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  • Writer's pictureGiulia De Riva

Design thinking: how this concept is perceived in the business environment

Nowadays, the world is more complex than it has ever been. Aftershocks from the global pandemic, the Russian-Ukrainian war, supply chain challenges, environmental and sustainability needs, inflation, the rise of the Metaverse, and so much more impact the daily lives of everyone around the world. The circumstances are demanding, and as such a need is rising for important innovation. Innovation often comes from disruptive ideas, and fostering disruptive ideas is a staple of design thinking. Design thinking is a powerful concept, fruitful for both people and organizations. Now beginning to understand this, companies from a wide array of sectors have spent the last 20 years increasing their use of the methodology, whether it be for simple product development or overall strategic work. As such, design thinking's popularity has only increased around the world.

The term ‘design thinking’ was coined 40 years ago. The literature is wide, and there are so many differences in how authors perceived the concept that it is impossible to come up with a unique definition. However, all the different interpretations lead to the following common characteristics. Design thinking is a methodology often implemented in research studies or companies’ projects to solve complex and ambiguous problems. In order to solve them, the methodology is built on two main pillars: creativity, which allows individuals to come up with breakthrough ideas, and human centricity, which is fundamental to understand the problem's roots and identify effective solutions. Since design thinking is useful to come up with original ideas, it is often mentioned together with innovation. Moreover, it is considered multidisciplinary, meaning that it can be implemented in several different dimensions, not only business, and in several different ways. To conclude, design thinking is a methodology built up on a process. Scholars introduced several different types of processes, and all of them present two main stages: actions that lead to the definition of a problem and those that lead to the solution of the problem itself. Among all the processes, the one developed by Stanford University is one of the most popular. As Figure 1 shows, it is made up of five steps: empathize with key individuals, define the challenge to solve, ideate as many solutions as possible, build prototypes of the best ideas that are finally used to test the solutions with individuals that give feedbacks and critiques and allow design thinkers to go back in the process and adjust imperfections.

Figure 1: the design thinking process.

Although design thinking has gained a positive reputation resulting in the methodology's continued adoption, there are still several controversies related to it that have not been solved yet. It seems that design thinking has been undertheorized and understudied. Design thinking stories have been presented with limited detail, and not all the design thinking aspects have been fully explored. Moreover, papers that address design thinking for business tend to focus on the success of the outcome rather than on how it was achieved, thereby missing an opportunity to discuss the practical steps of the process. Other problems are related to the flexibility of design thinking. In other words, the fact that it can be implemented in various ways across various sectors can hamper authors trying to articulate the process. These complexities have all led to confusion around the topic, causing some individuals to misinterpret design thinking and consequently misuse the process. Such misuse can lead to unsuccessful results and even total project failures. This study was developed to bring clarity to this confusion by analyzing how design thinking and some of its aspects are perceived by academics, expert professionals, and university students.

The analysis conducted for this study followed a specific process, beginning with a literature review, moving to qualitative research, and concluding with a quantitative analysis. These steps were performed in this order due to their subsequent nature. In particular, the literature review laid the groundwork for the qualitative study, which then provided the necessary insights for crafting the questionnaire used in the quantitative study (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: the research process.

The qualitative study was conducted through 14 face-to-face interviews. Data was then gathered and analyzed on an online whiteboard called MURAL. The sample (see Figure 3) was made up of academics that do research or teach design thinking and professionals that work for companies where they can implement design thinking on daily basis. The quantitative study was conducted through a survey. 53 responses to a questionnaire were collected, and Excel was used to analyze the dataset and generate descriptive statistics. Here, the sample is more diversified that the one in the qualitative study, also including university students that are familiar with design thinking, more countries and more industries when looking at the expert professionals (see Figure 4).

Figure 3: sample for the qualitative study.

Figure 4: sample for the quantitative study.

The research led to the following results.

  • Design thinking seems to have many advantages, the majority relating to its teamwork-based approach and to three of its process's stages (‘empathy’, ‘define’, and ‘prototype’). On the other hand, design thinking also has some disadvantages. Since it can be implemented in several uncertain situations and different environments, it is sometimes improperly overused. This is especially problematic because, in some situations, other methodologies can be more efficient.

  • Individuals and companies mostly see it as a mindset that is useful for fostering innovation, improving life, creating positive change, and obtaining commercial gain.

  • Implementing design thinking in organizations is complex because it usually necessitates changes in their culture. Therefore, it is important to develop the right mindset in employees, managers, and other stakeholders.

  • Design thinking and innovation are often mentioned together. Design thinking is perceived as important to foster innovation. However, some individuals did not perceive it as fundamental/the best method.

  • Focusing specifically on the design teams, findings show that the team should consist of 4-5 people. Companies can either utilize external teams or their internal team and when the team is internal, it can be positioned at varying levels in the organizational chart.

  • Looking at the process itself, ‘empathy’ stood out to the respondents as the most important phase.

  • Companies implementing design thinking need support that usually comes from training or external organizations.

  • When comparing countries, the design thinking concept seems to be less established in Italy than in the US or northern Europe.

The above findings make it clear that individuals and companies can benefit from design thinking. However, several important points must be kept in mind in order to be successful. While the theory behind the design thinking methodology is sound, it is the people who execute the process that ultimately make the difference. Therefore, it is not a matter of doing design thinking or not. It is a matter of how to do it. Nevertheless, the popularity that design thinking has gained, even if a bit excessive, is justified by its successful results in multiple settings. Thus, in such a complex world, companies can truly benefit from design thinking and all it has to offer.

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