This article was originally written as part of an employee series on being world-class communicators. I’ve edited it slightly to remove some specific internal references.
As part of my product management training, I learned this phrase: “your opinion, although interesting, is irrelevant.” It is meant to be a reminder that the value of an idea is proven through user research and market data, not flashes of inspiration. It was a sobering perspective for someone who led product teams on the merits of firsthand technical expertise.
That bit of truth resurfaced last month when I took part in a workshop led by our partners at IBM. Over the past four years IBM has reinvented how they do business using a methodology called design thinking — we wanted to know how their approach might help with our global intranet initiative.
So what exactly is design thinking? There have been many words written on the topic, but I’d propose the following definition as a starting point:
“Design thinking is an iterative process of doing and learning that solves problems in innovative ways for the benefit of end users.”
Let’s unpack that a bit.
The first point is that design thinking is not a noun. It is not a person, place or product, but a process in action. There are steps that anyone — not just designers — can participate in: observing a problem, reflecting on users’ needs, making something that meets those needs and validating it. Then doing it all again. And again.
IBM visualizes this repeatable process as an infinity loop:
The intent of design thinking is as much about problem finding as it is problem solving. Each time we loop through the process, we gain new insights into the problem, which leads to more ideas that we can try out and learn from. And this is not a solo job — it works best when a team with diverse perspectives tackles a problem together and comes up with different types of questions about what they’ve learned.
Frankly, if we stop there, we already have a pretty good approach to solving complex problems. But what really sets the design thinking mindset apart is a focus on improving people’s lives. The heart of design thinking is understanding not just what a problem is, but how it impacts users in terms of the jobs they want to do, the pain points they need to overcome, the challenges that stand in their way, and ultimately what a better result looks like. A design thinker walks in the shoes of their user.
So how can design thinking help us become world-class communicators?
First, by always questioning and reframing our work as a problem to be solved. Change your focus from “what do I think is important?” to “what is motivating my audience and what needs do they have?” Each time you tackle a routine task, ask yourself, “what do I know this time around that I didn’t know before and how will that change what I do?” If you can’t answer that question, ask someone else for their perspective.
Second, having empathy for users’ needs is the foundation of innovation and creativity, both qualities of world-class communicators. Design thinking provides a valuable complement to critical thinking, with a focus on building up innovative solutions in addition to using analysis and reason to break down a problem. Instead of measuring our work in terms of key performance indicators and business success metrics, we ask how well we’ve met our users’ needs.
Finally, design thinking requires teammates to band together around a common goal. By the end of our workshop with IBM, our team had used design thinking principles to identify an example intranet user who had real tasks, problems and pain points that we could empathize with and begin to create solutions for. It was the start of a world-class communications strategy!
If you want to learn more about design thinking, read this article for a deep dive, then check out the methodology taught by the d.school at Stanford. The terminology and visuals are slightly different than what we used with IBM, but the concept is the same.