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October 18, 2018

Design Thinking: The Scientific Method Applied to Business

Design Thinking and the Scientific Method are two names for the same process: an iterative approach to developing a better understanding of the world which can help us explain, predict and act within it more effectively.

Design Thinking is a widely-celebrated process within the business and design worlds for generating and developing solutions to complex problems. While the term may inspire some eye-rolling amongst those in the business world, its effectiveness cannot be understated.

According to the digital tome of truth — Wikipedia — the term “design thinking” was first coined in the 1960s and probably went mainstream in 2005 when it was integrated into Stanford’s d.school as a formal method. These days, you would be hard-pressed to find a consulting website that doesn’t include design thinking in their arsenal of jargon.

While it seems to be widely known that design thinking is a highly effective method, the reason why doesn’t seem to be common knowledge.

It turns out that while it may sound like a hip new way of solving problems, the process is far older than most of its practitioners would claim, it’s just been known by a different name: The Scientific Method.

The scientific method is largely responsible for the astounding amount of progress we’ve made in the past few centuries. While strikingly simple, the scientific method has enabled us to go from living in a world rife with sickness, superstition and scarcity, to a time where we have standard of living better than anyone in history could even imagine.

Through the application of the scientific method, we’ve eradicated diseases that would otherwise continue to wreak havoc across continents. We’ve accessed the frontier of space, split the atom, and millions upon millions of people can now get fresh, delicious, hygienically made pizza delivered to their front doors with just a few taps on their personal portal to the digital world.

What a time to be alive!

The scientific method has taken us a long way — but how does it work? While terminology may differ depending on who you ask, the steps are more-or-less like this:

  1. Observe
  2. Hypothesise
  3. Experiment
  4. Analyse
  5. Conclude
  6. Repeat

This deceptively simple process allows us to reduce the infinitely, astoundingly complex world to questions that we can answer through experimentation and observation. The data collected from these loops of enquiry is reflective of reality — it encapsulates the known knowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns. We can take this data — this reflection of the world — and use it to construct a model of the world, which we can then use to guide our action within it.

When people think of science, they tend to think of specific categories like biology, physics, chemistry or psychology, white labcoats, and institutions. However, science is not limited to the content you’d read in a textbook. The fact is, any time we try and understand the world as it is, even in the business environment, we’re doing something scientific.

Instead of trying to understand a specific biological mechanism, chemical reactions, or unearth and further understand the structure of reality, design thinking can be viewed as the scientific method applied to problems that are more human related. Those employing ‘design thinking’ might be trying to engineer a better digital buying experience for their customers, or they might be designing a new product or service. The human-centric nature of these problems is why the first step of many design thinking processes is ‘empathise’ — the focus is trying to understand what the wants and needs are of the people whose problems you’re trying solve. Here’s the rest of the design thinking process:

The Design Thinking Process

Again, the steps may differ slightly depending on who you talk to, but fundamentally they’re reflective of the same underlying process:

  1. Gather information relevant to what you’re looking to explore or achieve
  • The needs of the user/customer/beneficiary
  • Practical constraints such as budget and technologies
  • The opportunities and threats of the wider environment that you want to test within (social, political, technological, competitive and economic along with many other perspectives)

2. Define the question you’re looking to answer or the problem you’re trying to solve

3. Come up with ways of solving the problem or trying to answer the question

4. Select a strategy and carry out experiments or whatever is necessary to get that feedback on that specific strategy

5. Critically examine the results

6. Repeat as necessary

This process is iterative; it can be done as many times as is necessary to develop a working solution.

Fundamentally, the scientific method and design thinking are the same process. Regardless of what we might be looking to achieve, whether it be in the traditional categories of science or the business world, the fact that we’re trying to understand and navigate the world more effectively is still the case.

When applying these methods to organisations, we’re using the same methods of inquiry that we use in science, but the tools we can now use are not only more accessible (such as cloud, mobile, social media and big data) but are also remarkably faster. The outcome of combining design thinking and digital technologies is that they allow us to understand the world on a level above the natural limits of our monkey brains.

Data systems are no longer just expanding our long-term memory, like the record-keeping systems of Venetian merchants and 1980s mainframes alike. Rather, they are augmenting our cognition, genuinely helping us to understand the stories and meaning behind data. Those that use these tools to experiment and further understand the world we live in today will thrive. Those that don’t may falter.

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