A Crash Course in Design Thinking

June 12, 2019
By Caitlin Pereira

When we think about design thinking, what comes to mind? Creative problem solving? A better way of doing things? Maybe a different way of thinking? Essentially all these answers ring true - but there’s a bit more to it, and we’re about to help you understand exactly how it works.

Design thinking is ‘the iterative process of understanding the user; by challenging current assumptions and redefining problems to identify alternative ways to solve them.’

Put simply, design thinking helps you look at a problem from the end user’s perspective  - allowing multiple aspects that wouldn’t be immediately visible to be considered. The process involves understanding the full user journey, both from a functional point of view and an emotional point of view. In other words, your thought process must begin with considering the user’s motivation. This will help you to both effectively solve a problem and improve a user’s experience. Design thinking also involves thinking differently - abstractly. Sometimes this leads to totally original and functional solutions. But sometimes it doesn’t.

A French postcard from 1910 in which the artist tried imagining Paris firefighters in the year 200

A French postcard from 1910 in which the artist tried imagining Paris firefighters in the year 200

 Design thinking encourages questioning at all stages: questioning the issues, the current state of activity, the assumptions and the implications. Design thinking is especially effective when tackling ill-defined or unknown problems - the questions allow the problem to be framed from a customer-centric angle. Essentially, the design thinking process evolves from problem definition right through to solution design; a critical application in the workplace as well as in our Paddl Games Challenges!


So why is innovation like this important?

When looking at innovation, it’s important to realise that to be ‘innovative’ is to implement change for the better. But there’s a catch here - focusing on problems worth solving can only deliver incremental changes. True innovation is designed to deliver breakthrough ideas and concepts, and new ways of thinking or doing things.

This is where design thinking comes in! But before you begin trying to solve a problem for someone or improve their experience, you have to ask yourself who it is you’re trying to help. And why are you the right person to help them?

Before How? Start with Who? and Why?

Before trying to help someone, you need to understand why you are doing it, and you need to know who exactly the person is that you’re trying to help. You’ll need to put yourself in another person’s shoes and try to think like them. Ask yourself what this person’s motivations are. Consider who they are as a human being. Try to define the daily struggles they are faced with on an emotional level. Once you begin to understand a person’s human needs, you can empathise with their problems.

The process of starting with empathy is what makes all the difference. When you empathise with the user, and truly understand what impacts them, the problem statement or definition will begin to form.  These two steps are usually the most difficult part of the innovation process, but once they are conquered, ideation can happen more fluidly. Simply put: if you don’t understand the person behind the problem, how can you ever create a realistic solution?


So, ask yourself: what connects you with the other person on a human level? How do their needs and emotions reflect your own? Once you have established who it is you’re trying to help, the process of thinking proactively towards an innovative solution becomes a lot easier.

For further information on understanding empathy and what inspires us as emotional human beings, we recommend looking to Simon Sinek for advice. In 2009, Simon Sinek started a movement to help people become more inspired at work, and in turn inspire their colleagues and customers. Since then, millions have been touched by the power of his ideas, including more than 28 million who’ve watched his TED Talk based on ‘Start With Why’—the third most popular TED video of all time.

Innovation and thinking differently

After understanding why a customer needs a product or service, and what they are trying to achieve, a product can be designed that will satisfy both the functional and emotional needs of the customer. The innovation process must be customer-centric. Once you harness that approach, you can begin to explore every possibility and think creatively. And question yourself at every turn.

  • Is the problem you are defining related to the customer?

  • Does your solution benefit the customer or speak to the customer’s motivators and mindset?

  • How can you further improve the customer experience with your solution?

  • How does your solution address an existing customer problem?

  • Can your solution solve a problem the customer does not realise that they have?

These are questions you should always return to when navigating the process of design thinking.

Innovation isn’t about changing a problem in the short term. True innovation leads to breakthroughs. There’s no point trying to balance spinning plates, or rearranging the furniture on the Titanic. By exploring opportunities to innovate that lead to breakthroughs or more significant changes, an organisation can redefine a market or customer experience.

How can we think innovatively?

  • Validate a problem is worth solving by understanding how important it is to your customers

  • Look for problems that are not solved sufficiently by existing solutions

  • Your goal is to translate this Problem Worth Solving into a Solution Worth Doing

  • You need to understand the ideal solution from the customer’s perspective

  • This ensures that the customer’s expectations are met (or surpassed), and guides business and technology investment to support the right activities

Have the courage to seek inspiration and guidance. Use the resources at your disposal. Websites like Youtube have a wealth of information waiting to be explored. Ted Talks are a particularly great educational resource.


Design Thinking and Inspired Thinking

The model below, developed in line with Clay Christensen’s Model, depicts the design thinking arc.

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The Apple iPod and the ‘arc’ in practice.

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Understanding the job… in practice


In order to innovate and solve a problem creatively, you must also think practically. Understanding the function of your solution in practice, and keeping it simple, is key. Let’s look at McDonalds as an example.

The original founders of McDonald’s, the McDonald’s brothers, initially opened a BBQ restaurant serving slow-cooked meats, as well as hamburgers. Their BBQ restaurant was a drive-in that offered window service so diners could eat in their car. The food was served on porcelain plates, eaten with steel cutlery, and delivered in person by waitresses - as was the case with most American drive-in restaurants at the time.

The McDonald’s brothers realised that although their food was well received, the style of service they employed led to long wait-times and customers soon grew frustrated. They also noticed that most of their business was coming from hamburger sales, not the BBQ meats they were pushing. This inspired the brothers to close their restaurant and completely rethink their approach.

Soon, they-reopened, having completely discarded the use of waitresses, window service, and eating utensils. They also redesigned their kitchen - modelled after Henry Ford’s car production line method; each cook was given one job: grilling burgers, saucing, garnishing. This meant that the finished product looked and tasted the same as every time. The hamburgers were then served in paper that could be easily discarded. Customers would queue at a window, and by the time they had ordered and paid, their food was ready to take away - the McDonald’s dining experience we are all familiar with.

McInnovation - see for yourself from this clip in the film The Founder (2017).

Practice makes perfect: Paddl Games and the design thinking process

Reading, listening and questioning is the first step, but most people learn by doing. That is where Paddl Games comes in. Inspired by the popularity of hackathons, Paddl Games Innovation Challenges are one-day events that bring together emerging and mature talent to work alongside businesses. Paddl Games use design thinking techniques to help these multidisciplinary teams surface innovative concepts for the business.

As a Paddl Games participant you will:

  •  Work on a real business problem and challenge your skills

  • Experience working in cross functional teams in a fun and competitive environment

  • Interview with the host company for an employment outcome

Paddl Games participants work directly with companies to solve problems in real-time, showcasing their abilities to potential employers and gaining real workplace experience.

Register on Paddl.com to join our next event and see how joining Paddl Games can help you grow your professional network.

Paddl Games are providing a unique and invaluable experience for students by exposing them to real business problems within a highly stimulating learning environment in which they can explore their unlimited potential as an individual as well as a team. The thought, planning and effort put into the event to enhance the participant experience are resonated every step of the way.

Mayumi Edirisinghe, Master of Applied Economics and Econometrics, Monash University