Customer Experience

Design Thinking from the Perspective of a Usability Engineer

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With insights from...

  • Design Thinking and Usability Engineering have user-focus as a common basis and are therefore very close.

  • The practitioners of Design Thinking as an innovation discipline "live it" and apply it strategically, while Usability Engineering as a tool for ensuring usability tends to be applied tactically.

  • Together, they can successfully accompany a development project through all its phases.

In this article we explore the difference between design thinking and user centered design.

Design Thinking is on everyone's lips. The basis of this innovation methodology is to recognise that it is important to put oneself in the users' shoes in order to find ideas and drive them forward. The designer's creative working methods, the trust in a "focused, creative chaos", should also be coaxed out of the agencies – wherever innovation is required, but creative work has been frowned upon until now.

As a Usability Engineer, you pay attention when you hear this description and look at the typical diagrams - isn't user-focused thinking what I do every day with my User Centered Design (UCD)? The process descriptions are quite similar - why is there now a new label for what feels like the same methods? Do they really do things differently; is that better? I therefore decided to get to know the methodology and the way of thinking better, to try it out in practice, and then to compare it with the approaches I use with my clients every day in Usability Engineering projects.

User Centered Design Schritte

Recently, I was lucky enough to be able to get to grips with Design Thinking thanks to two different introductions – the first one, with my colleagues, at a workshop run by the company Innoki as part of this year's Zühlke Camp, and then again shortly afterwards at an alumni workshop at artop in Berlin together with other usability consultants from the artop school. I would like to share my findings so far with you all in this blog post. What I write here is based on my own experiences and reflects my personal assessment. My opinions are still forming and in all probability this will not be the final result – instead, I expect it to provide me with stimuli for further talks and discussions. I think that we usability professionals, who are constantly being asked about Design Thinking by the community as well as by our customers and clients, have to be able to classify the topic.

What is Design Thinking?

To discuss Design Thinking in a meaningful way, it is important to know the different meanings of the word "design". When people talk about "design" in Germany, they usually mean "graphic design", i.e. the primarily visual, but perhaps also the haptic design of a product, so overall, the "good looks". In the English-speaking world, design stands for the holistic composition of a product, i.e. it encompasses not only the graphic/haptic aspects of a product, but also its functionality, the selection and arrangement of information and functions, and last but not least, the product's interaction with the user.

This more far-reaching definition underlies the term Design Thinking. Design Thinking itself is difficult to define. In contrast to User Centered Design, which is described as a fundamental process in DIN EN ISO 9241, Design Thinking can be understood either as a set of methods or, more broadly, as a user-oriented approach or basic attitude – in any case, it is emphasised that the process and the choice of methods must always be adapted to the specific problem to be dealt with. Working as an interdisciplinary team in a creative environment, the goal of Design Thinking is to identify the needs and problems of users, and then – in closely-knit feedback loops involving the user – to refine these needs and problems and then design solutions.

A Design Thinking guiding principle of the IDEO think tank is: "Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius." This interdisciplinarity makes Design Thinking very appealing. Each of us has, at some time, been upset about badly designed products and had the thought: "But I could have done it much better". Design Thinking wants to exploit this design potential – everyone can design. Design Thinking teams are deliberately made up of people from a wide range of disciplines in order to be able to look at the problem from as many different angles as possible. In the process of finding solutions, very different approaches converge, which can result in exciting new combinations. In the USA, IDEO is known for having developed Design Thinking, and the at Stanford University has been researching and teaching this subject for several years.

In Europe, the Hasso-Plattner Institute in Potsdam is the first point of contact for prospective "Design Thinkers". Many universities and consultancies now offer Design Thinking as workshops or as an innovation methodology, and a wide range of companies use it: in Germany, from Deutsche Bahn and Volkswagen to SAP, for example, but also the Hanover Zoo.

How does Design Thinking work?

In Design Thinking, a team, disengaged from the day-to-day business, works together in a creative environment on a given question, here called the "challenge". A sequence of steps is specified, the steps building on one another. We also talk of "modes" that we work our way through: 

Design Thinking Phasen

Assisted by appropriate methods at every stage, the team works its way through each of these modes within a very strict time frame ("timebox") – we want to avoid too deep an immersion, and we assume that the lion's share of the good ideas will surface within a very short time.

  • The first step is therefore to start by understanding and distilling the challenge for oneself, so that the team as a whole is in agreement about the question to be worked on. In this mode, the team also thinks about users and other stakeholders relevant for this issue. When the subject is new transportation concepts in local public transport, for example, not only passengers but also bus drivers, service managers, ticket sellers, etc. can provide us with valuable information that will cast light on all aspects of the problem.
  • Next, observations and interviews take place. Here, team members are asked to leave the workshop room, put themselves in the context of the users and stakeholders to observe and question them, and then present their findings to the team. In Design Thinking it is important to build up empathy, i.e. to sense and understand the needs and emotions of the other person and to discover any areas of tension.
  • The team then compiles the identified needs and emotions into personas, and for each persona it defines some points of view, i.e. perspectives in the form of template sentences that reflect any identified areas of tension on the part of the user. A point-of-view sentence of this kind (but a bad example, because it was thought up in the privacy of a small room) would be, for instance: "Frank, the occasional passenger, always buys single, one-way tickets, even though he ends up spending more money than if he had bought weekly tickets, because – despite having studied computer science – he can't fathom out how to get the cheaper weekly ticket at the complicated ticket machine". The aim of the Point of View is to take surprising findings from user observations and formulate them in such a concise way that the team can develop proposed solutions.
  • Developing and filtering the proposed solutions for a Point of View is done in the following mode. First, generative methods are used to develop as many ideas as possible for solving the problem, but without evaluating them (quantity beats quality). It is not until the second part that the team applies certain evaluation criteria to the ideas generated. For example, it is possible to filter out only the new ideas, from these the useful ones and from these the feasible ones (new–useful–feasible). For example, you can have the team evaluate ideas using dot-voting, or you can determine the radicality of an idea through an additional filter criterion.
  • The team's task is now to select one, or a few, of the ideas that have been developed and implement it/them in prototype form. The moderators provide a wide range of tools – there are Lego bricks, modelling clays, coloured paper, wooden marbles and all sorts of other toys to make the ideas come alive for the other team members and users. Here, too, there is a strict time limit, so the prototypes typically look very unfinished – but for the following test this is an advantage rather than a hindrance, because this way the user has no hesitation in addressing weak points, since obviously not much time has been invested in the concept.

Each of these modes can result in assumptions from previous steps changing and the team having to return to an earlier step to work on new aspects of the topic again. In Design Thinking, this is regarded as a normal process. In fact, in both of my workshop constellations, the questions I worked on changed considerably during the process, and we ended up finding solutions to a different – but from the team's point of view more fundamental – problem. So the typical end result of a Design Thinking workshop is a prototype for a product (or also a service, process or business model) that would satisfy the identified user needs, and that can therefore now be subjected to a closer economic and technical examination to enable its implementation. This implementation phase has recently been included in the process by some Design Thinking consultants, but many are still critical of this addition, and it remains to be seen what develops here.

How does it feel?

I found that working in the Design Thinking workshops was a mixture of structure and chaos. Structure came about through the exact specification of the method to be used in each situation. For example, in the case of a user need that has just been defined, the requirement to now use fixed rules to generate as many ideas as possible within a timebox of 5 minutes by using brainstorming. The chaos usually appeared in the execution phase, when three to six team members drafted their ideas and stuck them on the wall, all at the same time! It is interesting that the moderators deliberately kept us in the dark about the later stages of the process – at each step, only the method for that particular step was explained. There was, of course, a short introduction to the overall context at the beginning, but during the actual implementation we were quite at the mercy of the flow of the individual process steps – like canoeists without paddles in the white water. As a newcomer, you have to place a considerable amount of trust in the whole process.

Prototyping with Lego bricks at the Zühlke camp. Many thanks to Innoki for the photo.

Design Thinking Workshop

In Design Thinking, a lot of emphasis is placed on "soft factors" in team cooperation: A very pragmatic working style – typically American – is promoted; every step forward is celebrated with applause; after every long break, team-building fun exercises help to "loosen up" the team (the "clapping game" has already been widely used by Zühlke). The teams working together on a question should give themselves names, and in one of my two workshops the team members started by sharing their strengths and weaknesses ("Where am I a superhero, what is my kryptonite?"), which made the subsequent cooperation very enjoyable. The space in which the Design Thinking process takes place is actively designed to encourage creativity. The participants carry out most of the methods while standing, many elements in the room are movable and can be rearranged or removed as needed at the time, and the basic rules of the process can be read all over the room.

How does Design Thinking relate to User Centered Design or Usability Engineering?

As you might already have suspected, Design Thinking is not a radically new methodology that abandons everything that has been done before. The methods used are well-proven in Usability Engineering, Product Design and Requirements Engineering, among others, and we are already familiar with the user-centred approach and "live it" in our daily roles. However, Design Thinking is not just the UCD that we know from Usability Engineering, simply provided with a new label: Design Thinking includes some aspects that tend not to be considered in Usability Engineering: Interdisciplinarity; active selection and creation of an environment that encourages creativity; team building; timeboxes.

Principles in Design Thinking:

  • Show, don’t tell
  • Focus on human values
  • Craft clarity
  • Embrace experimentation
  • Be mindful of process
  • Bias toward action
  • Radical collaboration

(From the "Bootcamp Bootleg" of the Stanford

Design Thinking looks more towards the extreme user, the radical solution, the one good idea, whereas with UCD, for all the prioritisation, the all-round view, the willingness to compromise usually prevails. The goal of Design Thinking is to create a prototype and a viable concept; the implementation is usually done in a different context. Usability Engineering, on the other hand, ideally accompanies a product until it is ready for the market, or even beyond that. Design Thinking is currently a hyped topic, and its interdisciplinarity makes it very visible to management, which greatly improves the conditions for implementation.

The emphasis on experts in a UCD sometimes gets in its own way. Other differentiations can result from the mixed perceptions by third parties: User Centered Design and Design Thinking operate to much the same extent in a user-centred manner and, as processes, are focused on innovation in equal measure. UCD, however, is more likely to be employed by many when it comes to improving a specific product or designing its successor, whereas Design Thinking teams are more likely to be given the proverbial "green field" and also be allowed to develop processes and strategies.

UCD is often perceived as an engineering discipline to be followed in day-to-day business, Design Thinking rather as a creative discipline, which is carried out in intensive and finalised innovation workshops. In their usability projects, many customers use a "lone wolf" approach, the lone wolf being a process expert, but in Design Thinking it is the interdisciplinary team that has the professional background. An intriguing side-effect of my involvement with Design Thinking is that, in the course of my observations, the question arose as to how User Centered Design actually stands in relation to Usability Engineering. As a Usability Engineer, and as the previous paragraphs make clear, you like to use these two terms synonymously. This can lead to misunderstandings, especially in exchanges with related disciplines (such as Design Thinking). In discussions with my colleagues, it became clear to me that it is worth drawing a clear distinction between these terms. I would like to formulate this distinction as a thesis in the following, and then of course I would like to discuss it with you:

  • User Centered Design is a way of thinking and a set of methods for using an iterative process to achieve results that are both good and appropriate for the target group. The focus is on user needs, which are identified in conjunction with the users, then processed and analysed. Solutions are developed, and these in turn are reviewed with the involvement of the users.
  • Usability Engineering is an expert discipline that UCD usually applies to the design or improvement of existing individual products, sometimes also of related processes. The aim is to improve the usability of this product. Usability engineering therefore uses UCD in a very limited environment, and you go into great detail.
  • Design Thinking also uses UCD – the user-centred mindset and the relevant methods. As an innovation discipline, however, it is typically given far more creative leeway. The aim here is to find the right product to meet the needs of users, and often to address major social issues as well. The usability of the resulting product is still subordinate to this aim. There is little detail work: instead, a rough sketch of where the journey is to go.

My conclusion

Thanks to their common UCD mindset, Design Thinking and Usability Engineering are very close to each other and use comparable methods and processes. Both disciplines have justifications for their respective use-cases, and in practice they complement each other very well over the entire life cycle of a product. I think that, as a Usability Engineer, it is comparatively easy to work in the innovation field thanks to the knowledge of UCD, and that we can find valuable synergies here. Conversely, the softer aspects that are important in Design Thinking (room design, team building, timeboxing, etc.) are just as exciting for Usability Engineering, and I am gratefully including them in my workshop kit. I am also very pleased about the high visibility of Design Thinking outside the UX community, because the enthusiasm for user-centred thinking that unites us usability professionals is infecting more and more people – the user benefits, and in the end, that's exactly what counts.

Update 21.09.2015: Clarified that the result of DT can be a prototype for a product, but also for a service, process or business model. POV example extended to better highlight the surprising finding. Thanks to Kathleen and Stefan for the tips.