Design Thinking: A Practice that Worth Sharing

Design Thinking, Process, convergent, divergent, insights, post-it notes, notes, vid, verbatim, insights, data, lin chou cheng

A few years ago, the hype in design thinking (DT) had a lot more fueling than what the method itself promises; many senior corporate executives thought DT is the catalyst of change and perhaps a new way of running a company. Yes, there was evidence that suggested DT can up the ante of competition when part of the organization has come to a near end of the scaling runway. Especially in the current VUCA world, it is either you innovate or “die”.

As such, I have seen a fair amount of managerial people enrolled themselves into DT-related courses and workshops. Some of them have brought their team of hands and legs to attend the training, and use it as a form of “retreat” for incepting more KPI, which already preconceived in their mind. In the end, nothing has changed.

When DT fails to deliver the magic of change that people expected, DT had become a useless connotation or merely another puff for IDEO to sell more of their stuff. (P/s: I heard this from a design lead who commented it, strongly.) Well, no design methods would work when an organization has a culture of keep disempowering the well-intentioned talents with internal politics, and not accepting failure or ideas at the same time (Moore, 2016).

Personally, I felt that the term “design” is already an enigma itself even though it is already in the corpus of English language since 1800 (see Appendix A).  Now, by adjoining the phrase of “thinking” behind the word of design, this whole hype of DT has become more elusive than ever. In the end, it had reduced to no more than a bubble of design theories that even the designers would despise it. But, I see DT as the precursor to LEAN UX and a structural way to cultivate a sustainable system-centric thinking that encompasses the environment and all other living things (including human).

By today’s context, the word design has subsumed many meanings, and it had covered a lot of territories that found in human activities.  From the perspective of etymology, the term design is a late Middle English word that originated from the Latin of “designare” (OED, n.d.), which it culminated the sense of doing.  However, this does not tell us much about design as a whole in a universal context.  It would be easier for us to comprehend the notion of design from lexigraphy viewpoint, by segregating it from the natural part of our speech into the form of noun and verb, as illustrated in Figure 1.0.

Design Definition, etymology, meaning, design, craft, words, synonym
Figure 1.0 The notion of design


So, what is DT then?

To answer that question, first, we must accept that to DESIGN is simply having the sense of doing (e.g. having the drive to make/try things first then see the effect later). In other words, it is do-to-see, and not wait-and-see.

Whereas THINKING is the opposite; it is a systematical approach for making sense of things and events that one’s had encountered in a new context. The referred systematical approach is nothing more than drawing on one’s past experience and cultural belief as the basis for reasoning.  For instance, similar to the basic process of Wayfinding (Lindwell et. al., 2010), our minds would go through the following 4 logical stages where each choice is heavily influenced by our past experience.

Orientation; where am I? Where to? What are the landmarks or cues?
Route decision; considering the factors of cost, time, distance, & risk.
Route monitoring; crosschecking with landmark or milestone.
Destination recognition; expectations matched.

According to Kimbell (2011), there are two schools of thoughts in DT, which one represented by Tim Brown (2008; 2009), and the other is by Roger Martin (2009).  Brown version of DT focuses on the cognitive aspect of how designers interpret (involve Thinking) and feel their way (is Designing) when connecting with people, whereas Martin’s version of DT (2009) is about the managerial practice of abductive reasoning within the systems of an organization.

It is believed that Peter Rowe (1987) had started the earliest scholarly discourse about DT as a rational inquiry framework.  Although he enticed the practice of DT in the context of the architecture and urban planning, Rowe has found that his thesis of DT could be a common intellectual framework for all other kinds of problem-solving activities.

With that, the mechanics of DT should frequently be played out at the workplace, for I see it as a collaborative tool for calibrating everyone’s understanding about the stark reality that their organization is facing, and the barriers that are bugging their underserved customers.  However,  such REFRAMING practice in DT seldom happens as it requires an organization-wide of humility.

According to Design Thinking & Innovation Academy of Singapore (which had dissolved), there are three (3) main phases to the practice of DT; they are Understand, Explore and Test, as illustrated in Figure 2.0.

Human-Centered Design, diagram, flow, understand, explore, test, sketch, human figure, insights, flow
Figure 2.0 Cycles of Design Thinking

Phase #1 | Understand
The first phase of DT is to uncover users’ needs, wants and desires through contextual observation and inquiry.  The refer contextual observation and inquiry is a search of meaning by digging (laddering) into the users’ immediate physical and situational surroundings, language, character, culture, and belief that shaped their identity.  In order to understand the sample population (the users) better, there are these four (4) methodologies to consider when conducting a contextual inquiry as follow:

● Imagining Users methodology
● Co-operative methodology
● Empathic methodology
● Ethnographic-based methodology

In the practice of contextual inquiry, the main ground rule is always to have empathy.  The inquirer needs to be patient when trying to elicit users’ insights, as often such information is usually tied to the users’ personal life, which sometimes it can be full of emotions and contradictions.  By large, among the four methodologies, the ethnographic-based method is regarded as the most suitable method to uncover users’ truest feelings that concealed behind their needs and wants.  However, the ethnographic methods would require a high level of expertise, as often the required sensibility to interpret people’s saying and doing would need years of field training. Although it is quite challenging to solicit the users’ motivation and goals, there is this AEIOU framework to guide the design research teams during the actual fieldwork. AEIOU is about paying attention to:

Activities of people in the space;
Environmental qualities (sounds, temperature, smells, space layout);
Interaction between people and objects;
Objects (tools, furniture, etc.);
User (characteristics and behaviors of the various stakeholders).

In addition, the framework of AEIOU is best at use when it is being complemented with the technique of shadowing.  Shadowing is another observational field method whereby the design researcher will follow the users into their daily activities over an extended period.  The purpose of shadowing is to see the actual doing of the users in their living environment, and the method is usually complemented with photographic observation technique (video recording).  Photographic evidence is an important archive for the design research teams when they are trying to decode the human experience that they had previously observed.  Although the process of shadowing is quite time-consuming, the method is comparably more effective than the typical focus group interviews, as shadowing can provide the design research team a much deeper insight into the behaviors of their users.

After the completion of contextual observation and inquiry, the design research team would need to make sense of all the data that they had collected.  To do so, the team has to download all the data onto post-it notes and follow by sorting them out under the head of VID before analyzing it.  The notion of VID stands for:

● Verbatim; it is user blurted subconscious motive through laddering.
● Insights; an inference or thoughts, which summarized by the design researcher after what he/she had learned from a user’s verbatim.
● Data; it is all the factual information such as age, gender, travel time, etc.

In design research, the purpose of segregating the research findings into VID is to provide a better overview for the design research team, so that they can really see whom their target audiences are before defining the personas.  During this process, it is advisable to color-code each user’s dataset with markers or colored Post-it note for the ease of reference.  Also, there is this notable practice for all design researchers to denote their inference with the Post-it note at an angle for better legibility (See Figure 3.0).

Lin Chou Cheng, Post-it Note, treatment, Design Thinking, Notes, insights, Denotation, Technique, Workflow, UX
Figure 3.0 Example of denoted Post-it Note

Occasionally, the design research team might need to reframe their initial research objective after reviewing the discoveries that drawn from the fieldwork.  The action of reframing is necessary for removing any false assumptions or self-referential proposition that can mislead the design research and its outcome.

Next, the design research team would need to create a series of persona profiles, which can reasonably reflect a set of characteristics that found in the collated sample data. Each of the crafted personas should be the summary of mindsets, needs, and goals that held by those same clusters of people that we have studied. Although personas are seen as hypothesized characters in other design disciplines (Chapman, Love, Milham, ElRif, & Alford, 2008), but in DT they are the archetypal representation of an actual user group who share the similar needs and wants. After the process of assembling the persona, the design research team can make use of the technique of Affinity Clustering before moving on to the exploration stage.

Affinity Clustering, Design Thinking, Insights, User Research, Data, Qualitative, Sorting, Post-it Notes
Figure 4.0 Samples of Affinity Clustering

Affinity Clustering is a visual sorting technique that used to classify the patterns of emergent issues, concepts or themes that found in the sample data. In practice, the design team might need to reshuffle or transcribe the data again onto a new set of Post-it note before clustering it through similarity.  It is only then the design team can summarize each cluster of the data by putting on another large piece of Post-it note that known as the summary sheet, as demonstrated in Figure 4.0. This summarization workflow is crucial to help the design research team to build a shared understanding of the design challenge that lies ahead before moving on to the exploration phase of DT.


Phase #2 | Explore
The referred explore phase in DT is actually ideation stage, where the design team will go through a series of creative processes for “going wide” to generate conceptual solutions, which could mend the gaps that users are facing. In this process, the synergy of creative thinking is vital, and there is a need to use priming to prep the design team into problem-solving mode. To do so, the trick is to ask the right questions that started with the phrasing of “How Might We” (HMW). The HMW process is one of the best-known jumpstart techniques that used by Google, Facebook and IDEO for inducing creative confident and freewheeling collaboration among their design teams (Berger, 2012). Besides the HMW process, the design team can consider using Creative Matrix to help them think divergently within a short amount of time. During the HMW process, there will be chunks of interesting ideas being gathered within the team and such ideation process will take as long as the time permit. For the design team to move forward, there is this Dot Voting exercise whereby the members get to vote democratically for ideas that are most likely going to be succeeding, so that the whole design team can better concentrating their efforts in synthesizing their propositions before the prototyping stage.

In DT, the use of prototype is mainly to facilitate a deeper interaction with the users, so that the design research team can perform a reality check whether their proposition matches the users’ want and need. Although the mantra in prototyping is to fail early and cheaply, the entire process would still consume a certain amount of resources and time. Therefore, it is advisable to make use of the Prioritization Matrix to cherry-pick the most feasible ideas to prototype and test (see Figure 5.0).

Design thinking, Process, Divergent, strategy, ux, priority, prioritisation, matrix
Figure 5.0 Samples of Prioritization Matrix

The Prioritization Matrix operates under the criteria of relative importance and difficulties (or scarcity of resource such as time, technology, costing, etc.). All explored ideas needs to be ranked according to the matrix before it gets picked and made into a prototype. In DT, the practice of prototyping is actually quite similar to the discipline of interaction design (Saffer, 2010), whereby the fidelities of the prototype can come in a myriad of forms, as outlined below:

Ø  No-resolution Prototype

Ø  Low-resolution Prototype

Ø  High-resolution Prototype

Ø  Service Prototype

Ø  Interactive Prototype

Ø  3D Prototype

Ø  Video Prototyping

Ø  Paper Prototype

A prototype does not have to be in high fidelity during initial exploration phase; however, the complexity of the prototype needs to be polished before the actual event of the elevator pitch.


Phase #3 | Testing
Testing is the final phase of DT. The process is mainly about performing iterative testing of a prototype with the stakeholders.  It is only through testing that the design research team get to learn more about their users. To achieve the purpose of refinement, the design research team must pay attention to users’ feedback and avoid defending the prototype. Besides having empathy to listen to your users, there are three (3) other techniques to solicit users’ responses, such as the method of Capturing Feedback, Thinking Aloud Testing, and “I like…I wish…”. These techniques are meant to encourage the users to speak out their mind, and it would be best for all the given feedbacks to be clustered and downloaded onto a separate canvas, as demonstrated in Figure 6.0.

feedback, Canvas, findings, UX, design thinking
Figure 6.0 Feedback Canvas


Overall, DT can be summarized as a collaborative human-centered mindset that seeks to understand users through their genuine insights, follow by exploring ideas that could match the users’ needs and wants. Lastly, DT would involve testing whether the proposed concepts are emotionally desirable. To embrace DT effectively, the design research team needs to have an open mind, empathy and the intelligent of fast failure or simply IFF (Matson, 1996), as the foundation to create a real and meaningful design is to learn from each failure progressively.                         

As a practicing designer and educator who apply UX into learning design, I personally felt that this entire DT ideology is resonating well with my mind.  I have been adopting the tools and methods of design thinking (DT) whenever I am doing design research that is pertaining to the user experience. The reason is simply that the validation mechanics in DT is effective, for it helps to guide me to choose meaningful design goals that meet the user’s needs and wants at an emotional level for greater good.

DT had also taught me to see things in an even bigger picture than before.  I have applied this DT mindset whenever I attempt any academic-related research as well. In the domain of research, the hardest thing to do is to ask the right question than finding solutions.  To ask the good question, we need to begin with the right frame of mind, and I believe such sensibility is a kind of DT mindset that we all have should embrace.



Berger, W. (2012, September 17).  The Secret Phrase Top Innovators Use (Harvard Business Review).  Retrieved from

Brown, T. (2008).  Design thinking. Harvard Business Review, 86(6), 84-92.

Brown, T. (2009).  Change by design: how design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. New York: Harper Business.

Chapman, CN, Love, E, Milham, RP, ElRif, P, & Alford, JL. (2008). Quantitative evaluation of personas as information. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 52nd Annual Meeting, New York, NY, September 2008, pp. 1107-1111.

Design. (n.d.). Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online dictionary. Retrieved from

Kimbell, L. (2011). Rethinking Design Thinking: Part 1. Design and Culture. 3 (3): 285-306.  Retrieved from

Lidwell, W., Holden, K., and Butler, J. (2010). Universal Principles of Design. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers.  p. 260.

Martin, R. (2009). The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage. Cambridge MA: Harvard Business Press.

Matson, J.V. (1996). Innovate or Die! [Kindle Paperwhite Version]. Retrieved from

Moore, S. (2016). The Key to Business Transformation is Culture. Smarter with Gartner. Retrieved June 10, 2017, from

Rowe, P. (1987). Design Thinking. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Saffer, D. (2010). Designing for Interaction (2nd Ed.): Creating Innovative Applications & Devices. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.


Appendix A

Back to Top

Leave a Reply