What the &^%* Is Design Thinking?

By Kristin Chandler, Ascension Seton Innovation & Technology Commercialization Team

Design Thinking. When I first encountered this term, I remember thinking, “What the…can someone please just explain this to me in language I can understand??”


Source: http://www.gokartlabs.com/blog/design-thinking-is-a-tool-not-a-solution/

(This picture is supposed to show Design Thinking….How does that picture explain anything!?)

So, what is Design Thinking, and why use it?  Design thinking is really just a (creative) process for problem solving, a tool.  It can also be defined as a “human-centered approach to innovation” (according to Tim Brown, president and CEO of IDEO) but that there was hard for me to wrap my head around. Human what?

So, let’s go back to problem solving.  This process, or approach is comprised of five to seven steps (depending on who you ask), and is non-linear and iterative (in other words, repeatable).  Design Thinking’s main aim is to generate ideas which can be translated to innovative outputs or products, like Apple’s iPOD, by focusing on people (often customers) and their needs through these steps.  This focus often requires in-depth ethnographic research methods – think in the field observations and interviews (much like an anthropologist might conduct) and lots of Post It notes and Sharpies.


Source: http://customerthink.com/design_based_process_improvement/

But don’t let this soft science methodology fool you; this is a structured approach that requires both discipline and creativity.

Abductive Thinking

Unlike traditional business thinking, Design Thinking requires abductive thinking before you ever start to solve ‘that problem’, a type of thinking or logic not traditionally utilized or understood by the masses (I’m sure you remember learning about inductive and deductive reasoning in school – I do, but abductive? Doesn’t ring a bell).  Anyway, this abductive thinking allows the designer or user of this process to find new and better solutions (or innovations) to problems, by thinking big and exploring all of the possibilities – and then narrowing those ideas, to identify the best solution(s). This is what the design world calls divergent and convergent thinking, respectively.


Why Bother?

So, why bother with Design Thinking? Well, lots of reasons.  And I think, Proctor and Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley, describes the benefit quite aptly.

“Design schools emphasize abductive thinking—imagining what could be possible. This new thinking approach helps us challenge assumed constraints and add to ideas, versus discouraging them.” – From The Game-Changer: How You Can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth with Innovation, Business Week 28 July 2008

A Methodology to Challenge the Status Quo

In today’s uber-competitive healthcare environment, there’s more pressure (than ever) to challenge the status quo, and solve some of healthcare’s toughest problems – perhaps – in new ways.  And Design Thinking offers a methodology to do just that.  Through a methodical human-centered approach (remember that just means focused around understanding people), one has the ability to uncover and develop a deep understanding of people’s needs, desires, beliefs, and values (also called empathy) and design or create innovations for them.  This empathy lies at the heart of design thinking.

There are no spreadsheets, or focus groups, yet Design Thinking allows its practitioner to leverage an unmatched advantage, insight – gleaned through careful observation.  That insight allows one to develop (often better) ideas and solutions (aka ideate), that may have otherwise been overlooked.

Think Design like Mayo and Kaiser

Design Thinking is not pervasive, but it is not uncommon either.  Mayo Clinic’s Center for Innovation has utilized a Design Thinking approach for almost a decade.  Kaiser Permanente uses the process as well.   And Design Thinking is not just for healthcare; it has been used (for years) to address problems in education systems, public policy, and has been extensively used in the retail industry. As of 2015, Design Thinking is also officially in our (Seton’s) backyard.  UT’s Dell Medical School in conjunction with the College of Fine Arts established the Design Institute for Health, an endeavor committed to applying Design Thinking to “to generate designs and strategies that reinvent the ways doctors are taught and Americans get healthy and stay healthy.”

Understanding Our Customers

While I don’t consider Design Thinking to be a magic bullet that is going to solve all of healthcare’s problems, I do believe this approach could be a valuable piece of an organizational arsenal – another tool in our toolbox.  Adopting a design thinking infrastructure would undoubtedly allow us to understand and design for our customer, in a way that hasn’t been done before at Seton.  I encourage you to explore the possibility that Design Thinking may play an important role in the future of healthcare and our evolving health ecosystem, and provides an avenue to solve some of our big problems thereby forging a promising path toward innovation.

Want More?

If you’d like to learn more about Design Thinking (there’s libraries and schools devoted to this stuff – who knew?), you can start by reading this or this or this.   And if you want to learn more about how Seton’s Innovation and Technology Commercialization team is trying to bring this methodology to solve some of our hospitals’ biggest problems, email us.  We’re always looking for champions of innovation (and design thinking!).