once you start prototyping and testing, be sure to check in constantly with your user needs and product specifications that were identified during Exploration. Compare the ideal specs with the marginal, or good enough, determine the trade-offs that may need to be made.

Trade-offs are likely. Don’t do them by accident. 

#10. Culture

While the previous 9 takeaways may be key, having the right culture is the car. You can’t go anywhere if you have all the keys to the wrong car.

Successful innovation, successful design thinking, is extremely dependent upon a supportive environment, where people can feel free to try wild ideas even though they may fall flat. This means creating a culture of psychological safety with trust and support by leadership. Equally important to the culture, is teamwork. Multidisciplinary teams tend to yield the best results because they are able to think of the problem from so many more aspects than a single viewpoint.  

That’s a wrap.

I could get into so much more detail with each of these but hopefully that provides you with enough information to feel inspired and curious to learn more. I loved learning about Design Thinking and how it has repeatedly proven to be a successful approach to innovation.

If you want to learn more, or just easy ways that you can apply this at work, here are few books that I recommend:




*The course is called ‘Mastering Design Thinking’ and is part of the MIT Sloan Executive Education program.

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