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Design Thinking Explained

Design Thinking – more than problem solving?

Design Thinking can be seen as a problem-solving framework. But really, if that’s only how we define it, we’re doing the concept a great misjustice.

Great design is certainly about delivering solutions to problems, but design thinking is especially about undertaking the process through the twin lenses of design and empathy. It’s been around a long time, not necessarily with that title, and not as the exclusive property of designers. Many great innovators in all fields including business, have practiced it.

Design Thinking is both a thing and an action.
A noun and a verb, after all.
It’s a concept, and a process to be undertaken.

The very essence of Design Thinking is its deep commitment to understanding the needs or wishes of the people for whom we’re designing the products or services.

Design Thinking is a process which has clearly defined steps aimed at understanding the user, as well as challenging assumptions, thinking outside the box, redefining the problems, and identifying alternative strategies or solutions that might not have been apparent in the beginning. It all hinges on truly understanding what the customer or user really wants.  In this process the designers attempt to walk in the shoes of the customer/client.

Design thinking is typically shown as a five-step process.

It looks linear in a list or a diagram, but in reality would be sort of cyclical in method, with forward and backward steps continuing in a type of “rinse and repeat” situation, until the end result is reached.

From: (Creative Commons) Design Thinking Bootcamp Bootleg Stanford University 2018

The 5 steps are:

  • Empathize – with your users or customers
  • Define – your users’ needs, their problem, and your insights
  • Ideate – by challenging assumptions and creating ideas for innovative solutions. This is done collaboratively with design team members, and cross-disciplinary stakeholders as appropriate or useful.
  • Prototype – to start creating solutions
  • Test – solutions


Repeat any steps as required.

Rising to the challenge in Australia

Design Thinking is known for being a human-centered, creative and experimentation-driven approach to developing new products, services and experiences.  It is being used by many of the world’s leading brands, such as Apple, Google, Samsung and GE.  

In Australia a few years ago, the Chair of the Telstra Corporation (at the time), Catherine Livingstone, gave a keynote address at the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, for the Clunies Ross Awards night. Her speech was a strong call to action with respect to innovation and design thinking in Australia.

The title of her talk was Design thinking drives innovation

Her opening sentence was challenging:

“Australia needs to get very practical and very real about the way it shapes its future, to be competitive – and the nation needs to look at design thinking as a core of its innovation drive”.

Catherine Livingstone was certainly throwing down the gauntlet!

And things have absolutely moved on a lot since then.  Her call to action was over a concern about the need for Australia to remain competitive and maintain a seat at the global table.  

She was clear about the fact that, as we can’t derive our competitive advantage from scale or cost factors, it needs to be innovation that is the key. And you know, we already have that in spades! There is strong evidence that we as a nation have a great capacity for invention, innovation, and problem-solving.

Telstra, as a major Australian employer, continues to be a company actively implementing design thinking, and the processes of design thinking and user experience design inform all aspects of Telstra business, not just in their product development processes, but also throughout their entire business, adding value to their recruitment and onboarding program, and to all human services activities and even change management.

(Watch video – Dr Sam Bucolo, Professor Design Innovation at UTS  – explains how enterprise organisations are increasingly utilising Design Thinking processes).

Three specific examples from Australian businesses demonstrate the design thinking process steps, and the cycles of failure (not a bad word) and success, getting to what delighted the customers.

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