In our last post we explored the concept of Behavioral Economics, providing a general outline of the field, its concerns and the value it can have for market researchers.

Now we’d like to look at another widely discussed topic, Design Thinking.

You needn’t look too far to read a post or article investigating this popular concept. Harvard Business School is now even offering a course in Design Thinking, recognizing that it is fast becoming “a core competency of successful enterprises.”

Design Thinking, HBS continues, is “a powerful, holistic approach” that can aid in “reframing strategic challenges” and help to “shorten the creative leap to delivering innovative, winning solutions.”

So, now that we know it’s important; what exactly is Design Thinking?

The Thinking is In the Doing

Generally speaking, Design Thinking, as Wikipedia notes, “refers to a set of creative strategies designers utilize during the process of designing.” Put simply, it’s an approach to problem solving in which the thinking is in the doing.  Design Thinking offers a serious departure from the way “thinking” and “doing” are normally understood, especially within corporate cultures.

Traditionally, “thinking” and “doing” are conceived as two separate domains of activity. “Thinking” is usually regarded as an independent activity that comes first: we think, and then we do.  This idea makes its way into corporate cultures, who see themselves, roughly speaking, as made up of two categories of people: the “thinkers” and the “doers.” The thinkers come up with solutions and the doers implement them.

Design thinking turns this paradigm on its head by raising a fundamental question: what is it we should be doing as we think?

Design thinking posits that the act of thinking requires doing. Doing, making, creating – these are the methodologies by which we investigate a problem, define it, and ultimately solve it. This notion is perhaps best expressed in the following well-known quote, attributed to author Joan Didion:

“I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”

Countless other artists, and scientists for that matter, have expressed similar sentiments. The act of doodling, sketching, jotting down whatever comes to mind, tinkering, i.e., going straight into the creative is the way we come to understand what it is we actually think.

And this integration of thinking and doing is what HBS is referring to when they describe Design Thinking as a “holistic approach.”

The Power of Design Thinking In Market Research

Design Thinking is a way of working that we can apply to our projects as market researchers.

At the very start of a project, for example, when we’re beginning to design research to answer specific business questions, we can jump right in to creating our survey instrument – questionnaire or discussion guide – without much concern for  whether they’re perfect, or even any good at all.

Remember: what we’re doing here is not generating the answer (e.g., the ultimate survey instrument) but exploring the problem. And all sorts of new ideas and insights can pop up along the way supporting questionnaire development as well as analysis to be performed later.

Indeed, there will come the time when our critical faculties come into play. We’ll need to filter and cull through the many possible solutions we’ve generated in order to land on the right one. But we’ll now be working from a richer set of options and a deeper understanding of the problem we’re trying to solve. We will think better because we’ve sharpened our minds by doing.

On the back end of a project, when we’ve collected data and are ready to turn it into a story, Design Thinking comes into play once again. Now is the time to quickly generate hypotheses, story titles, scripts, video edits, all without worrying whether they are the ultimate narrative. We simply use these processes to explore the problem and clarify our thinking. And, once again, when we have a batch of possible or partial solutions before us, we can then switch into our critical mind and judge which work the best. We’ve said before that a story is merely a filter applied to data or insights to give it meaning.  Design Thinking tells us it’s ok to apply many different filters as we work through the data; searching for meaning before settling on the best.

At its core, Design Thinking is an iterative process. You create things, then step back to evaluate what you’ve made. You then take what you’ve learned to make new things or optimize the solutions you’ve uncovered.

It’s a very powerful tool. And it can provide us with insights far more inventive and valuable than we’ve ever imagined.