I’ve been a product designer my entire adult life. Here is one of the products I created, the Belle-V ice cream scoop. In full disclosure, I had a lot of help from a talented team. When people see the product they impute genius to the designer – wow, that’s amazing. How did you come up with that?
I’m using an example of a physical good for specificity, but I’ve experienced the same kind of reaction to digital products and services.
The reality is that I learned an effective process when I was in my 20s and I’ve applied that process repeatedly, sometimes weekly or even daily for 40 years. When you only observe the outcome, the results seem magical. But, the truth is that a fairly straightforward sequence of process steps can reliably lead you to a great result.
Design is just another word for the pull approach to innovation. All design processes are a sequence of steps that begin with some articulation of the “what” and result in some description of the “how” – the process moves from what to how.
Commercial phase-gate product development processes are just an elaboration of that basic idea, with lots of detail. My textbook on product design and development (Ulrich et al. 2020) is a comprehensive description of that detail. Most of you working in larger organizations probably use some sort of phase-gate process that is specific to your industry.
But, here I’m going to abstract a bit, and focus on the elemental design process – what is design at its very core. While design is the core problem solving approach within the product development process, design can be applied beyond product development. It’s almost a building block of being human – of dealing with life.
My goal is to describe the design process in a way that it can be used in myriad situations, from the creation of a new product from scratch, to the improvement of an existing product, and even for solving internal innovation challenges such as finding new ways to reduce waiting times in emergency departments.
To reiterate, the standard phase-gate product development process is a fully elaborated methodology that typically includes the roles of different functions within the organization. It emphasizes not only what to do in each phase, but the notion of a gate that must be cleared in order to proceed to the next phase. I am now going to boil that basic process down to its essence to give you a tool I call the triple-diamond model that can be used not just in zero-to-one product development, but also in almost any other problem solving situation.
To give credit where credit is due, the triple-diamond model is my extension and elaboration of the Double Diamond Model articulated by the UK-based Design Council, a non-profit organization with the mission of improving design practices.
The three diamonds correspond to three steps.
- Clarify the job to be done in a jobs analysis.
- Understand the needs of the customer or user.
- Create a great solution concept.
In practice, a fourth phase is usually important – implementing that concept in a way that the organization can actually deliver the solution. This involves writing the code, designing the parts, and planning for production.
The three diamonds each represent a cycle of divergent and convergent thinking. For each diamond, the designer explores alternatives, and then focuses.
The first diamond answers the question, “What is the job to be done?” It starts with a target customer and the gap or pain point as you have first sensed it, and it results in a carefully considered reframing of the design problem in terms of a job to be done. In fact, one of the critical elements of an effective design process is not even really problem solving so much as problem definition.
The second diamond begins with a job to be done and develops a comprehensive understanding of the customer needs, which are those aspects of a solution that could result in satisfaction and even delight if satisfied. The convergent portion of the second diamond identifies one or a few insights, which are essentially important customer needs that were previously not known.
The third diamond uses those customer insights to pull many possible solution concepts and then selects one or a few for further refinement and testing.
Let me show you how the three diamonds played out for the Belle-V scoop. I started with a vague sense that ice cream was really hard to scoop. In diamond 1, I focused on the at-home consumer of ice cream and came up with the job to be done “How might we better dispense bulk ice cream into individual portions?” In the second diamond, I observed people scooping ice cream and noticed that the wrist angle was quite awkward, even painful for some people. That insight allowed me to pull several different solution concepts, including the one that eventually was embodied in the product, a more or less conventional scoop, but with the scoop angled relative to the handle.
Of course, really, it’s diamonds all the way down. The triple diamond model focuses on the concept development process, but when the team proceeds to build the product based around a concept, it will almost certainly use additional cycles of divergent and convergent techniques in order to solve downstream problems, say for establishing a product architecture, or implementing specific components of the solution. For example, even after we had converged on the solution concept of an angled scoop, we did a huge amount of exploration to find the final form of the object. Another diamond focused on the detailed design of the shape of the scoop and handle. And for that matter, there was another diamond when we considered the surface finish of the scoop – divergent exploration of alternatives and then convergence on tri-valent chrome plating.
Some of you are thinking that this model seems pretty tidy for a very simple piece of hardware like an ice cream scoop, but may not apply to more complex goods and services, say to enterprise software or to a hotel experience. I have a couple of reactions to those reasonable thoughts.
First, as an aside, there’s a reason they call it HARD-ware – it’s hard. Even a simple object like an ice cream scoop presents a lot of complexity and challenges when it comes to actually getting it to the marketplace.
But, more substantively, for new, zero-to-one systems, software, or services, you must still devise an overarching solution concept. For example, consider LinkedIn – the top-level solution is essentially a user-created resume-like profile with the ability to establish a connection between two individuals, and then the ability to search 1st, 2nd, and 3rd order connections in the resulting professional network. Such an overarching concept could be developed with the triple diamond model.
For established systems, the triple diamond will be unlikely to be applied to the entire product or suite of products, but rather more likely to a feature within that more complex product. For example, once LinkedIn had become a successful product, the triple diamond model could still be applied, but to a new feature, say the creation of the follower feature, which allows individuals to follow another person and get updates that person publishes, but without requiring the individual to become a bi-lateral connection.
Problem Solving, Design, and Design Thinking
I happened to be on a holiday ski trip when I was preparing for this video. (I know, that doesn’t sound like that much of a holiday.) I kept thinking to myself, skiing is fun, but it’s a huge annoyance to actually get on the slopes. For most novice skiers, you have to procure skis, boots, poles, helmet, goggles, and warm clothing. Then, you have to put all that stuff on. Then, while fully dressed in really warm gear you have to walk awkwardly from transportation to a ski lift, sometimes navigating a flight of stairs. Then, you put on the skis. By then you are sweating and your goggles are fogged up. Next you wait in a line. Then you get on a windy and cold ski lift and become quite chilled. When you finally get to the top of the mountain, you stare at a map trying to figure out the best route down. Finally, you get to slide on the snow, which is actually quite fun. I’m an incurable innovator and so I found myself posing the question, “How might we improve the experience of getting skiers onto the slopes?”
If I were a trendy corporate consultant, I would call this a “design thinking” problem. But, I’m actually a bit of a crusty old designer. I’ve taught design for more than 30 years. So, I have to ask “what exactly is design thinking” and how is it any different from plain old design?
Well, first let’s first go back to the definition of innovation and design.
I define innovation as a new match between a solution and a need. Innovation can result from a push – starting with the solution and looking for a need. For example, what might we use the blockchain for? Or, it could start with the need and pull the solution, like I framed the skiing challenge. “How might we improve the skier experience?” Design is innovation anytime you are pulling a solution from a need.
So considering our definition, the short answer to what is design thinking is that it is design. Really. You apply the same process to creating a better ski experience as you do to creating a better ice cream scoop, or a better fitness app. In fact, the word design thinking annoys a lot of designers, because they are usually less interested in thinking about problems than in actually solving them.
Once I cool off a bit about the weird term “design thinking,” I realize there may be a gem of an idea in there, and that a bit of nuance may in fact be warranted.
A useful definition of design thinking might be that it is design of things we don’t normally think of as designed.
For example, here are some problems for which the design process could be used, resulting in solutions that would not normally be thought of as designed artifacts.
- How might we improve the patient experience in the emergency department at our hospital?
- How might we improve the convenience of using a bicycle for transportation?
- How might we create a delightful food delivery service?
A lot of people talk about needing to apply more design thinking in business. I find myself wondering if the desire for design thinking is really just a reaction to the use of too many spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations, disconnected from customers and from exploration of solution concepts. This reaction reflects a desire for a different and better culture of innovation.
I do think that good designers exhibit a few desirable elements of culture. Interestingly, most of these elements don’t need to really be confined to design. Here are five:
- Designers exhibit a bias for action.
- Designers tend to be optimists, exhibiting a culture of yes.
- Designers tend to use exploratory prototypes early in the problem solving process.
- Designers tend to be skilled at visual expression.
- Designers tend to use empathic methods for understanding customers.
Despite my enthusiasm for all things design, I won’t argue it is universally the best approach to problem solving. For example, it would be a mistake to abandon elements of Six Sigma, Total Quality Management, the Toyota Production System, and data-based approaches. It would also be a bad idea to use a design process to find the volume of a geometric shape, a task better suited to an algorithm.
But, for a huge set of challenging problems, design is a great approach. It is fundamentally divergent and open-ended in its perspective on addressing user needs, and that’s useful whether you are designing a bridge, enterprise software, or an insurance claims process.
Karl T. Ulrich, Steven E. Eppinger, and Maria C. Yang. 2020. Product Design and Development. McGraw-Hill. New York.
Double Diamond Model. UK Design Council.