Problem solving is something that we have to deal with every single day, whether at work or at home. We as humans naturally develop patterns of thinking modelled on commonly accessed knowledge and repetitive patterns of problem solving as those we do in familiar situations. But such approaches often prevent us from accessing new ways of seeing and understanding problems as they present the same pattern of thought. Solving complex problems requires creative problem solving tools and techniques to arrive at a viable solution. Most of the times, coming up with an idea for certain problems is easy, but coming up with right ones requires you to apply design thinking in problem-solving to think critically and creatively.
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When you cannot just rely on existing information to solve certain problems and have to start from scratch, you require new problem-solving strategy to reduce uncertainties. In such times, the only capital for team problem solving is the knowledge and ability of its people and their productivity depends on how creatively they can approach a problem to come up with innovate solutions for solving complex problems as and when they arise.
One of the best wats to innovate and create is to use design thinking that has a set of tools to come up with innovative solutions, be it in developing new products and services, or to deal with whole range of other complex problems that many organisations, businesses or entrepreneurs face.
What is design thinking?
This problem-solving approach is a design methodology that provides a solution-based approach to solving problems creatively. According to this tool, one attempts to extract the mindset of a designer, an artist, a creator into a series of steps that can be applied to solve human-centered problems. Design thinking is a five-step, user-centric methodology that does not present a solution upfront but examines both present and future details of a problem and helps you explore alternate solutions.
Design thinking helps you get a deep insight into the needs of people involved and can be a way to get on with problem-solving when all you have is a vague idea or when you have no clue as to how to begin in solving a certain problem. Methodology includes taking the original problem as a suggestion, not as a final statement, then reframing the problem by thinking broadly about the real issue to get to the root cause. In design thinking, one stops to consider a wide range of potential solutions by determining the real problem.
Phases of design thinking
The process involves teams or a group of diverse people collaborating to help explore your chosen problem area. It relies on intuitive abilities of the team, their ability to recognise familiar patterns, to brainstorm ideas that have meaning and functionality and to experiment and try out concepts and ideas. The five phases of design thinking include:
- Empathising with your users. This phase helps us observe and develop empathy with the target user or those impacted by the problem. Involves process of questioning, questioning the problem, assumptions and implications by engaging with people impacted by the problem.
- Defining the actual issue or problem considering user’s needs, their problems, and using your insights.
- Ideation and brainstorming the solutions by challenging assumptions and to generate innovative ideas.
- Prototyping involves building solutions to the problem or to build rough prototypes to make your concepts more understandable and engaging.
- Testing your solutions with real users.
It is important to remember that these phases are not always sequential and do not have to follow any specific order. You might go through the five steps a few times before finding the right solution.
Why is it a popular creative problem solving technique
Design thinking is often referred to as ‘outside the box thinking’ as designers attempt to develop new ways of thinking that are not according to the common problem-solving methods. This helps you to systematically extract, teach, learn and apply problem-solving tools and techniques to solve problems in a creative and innovative way. Even though these techniques and strategies are mostly used by designers, they are also widely used by those in creative fields, like literature, art, science, engineering, business, and leaders who seek to apply creative problem-solving approaches in their workplaces or organisations.
- Solving complex problems. Design thinking is useful in solving real world complex problems that are ill-defined or unknown where there are no obvious solutions.
- Think creatively. This creative problem-solving tool forces teams to think differently about the people who have those problems and challenge their assumptions about what a solution looks.
- Alternative solutions. Through design thinking, one can like redefine problem to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with their initial level of understanding.
- Builds collaborative environments. It engages diverse people, teams and mindsets into the problem-solving process, instead of following past procedures or doing things a certain way,
- Promotes empathy and understanding. Focuses on the users’ needs, while dispelling inaccurate opinions and assumptions to build right products/solutions that work.
- Improves cost effectiveness. One can find quick and inexpensive way to test their solutions with real users before they come up with complete solution.
How to apply design thinking in problem-solving
Understand the problem you are solving
Identify your goal or challenge by understanding the problem instead of assuming. Most people instead of exploring what the problem really is, they tend to connect it only to their experiences which falsely leads to the belief that they completely understand the problem. But sometimes, the real problem you need to address may not be the one you originally set out to solve.
To invent a solution that doesn’t exist, you have to understand what you are solving and people impacted by it, your clients, customers, users, stakeholders you want to help with your solution. Involving users lets you seek a holistic and empathetic understanding of the problem that people face, instead of just guessing.
Observe and develop empathy with the people impacted, questioning the problem, challenging assumptions, and questioning the implications based on the context in which they operate and the problems and obstacles they might face. Empathising with their emotions, needs, motivations, and drivers helps in generating appropriate solutions or ideas.
Asking yourself, What is the opportunity? Could I fully understand what users need? helps you gain deeper understanding of their needs, the context of their problem, and explore users’ experience with the problem for yourself. You can use tools such as empathy maps or mapping the journey can help you note insights as you interact with the people, identifying user needs with special attention to their emotional highs and lows.
Define the problem.
Once you’ve identified and understood who you are solving the problem for, who and what is involved, relevant facts, emotions, and needs, you should be able to define the problem. Considering your user, pooling experience from previous problem-solving, present and future conditions specific to the problem, testing the parameters of the problem can provide insights to define the problem. Proper research into how users interact with products or services and analysing the appropriate conditions of a problem helps you challenge or falsify previous assumptions to prove whether they are valid or not.
You can diverge your thinking by asking “How might we” questions to frame users’ challenges in a concise manner to create a common definition of the target users and their problems. Through this, you can reflect the true constraints of a particular problem and then converge on the top question to begin with. Visualisation techniques by using images and visual thinking helps you to narrow down to the real problem you are trying to solve or people you want to help. This lets you go beyond using words or language alone and allows you to unlock nonverbal thinking.
Come up with ideas to the problem through divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking is the process of generating lots of potential solutions and possibilities, otherwise known as brainstorming. And convergent thinking involves evaluating those options and choosing the most promising one. Often they are used in combination to develop new ideas. However, using them simultaneously can result in unbalanced or bias decisions and can limit your ideas. The key to design thinking is to separate divergent and convergent thinking. Apply divergent thinking to,
- Reframe the problem as open-ended question based on your observations and research of the first phase. Open-ended questions lets you or your team the freedom to explore multiple possibilities to come up with lots of ideas. On the other hand, asking closed questions leads to confirmations or disagreements.
- Suspend judgment early on. Infeasible ideas too can generate useful solutions. If ideas are rejected outright, or if you do away with every impractical idea from the start, you might miss an important aspect of the solution.
- Explore new ideas. While ideating, it can be tempting to consider solutions that you’ve tried before, as our minds tend to return to habitual thinking patterns that stop us from exploring new ideas. Take the list of needs you discovered, then brainstorm as many ways to meet those needs as possible. Mind maps are great to get creative, visualise, structure and classify ideas to look for patterns or insights during divergent stage.
Convergent thinking can be applied to formulate solutions by analysing and falsifying all of your possible options by setting criteria for judging potential solutions are part of convergent thinking. Analyse whether your potential solutions meet your needs and criteria you had set in the phase one and two. You can further review, and question as to – Are there any resource limitations? timeframes? cost or other restrictions that will affect whether or not you can go ahead with an idea.
Asking yourself, “What do you wish to avoid when you implement these ideas?” “What do you want to accomplish with the ideas?” “What if?” “What pros and cons?” enables you or your team with new insights so as to arrive at alternative solutions that might not have been possible.
Prototype your prioritised ideas to test their feasibility.
Creating prototypes helps you experiment your final ideas to see whether they fulfil the users’ needs you observed at the beginning. Prototyping helps you gather user feedback to make sure whether your ideas work, whether they can be implemented and repeated. It also allows you to test your prototype on the actual problems to determine how you move forward in your problem-solving process.
This will enable you to determine if you are on the right track or how to change the solution you are creating to better fit the problem. Using tools like rapid prototyping allows you to make abstract new ideas tangible. These include storyboarding, illustrations of concepts in visual or narrative forms, images and stories. They can even include role playing.
Test your solutions.
Test your prototype with real users. Decide on the criteria for a successful test. The test criteria you choose will depend on the type of prototype you made. If the test is successful, you can put into use or create the full version of it to implement. If your test is not successful, or if you learn that it isn’t fulfilling your user’s needs, or can be improved further, you can go back few steps and repeat the process to find another approach, or ideate new solutions, or you can empathise with your users more and find new insights based on what you learned from the test.
Space for self-reflection
How creative are you in your problem-solving approaches – do you rely on old patterns of thinking or do you choose to think differently?
Do you understand the problem you are trying to solve?
Do you collect diverse perspectives and research before choosing a problem to solve?
How often do you consider needs of people impacted by the problem as you problem-solve?
How critical and self-judging do you get to your or others’ ideas?
Do you explore potential solutions through brainstorming, prototype the most promising and test those prototypes?
To sum up,
The overall goal of design thinking approach is to help you or your team to develop practical and best possible solutions. Design thinking isn’t just for “things” or to design a new product or service, but can be applied to any problem that needs a creative solution. Once you master the skills central to this approach, you can apply to solve problems in daily life, work, any industry, business or an organisation.
By integrating what is user-centered perspective, with proper research of what’s feasible, and economically viable, you can come up with most innovative solutions that you might have never identified with your initial level of understanding. Next time you try to solve a problem, use design thinking approach to dig little bit deeper to uncover ways to come up with creative solutions or ideas for better outcomes.