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Mastering design thinking — 15+ tips and insights from the best design thinking minds

Design thinking is quickly becoming the go-to methodology when it comes to product design. Mega companies such as Google, Apple, and Samsung have taken their winning formulas and injected design thinking into the process.

And the results speak for themselves, as each new product they bring to market wins rave reviews and customer satisfaction.

We recently looked at some great examples of the power design thinking has to improve your products. But at EasyRetro, we love design thinking so much we couldn’t just leave it at that! Today, we’re going to offer you tips and insights straight from the mouths of people who are truly mastering the art (and science!) of design thinking.

17 tips and insights from the people mastering design thinking — so you can master it too!

1. Do something real

“Every self-respecting designer should do something. Come up with new ideas, dust down old ideas, and place them in a new context. Silence the cynics. Let the politicians know that wheeling and dealing achieves little. Prove that actions speak louder than words. Demonstrate the power of design. Designers can do more than make things pretty. Design is more than perfume, aesthetics, and trends.” — Richard van der Laken, founder of What Design Can Do

This powerful quote reminds us that successful products tend to forgo flashy, gimmicky features. Instead, developers should use design as a tool — to offer something real to their users. Something that can improve their lives rather than just looking pretty.

2. Design for a better world

“How can you cultivate your breadth & depth of expertise and provide a significant push to humanize our experiences for the better?” — Kevin Bethune, Founder of dreams • design + life

This fascinating, in-depth interview with former design executive at Nike, Kevin Bethune, offers insight based on 20+ years of experience with design thinking. Bethune (and Nike) are huge believers in design thinking and this quote is a testament to that.

3. Build empathy into everything you do

“User-centered design means understanding what your users need, how they think, and how they behave — and incorporating that understanding into every aspect of your process.” — Jesse James Garrett, User experience designer

This is a brilliant summation of design thinking from the co-founder of The Information Architecture Institute.

4. Innovation requires a fresh perspective

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein

Years and years before the term was coined, design thinking was already a large part of the process behind some of life’s most impactful scientific works. He may not have known it, but the Father Of The Modern Scientific Age was using design thinking to form the foundation of science as we know it today.

5. Iterate and iterate until you get it right

“It is about them and for them. The closer the end users’ needs are analyzed and answered, the more successful the adoption or purchase of a solution. You iterate until you get it right from a customer perspective.” — Olivier Delarue, UNHCR

This quote helps teams stay motivated even when they’ve headed down the wrong path. Design thinking is all about empathy and being user-centric — you really can’t get it “wrong” if you’re answering a user need.

6. Welcome failure

“Fail often so you can succeed sooner” — Tom Kelley, Author and General Manager, IDEO

The team at IDEO are mastering design thinking like no one else. And Tom Kelley’s quote has risen to fame.

Most practices consider failure to be the end of an idea. But funnily enough, it’s that very mindset that leads to failure — in wasted time and resources. Design thinking embraces the unknown and unexpected. That means taking failure as an opportunity to learn, rather than as a negative experience.

7. Design for real people (and put your ego aside)

“We must design for the way people behave, not for how we would wish them to behave.” — Donald A. Norman, Co-founder of Nielsen Norman Group

For the longest time, companies were dead set on innovation for the sake of innovation. This quote from Donald A. Norman reminds us that the end user is an individual with their own way of doing things. That should be the focus of product development, not what the company thinks is the next big thing.

8. Embrace not knowing

“Human-centered design is a philosophy, not a precise set of methods, but one that assumes that innovation should start by getting close to users and observing their activities.” — Donald A. Norman, Co-founder of Nielsen Norman Group

Donald A. Norman with another great piece of advice here. Design thinking is an iterative process, not a set of steps that can be followed to the letter. It’s more about embracing an understanding of your users, than having a set of rules to work from.

9. Forget ideals

“You have to know why people behave as they do — and design around their foibles and limitations, rather than some ideal.” ― Cliff Kuang

In his book ‘User Friendly’, Cliff Kuang sums up design thinking perfectly with this quote. Traditional product design methods are very focused on what could be when the reality is successful products are built for the world as it already is.

10. Stay on your user’s side

“It’s not ‘us versus them’ or even ‘us on behalf of them.’ For a design thinker it has to be ‘us with them’” — Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO

Customers have problems, that’s how the world (and design thinking!) works. Tim Brown believes we should address those problems head-on, rather than seeing them as a barrier to success. Solve the problem, make the user’s life easier, then your product will succeed.

11. Don’t get caught up in product details

“We spend a lot of time designing the bridge, but not enough time thinking about the people who are crossing it.” — Dr. Prabhjot Singh, Director of Systems Design at the Earth Institute

As a designer or developer, it’s easy to get caught up in the nitty-gritty and feature list. You may have smart tech and a big innovation budget… but what does it all mean? Don’t forget about the people you’re helping get from A to B.

12. Empathy above all else

“The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you’re trying to design for. Leadership is exactly the same thing — building empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help.” — David Kelley, Founder of IDEO

Making our list once again, it’s David Kelly from IDEO. If there’s only one person in the world that can claim the ‘Design Thinking Genius’ title, it’s him.

This thought-provoking quote draws parallels between design thinking and leadership roles. A great leader understands their employees’ needs and feelings, then uses that information to make that employee feel comfortable and work at their full ability.

Are you doing the same as Product Owner or Scrum Master?

13. Design for tomorrow today

“Design thinking is the ability to create, portray, and deliver tomorrow’s distinction, today.” ― Onyi Anyado

At EasyRetro, we’re big supporters of design thinking and its potential to change the world. This quote from ‘Mr. Distinction’ himself, Onyi Anyado, perfectly sums up our thoughts on design thinking: it’s the future!

After all, there’s a difference between being idealistic or designing for fictional users, and the ability to deliver products that create positive change.

14. Make the invisible, visible

“Creativity is nothing but the way to design the invisible.” ― Prof. Salam Al Shereida

This particularly insightful quote is perfect for inspiring your team when the going gets tough. Get them to think outside of the box and try new angles they may not have considered — it may just be the key to success.

15. You don’t always have to be right

“The need to be right all the time is the biggest bar there is to new ideas.” ― Edward de Bono

The late, great author and inventor Edward de Bono has left an incredible legacy. His success can be attributed in part to lateral thinking — a term he coined himself! Lateral thinking and design thinking can be used simultaneously in the right situation and this quote highlights that perfectly.

De Bono was mastering design thinking before he (or anyone else) even knew what it was.

16. Explore a problem from all angles

“Most people don’t make much of an effort to explore the problem space before exploring the solution space” — Prof. Steven D. Eppinger

This final quote comes from Professor Steven D. Eppinger of MIT. Eppinger teaches ‘Mastering Design Thinking’ — one of the world’s best courses on Design Thinking, under the banner of one of the best schools on the planet. How could we not include him in our round-up?

This quote rings so true for countless industries. A traditional mindset will tell you to fix the problems as soon as they appear. And yet that doesn’t always fix the problem. Maybe you just move things around and the problem moves into a different section of your product.

There’s little value in tackling a problem if you don’t look to the root cause.

For more design thinking, creativity, and teamwork tips and tricks, check out the rest of the FunRetro blog.

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