5 How Can “Design Thinking” Help Us?

Trying to decide what to do about your wicked problem can feel overwhelming. Design thinking is a methodology for working on complex problems which can be helpful in our work in “Tackling a Wicked Problem.” Design thinking has a “bias toward action.” This means it is focused on doing things rather than studying things or discussing things. There are five stages in the design thinking process that we move around in non-linearly. We may revisit some of the stages multiple times in our work as we learn more and more about the problem we are trying to solve. The early stages of design thinking emphasize gaining a deep understanding of the problem, and developing empathy with the people affected by that problem to understand their perspectives and needs. In this way, this process is sometimes referred to as human-centered design. The later stages of design thinking focus on action. Design thinking is a process that allows teams or individuals to try out numerous solutions to a problem (to “experiment rapidly” or “prototype”) to  meet the needs of the client or group.  Related to this idea is the importance of failing often, but failing quickly and cheaply so that you can find a solution that works. David Kelley explains in his TED Talk on creative confidence that “a series of small successes turns fear into familiarity.”

The first stage of design thinking is about empathy. We need to know the people involved in the problem, especially the “end-users,” those most affected by the problem. These people are called “stake holders” because they have a stake in any solutions we might come up with related to our problem. We need to know about their needs and the contexts in which they live. We need to put ourselves, as much as possible, in their shoes to think about what would be helpful. We can read stories about the lives of stake holders. We can invite stake holders into conversation with us. We might even design solutions in partnership with various stake holders. The idea is that we are not going to design solutions without understanding as much as we can about the perspectives of the stake holders.

The second stage of design thinking involves defining the problem as one whose solution will satisfy a human-centered need. Notice that this definition of the problem has moved from the larger, complex problem that we are trying to work on to a smaller, more focused problem that expresses the needs of a particular group of people. We are not going to be able to “solve” the wicked problem for all of the reasons explained earlier in this OER. We are trying to make a difference in the problem and so that involves restating the wicked problem into something we can actually do something about. For example, if we are working on the wicked problem of fake news, we might decide that we would like college students at PSU to be armed with the tools that they need to recognize fake news when they see it. This won’t solve the larger problem of fake news. It will continue to be created. Some people will continue to believe it. But we might be able to make a difference so that a particular population no longer believes it.

The third stage of design thinking is about ideation, where the designers (in this case, you, the students in “Tackling a Wicked Problem”) generate many ideas about how to satisfy the need identified in the definition stage. You brainstorm about projects you might engage in that will make a difference in the world related to the wicked problem. In the example of fake news, you might work on the Digital Polarization Initiative, which is a web site that debunks fake news claims, by adding your own research about claims and advertising its availability to students on campus. You might create an OER about recognizing fake news and advocate for its use in all Composition classes at PSU. You might host a movie night on campus to show and discuss the documentary “Nothing But Lies: Fighting Fake News.” You might come up with many, many more ideas about what you could do to help PSU students recognize fake news. Again, none of these ideas will solve the problem of fake news but each has an impact on the problem for PSU students.

The fourth stage is to build small-scale prototypes where particular aspects of the solution to the problem are chosen for implementation. This is an experimental stage where the goal is to identify the best solution to the needs with the constraints identified in the other stages. In this stage, you would implement one or more of the ideas that you had in the ideation stage. So might research a couple of fake news claims and publish your research on the Digital Polarization web site. You might write a chapter of the fake news OER and share it with your Composition instructor. And so on. The idea is that you implement some part of your project and share it with people.

The fifth stage involves testing the prototypes and often involves the development of more insights into the problem that can then be iteratively incorporated into redefining the problem or into new ideation and prototyping stages. This is where you get feedback about your prototype. You might share your Digital Polarization research with Student Senate and ask them for feedback. You might ask your Composition instructor whether she would use your fake news OER in her future classes and why or why not. The feedback that you receive will help you determine your next steps. Perhaps you misunderstood the needs of your stake holders and so you should revisit the empathy building stage. Or maybe you defined a problem that doesn’t actually need to be solved so you revisit the problem definition stage. Or you may need to ideate more possible solutions. Or maybe you need a different or revised prototype of your solution idea. The point is that design thinking is a non-linear process where each stage may lead to paths forward or backward to any other stage in the process.

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Tackling Wicked Problems by Cathie LeBlanc is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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