DT Blog S3

DESIGN THINKING SERIES || Part 3 of 4: Thinking Design Thinking: Stage 1 – Discover

DESIGN THINKING SERIES || Part 3 of 4: Thinking Design Thinking: Stage 1 – Discover

DT Blog S3

George Panakal

This piece is Part 3 of a 4-Part series on Design Thinking. In Part 1, we introduced you to the concept of Design Thinking and busted some myths which surround it. In Part 2, we took a closer look at why Design Thinking is a good tool to have in your kit as a professional. In Part 3, we will look at the design thinking process in detail.

First off, design thinking has been around since 1969, when Herbert A Simon published “The Sciences of the Artificial”. The book made designers look at problems and solutions from the eyes of a consumer, and the idea gained momentum in the 1990s with the founding of the legendary design firm IDEO, followed by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford in 2004. Though principally similar, over the years their design principles have created cults – each practitioner swearing by his or her choice.

Irrespective of the school of thought you lean towards, the crux of design thinking is in answering three simple questions:

  1. Will people use it happily?
  2. Can we build it without much trouble?
  3. Will it be sustainable?

Though simple, the responses to these questions are crucial to the process of design thinking, which has three distinct stages:

Design thinking stages
In this post, we shall dig deeper into the ‘Discover’ phase and seek ways to sharpen skills that will enable us to take a step closer to being better design thinkers.


Arguably, the most important stage in the design thinking process is discovery. In this stage, we seek to:

  • observe the customers/users
  • empathise with their experiences, and
  • define the problem statement which we will seek to solve using the design thinking methodology.

Easier said than done. Let’s delve a little deeper to understand what is required here.


Observation, in this context, seeks to uncover the ways in which a user experiences your product or service. Observation also helps you understand the expectations of the customers. There are multiple ways to gather information in the digital age, but none of them beats analysis of the real user experience. This is because a person’s ‘real’ reaction could be clouded by the ‘moment’. For example, if you were to ask someone if they are a football fan, they might say ‘yes’ if a local team has won a championship. This response is despite their lack of interested in the game otherwise. Or, you could also have an instance where a die-hard fanatic of the game claims they do not like it, if their team, usually considered a strong contender, got knocked off in the early stages of a championship. In either case, analysing real behaviours give you better insights than depending on reactions.

Another factor to consider is the consistency of the behaviour. Our dog, Dopey, wasn’t a fussy eater at all. Once, when we were visiting a friend, Dopey sampled a “super premium canine food brand” and he lapped it up in a blink. On our way back, we bought the biggest sack of the product. Back home, Dopey did not even finish a quarter of what he usually does. After a week of futile attempts, we had to give it away. Maybe Dopey was famished the day he sampled it, or was in some sort of canine peer pressure, I’ll never know. But what I learnt that day was that unless a behaviour repeats itself in different circumstances, I shouldn’t generalize ?


Empathizing is the ability to imagine yourself to be the customer and ‘see what they see, hear what they hear, and feel what they feel’. It is the ability to describe the agony and the ecstasy of the solution you seek to deliver.

One of the most difficult job roles I have consulted for is a life insurance claims agent. The agent regularly meets people who are grieving and in despair. They do not always come in with all the right documentation. However, there is a certain amount of minimum due diligence required for you to accept (let alone process) a claim. How do you build empathy into a system without wiggle room?

We invited the team for a session at a managed facility. Before lunch, we asked the facility managers to clamp a few vehicles, come into the workshop, and announce the vehicle registration numbers. The ‘offenders’ were asked to produce, in addition to the usual ‘license and registration’, documents like the original sales invoice copy, proof of last lease instalment, invoice from the last service, and so on. Needless to say, there was absolute chaos, with people insisting how irrational and absurd the documentation requirements were. And once we reassured them that this was a charade, they had to reflect on the experience and describe how they felt. They were then asked, “So, how do you think the next of kin feels, when they come in and you put this list of documentation in front of them?” The silence was deafening! Empathy.


Here’s when you put two and two together to arrive at the problem statement or need statement. In my opinion, this convergence is the first milestone in design thinking. If the problem or need is not articulated well, the solution will be far from ideal.

In an earlier organization I used to work for, flexi-timing was an idea that was gaining a lot of support. We created an internal committee, mostly comprising HR and Administration staff (this was pre-design-thinking days for us). The output was a seven-page list of guidelines on what flexi-timing means, how someone may opt for it, seek approvals, and the other usual stuff. With every question raised, the document was updated, till it became a 12-page document at the end of a fortnight. It created more confusion than clarity, and the whole idea was scrapped as a result.

The point here is that your solution is only as good as your problem definition. Which in turn, is only as good as your observation and empathising outcomes. A similar activity conducted five years down the line (post-design thinking) resulted in a telecommuting policy. This policy was able to address all the problems identified during the ‘flexi-timing’ phase and solved many other issues proactively.

In the next post, we will explore the rabbit hole a bit further and demystify the Ideation and Deployment phases.


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