5 Things That Design Thinking Teams Do Differently

By Anna Ho, Associate Director of Strategy
Design thinking is not just for design teams.

From education to healthcare, design thinking has been trending across industries as a way to foster creative problem solving and catalyze innovative solutions. First championed by design consultancies like IDEO as the secret to innovation, design thinking is a versatile approach to problem solving, involving design techniques like user empathy, ideation, rapid prototyping, and testing, that helps teams tackle complex business and/or organizational problems. Most notably, large institutions, not typically associated with the design industry, like Intuit, Capital One, and Kaiser Permanente, have turned to design thinking as a way to fuel creativity, up their competitive advantage, and create more meaningful products and experiences for their customers.

With a plethora of workshops and books available from design thinking experts, it’s easy to mistake design thinking for a step-by-process that with some guidance, your cross-functional team can quickly learn and apply. In truth, design thinking is a distinctive way of working and problem solving, that for the uninitiated, can feel foreign and at times, messy and unfocused. Beyond a change in process, in order to truly impact a team that may be hindered by silos or organizational hierarchies, design thinking requires a fundamental shift in the way your team works and thinks.

In my experience, teams that practice design thinking, or as I like to characterize them, design thinking teams, are highly collaborative, multidisciplinary project teams, comprised of people from different backgrounds, including design, engineering, research, and business, that jointly apply human-centered design strategies to solve problems.

If you are looking to infuse design thinking into your team’s way of working and want to know what that would mean for your team, here are five things that design thinking teams do differently:


1. Design thinking teams seek diverse perspectives. | Design thinking teams are not only multi-disciplinary in their composition, but also actively seek out diverse perspectives to help them devise better solutions. The cross-functional expertise on the team, though valuable, is not enough. While they leverage internal expertise, design thinking teams deliberately seek out a variety of perspectives outside of their team in order to validate their assumptions and build a holistic understanding of their customers’ needs and experiences.

What it looks like in practice: If designing a smarter, more adaptable HR solution for a large organization, design thinking teams will not only speak to people working in Human Resources, but also to business stakeholders, IT, recruiters, managers, individual employees, etc. to identify commonalities and differences, and view the problem space from different vantage points.  On top of that, design thinking teams may seek out the perspectives of outside specialists, from domains like behavioral economics, data science, or organizational psychology to learn about emerging trends or better understand the underlying factors that impact human behavior within the organizational context.


2. Design thinking teams co-design.| Design thinking teams co-design both internally as a team, as well as externally with customers or end-users. The design of solutions is not just left up to designers or other “creative types.” Internally, all members of the design thinking team, including engineers, strategists, and business leads, participate in the definition, design, and creation of value for customers or end-users. Externally, design-thinking teams solicit feedback from customers or end-users all throughout the product development cycle in order to validate the design direction and ensure that the team is producing something genuinely valuable to users. This participatory approach to design is built on a fundamental understanding that design is not someone’s job, but rather, a disciplined approach to problem solving that is fueled by empathy, creativity, and collaboration.

What it looks like in practice: If you see a design thinking team in action, you’ll typically see them huddled around a white board with everyone on the team, not just the designers, sketching ideas, referencing what they saw a customer do or say, or jotting down questions to investigate via user research. It’s a given that tasks will ultimately be divvied up based on individual skill sets and expertise, however, everyone on the team shares a vested interest in empathizing with the end-user, defining the right problem, and generating and evaluating solutions.  Furthermore, teams will engage with the target customer or end-user. If, for example, the challenge at hand is to design a smart home device for new parents, design thinking teams will ensure that they not only begin the project by talking to new parents in their actual homes, but all throughout the product development cycle, bring in new parents to help evaluate concepts, features, and prototypes.


3. Design thinking teams experience radical empathy. | Today, an understanding of your customer’s goals, needs, and pain points, is critical to developing customer-centric solutions that genuinely resonate with end-users. However, institutional knowledge and assumptions can often bias our understanding of customers. That is why design thinking teams dedicate resources to speak directly to or observe customers in real world contexts in order to not only understand their needs, but also the environmental factors that influence their behavior and motivations. The question design thinking teams start with is not, how does the customer use our product today, but rather, what is our customer’s life like today and how could we make their lives easier?

What it looks like in practice: Regardless of how well they think they know the customer and their needs, design thinking teams will challenge their assumptions by talking to their target audience firsthand and do the necessary research to holistically understand the customers’ experiences today. For example, if a team is wanting to innovate their existing online grocery service for busy city dwellers, they will not just investigate how customers are engaging with the service today, but also take a step back and spend some time building a contextual picture of their customers’ lives – their daily routines, how and when they get groceries, who is involved in the grocery shopping, what prompts a grocery run or order, what happens once they get their groceries, etc. Teams will also put themselves in their customers’ shoes by experiencing the grocery service for themselves, using the service for their own personal grocery needs, on their own time, and on their own dime!


4. Design thinking teams iteratively re-frame problems. | Conventionally in problem solving, once a problem is defined, focus is primarily on selecting and refining the right solution. Design thinking teams, however, know that the problem is rarely precise enough from the get-go and requires constant reframing as the team learns and understands the problem space more.

What it looks like in practice: When first given a problem statement such as “People hate doing laundry,” design thinking teams will begin by asking themselves, “have we identified the right problem?” From there, they gather the necessary inputs — talk to users and domain experts, conduct desk research, examine trends, etc., until they can more precisely diagnose the underlying human problem and what is getting in the way. For example, as a result of talking to or observing users, the team may find that it’s not that people hate doing laundry; it’s the act of putting away laundry that’s most painful.


5. Design thinking teams get paint on the walls. | Design thinking teams make ideas tangible. Regardless of one’s visual design skills, design thinking teams understand the value of externalizing ideas, whether it be a quick sketch on the whiteboard, a diorama, or a functional prototype…the goal is to make ideas concrete with as minimal effort as possible. The illustration of ideas, even the rough cut of an idea, helps teams to discuss, challenge, test, and ultimately, align on what is working and what isn’t. This habit of “getting paint on the walls” facilitates a culture of enlightened trial and error that empowers teams to build on successful ideas or pivot when something isn’t working.

What it looks like in practice: When it comes to initial idea generation, the goal is to generate as many ideas as possible. To encourage a free flow of thought, design thinking teams will intuitively jot an idea on a sticky note or sketch something on the whiteboard. Ideas are not precious. Ideas are meant to be externalized and shared so that your teammates can react to, ask questions, riff off of, or build upon. If, for example, someone has an idea for a novel way of collaborating via video chat that no one seems to understand, they will sketch out a story on the whiteboard or act it out using people and props in the room. Once sketched out, an idea that initially sounded like what everyone else has been doing might suddenly uncover an important nuance that could be the basis for a new model of virtual collaboration, or perhaps even, a completely new product concept.


If you and your team operate in an organization that is not quick to change or beholden to process and hierarchy, design thinking offers a shared way of working that fosters transparency, human-centered thinking, and a bias towards action.  Look at how your team operates today and consider what you could be doing differently.


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