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Design Thinking – new old creativity

Will design thinking revolutionize human-centred design? Design thinking is the up-and-coming technology trend in 2016, writes the German IT business magazine CIO. This innovative method was developed by University of Stanford Professors David Kelley, Larry Leifer and Terry Winograd and brought to Europe by SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner. An increasing number of companies rely on design thinking when it comes to developing products and services in line with the users' expectations. However, focusing on the user is nothing new. Since the 1990s, human-centred design (HCD) has stressed the necessity of continuous user orientation. So, is design thinking nothing but a fancy new name for human-centred design? The answer is: "Yes and no." Below you will find an overview of the common features and the most important differences of the two approaches.

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1 approach – 2 names?

The key principle and most important common feature of these approaches is evident in the term "human-centred design": It puts humans at the center of the development process for new products and takes account of the fact that not only users but also other stakeholders, e. g. in purchasing, have to be taken into consideration in the design process. Both in human-centred design and in design thinking, their needs are considered in all phases of product development – from analyzing the context of use all the way through to the evaluation.

Another common feature is the iterative approach. DIN EN ISO 9241-210 describes the four phases of human-centered design: Understanding the context of use, specifying the user requirements, producing design solutions and evaluating them. For best results, these phases are repeated iteratively. Design thinking, too, makes use of an iterative process. Although design thinking is formally divided into six phases, there are many similarities.

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Analyzing the starting point plays a key role in both approaches. It includes analyzing specific user tasks and characteristics as well as examining the usage environment. Getting as much information on the users as necessary is important to ensure that all their requirements are fulfilled. Moreover, both approaches draw from a pool of similar methods. For example, teams in both design processes use personas, hypothetical but very precise descriptions of typical users. They make it easier for the designers to put themselves in the position of an actual user of a certain product. In addition, teams bring ideas to life by using prototypes, and get user feedback.

What makes it special

While both processes have many similarities, the approaches have different aims. The aim of human-centred design is to develop a product with a high degree of usability and user experience. Design thinking, however, aims at developing innovative and creative solutions for complex issues. These will ideally satisfy the users' requirements, be realizable from a technical point of view and also prove to be economical.

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Hence, design thinking has a larger scope of use. While human-centred design mostly focuses on the user interface and known issues, design thinking goes beyond such limitations: It can be used for developing new products and services but also for evolving concepts for the solution of social questions. In contrast to human-centred design, design thinking often questions existing problems or develops entirely new questions. Overall, design thinking puts a lot more emphasis on innovation and creation, leaving design thinkers with greater leeway.

Unlike design thinking, human-centred design is described and defined in an official standard. Coming up with an exact definition of design thinking would, however, be quite difficult. Design thinking involves a new mindset as well as a collection of principles, methods and techniques. Basically, the design thinking process rather follows the processes and the "focused but creative" chaos used by designers and architects.

In standard human-centred design, developer teams resort to the creative knowledge of human-computer interaction (HCI) and its standards and style guides. This means that this approach is a lot more structured than design thinking. For certain types of problems, this is the fastest way to success and thus beneficial for many projects.

Another factor that makes design thinking so successful is working in cross-disciplinary teams. The project teams are comprised of experts from different fields. This ensures that different perspectives are taken into account in the process. The teams work on an equal footing and follow an impartial and solution-oriented approach. And this works best in a creative environment. Therefore, design thinkers love flexible room designs that leave them lots of space. High tables, whiteboards and a large selection of different materials, e. g. Lego blocks and post-its, help to visualize ideas quickly. Although DIN EN ISO 9241-210 for human-centred design requires teams to be cross-disciplinary, too, in practice this process is usually mainly controlled and kept going by usability professionals.

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Complementing or replacing?

Design thinking mainly focuses on the development and early evaluation of visions and creative approaches to solve various types of problems. This means that design thinking starts off at an earlier stage and with a more general approach than human-centred design. The strength of human-centred design lies in the fact that it helps to design a product based on the users’ requirements to ensure intuitive and user-friendly operation. However, human-centred design has broadened its perspective in recent years.

Apart from the suitability for purpose, the appeal and emotional impact of a product (user experience) are taking increasing prominence. This has considerably enlarged the focus. Both approaches do not exclude or replace but complement each other. For example, teams might use design thinking to identify visions and approaches as a first step. Then, human-centred design could result in user-oriented realization. This ensures that an idea is turned into an innovation that really offers the users added value. We use human-centred design alongside design thinking as best fits your specific project.

The author

Michael Burmester, a professor at HdM Stuttgart and an expert for UX, writes for UID.

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