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What is design thinking? Innovation management that unleashes creativity!

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Would you like to unleash your teams' potential for creativity and innovation? Design thinking can be the key to innovation management that promotes creative thinking.

Collaboration and co-creation are the watchwords of this user-centered innovation design method, which relies on collective intelligence to bring new ideas to life.

Design thinking borrows many principles from the designer's approach, with an emphasis on empathy with the end-user. Like designers, design thinkers adopt an iterative approach, where experimentation and prototyping play a key role in the search for innovative solutions.

Definition and main principles of design thinking

"Design thinking is a discipline that uses the sensibility, tools and methods of designers to enable multidisciplinary teams to innovate, by matching user expectations, project feasibility and economic viability" Tim Brown, co-founder of the Ideo agency (1).

Design thinking is an innovation management method focused on the user experience. It aims to unleash the creativity of multi-disciplinary innovation teams, by encouraging iterative experimentation with multiple prototypes, until an optimal solution is found from the user's point of view.

Co-creation, or "collaborative creation", is one of the pillars of design thinking. This innovation process relies on the collective intelligence of all stakeholders, especially users. Crowdsourcing, which involves calling on a multitude of contributors from outside the company, can be mobilized throughout the innovation process.

Design thinking can be applied in all sectors and by all structures, from startups to large groups, organizations and public services.

Acollaborative, creative and iterative approach toinnovation, design thinking is compatible and complementary to lean startup. This method of developing new products and creating new businesses aims to minimize investment risk, by adopting an iterative process of experimentation and validation of innovative solutions. Lean startup and design thinking share the objective of creating products that truly meet users' needs.

"Leaders should encourage experimentation and accept that there's nothing wrong with failing as long as it happens early and becomes a source of learning." Tim Brown

Design thinking is also a state of mind. The need to innovate meets a creative environment, fostered by multiple values and qualities:

- Empathy, or the ability to see the world from another's point of view;

- The spirit of experimentation and the right to make mistakes;

- Integrative thinking to see the innovation project within a broad ecosystem of user needs and experiences;

- Optimism to transform constraints into opportunities;

- Creativity and ability to work as part of a team.

The 5-step design thinking method: empathy, problematization, ideation, prototyping and testing

The five steps of the Design Thinking process are not necessarily sequential. Design Thinking imposes no specific order and encourages repetition of the various steps.

Step 1: Empathy with the user for use-driven innovation

The first step in design thinking is to understand the user's behaviors, needs and expectations. This involves not only conducting surveys and interviews, but also observing the entire ecosystem, including the user, in order to empathize with him or her, and see the world from his or her point of view.

With design thinking, innovation is not reduced to a technological leap; it is legitimized by the resolution of a clearly identified user need. It's innovation through use, which only makes sense when it adds value to the user experience.

Step 2: Focusing the innovation process, defining the challenge to be met

The innovation team must now agree on the challenge that will guide the design process for new products or services. The formulation of the problem must be human-centered, and stated in terms of specific users, their needs and the precise information acquired during the empathy phase. The challenge must be defined broadly enough to encourage the innovation team's creativity and allow for the exploration of unexpected solutions.

Stage 3: Ideation, or the emergence of new ideas

At the ideation stage, design thinkers are invited to explore all possible avenues, showing curiosity and sharing, and refraining from judgment. The ideation phase involves creativity workshops, energized by multiple methods such as brainstorming, or the Worst Possible Idea (which consists of deliberately seeking out the worst solutions to free up the emergence of new ideas), or reverse brainstorming (which instead of looking for solutions to the problem, imagines how to cause it).

Stage 4: Prototyping

In design thinking, the prototyping stage consists of creating tangible, interactive models of the potential solutions envisaged during the ideation stage. Prototypes need to be simple, inexpensive and quick to produce, to enable rapid, iterative experimentation with multiple prototypes. Prototyping gives design thinkers the opportunity to bring their ideas to life, test the practicality of their solutions, and study how a sample of users feel about and use the product. The results of these tests are then used to redefine one or more of the problems established in earlier phases of the project.

Prototypes can be more or less faithful to the innovative idea, and take different forms, such as sketches, physical models, digital mock-ups or even acted scenarios.

Step 5: Test and challenge the innovation

The iterative design process of design thinking requires regular testing throughout the design process. The various prototypes are put in the hands of users, who are encouraged to comment on their experience and imagine how the prototype could be improved. Any negative feedback is an opportunity to learn and improve the innovative solution.

To ensure that these tests serve the innovation process, it's important not to say too much about new products, and to leave users free to conduct their own experiments.

Using design thinking to innovate: applications and benefits

Design thinking can be applied to a wide range of innovation processes:

- Product innovation: development of new products or improvement of existing products focused on the user experience.

- Social innovation: governments, local authorities and businesses can use the design thinking process to solve complex social problems, involving stakeholders to create sustainable solutions.

- Process innovation involves rethinking the way in which different tasks are performed. Companies and organizations can use design thinking to improve their internal processes, starting with the needs of their employees.

- Business model innovation is about rethinking the way a company creates, delivers and captures value. Design thinking can help companies rethink their business model, by identifying their customers' needs and desires.

Numerous tools facilitate the design thinking innovation process: the stakeholder map; the empathy map; user paths and usage scenarios, and so on.

For companies and organizations driven by the need to innovate, design thinking represents an opportunity :

- a collaborative innovation process that stimulates creativity;

- optimal user experience;

- reduced risk, thanks to iterative experimentation with low-cost prototypes;

- crowdfunding: startups can use design thinking to develop prototypes and present convincing innovative solutions to investors.


Do you want to stand out from the crowd by giving meaning to your innovation processes? Try design thinking, a human-centered, use-driven innovation that puts collective intelligence and creativity at the service of the user experience.

Sources :

[1] Tim Brown, "Design thinking", Harvard business review2008, vol.86, n°6, p.84-92.

- GAMBA Tiphaine, "Where does 'design thinking' come from?", I2D - Information, data & documents2017/1 (Volume 54), pp. 30-32.

- BRUNET Emmanuel, La boîte à outils du Design Thinking. Dunod, "BàO La Boîte à Outils", 2019.

- BEUDON Nicolas, " Mener un projet avec le design thinking ", I2D - Information,données & documents2017/1 (Volume 54), p. 36-38.

- What is design thinking?",

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