Design Thinking

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In Project / Program / Portfolio Management it is crucial to come up with ideas for the best solution for the problem at hand. For an optimal outcome, this solution should consider all the relevant aspects. This article will be an introduction to design thinking, which is a method that helps individuals and groups to efficiently develop with a solution that considers all relevant aspects. The process is interactive and based on feedback from the target group to ensure a result that will meet the client's needs. In project management, this can be used for planning the project optimally, in program management it can, for example, be used to optimise the running program and in portfolio management for e.g. optimised goal definition. This method will be introduced by its development and relevance, followed by a comprehensive guide on its application and illustrative examples.

Development and Relevance of the Method

As Stefan Link describes in his Article [1], historicaly, Project management used the waterfall method. In that, a project is decided upon and planning only dedicated to the running of the project, not the design of the goals. With the advance of computarization and mechanazation, projects were starting to get reviewed and steadily improved. The philosophy was an imporovement of and building on the waterfall method, in that it still started out with a set goal but then tried to match it better to real life. Nowadays, with a society and industry which is highly computarized and mobile, a different approach has shown great success: Design Thinking. In Design Thinking, a segnificant planning effort is put into optimizing the project right from the beginning to all stakeholders needs. This fits our modern society perfectly, as with modern media everyone wants to be in the center of attention and expects a tailored experience - which design thinking is able to supply.

The PMI recognizes the relevance of design thinking too. In their Conference Paper[2], Turner & Croy write that many of the products we are surrounded by today "would not have been introduced without the process of design thinking". Historically, as mentioned above, Project Management was carried out without design - a momentous example is the Maginot Line, which was very successfull as a project to arm the french-german border section - but had some, in hindsight, rather obvious design flaws. On the other hand, throughout history, there were great designers like Leonardo DaVinci, who could have initiated great changes, but did not realise their inventions. So both project leadership without design and design without project leadership do not lead to successfull outcomes - their combination, however, does.

So when some designers merged there companies to form the design- and innovation agency IDEO, their different approach to design was the secret to their success. Fist called 'interaction design', design thinking became popularized fast. IDEO who have also been offering Seminars on the topic since their foundation in 1991. The design teams within IDEO are teams of inventors from diverse backgrounds, who take up design projects from various kinds of industries; they research the goal or given problem, apply the method of design thinking - as described below - and develop an effective and on-the-point solution. The computer mouse we use today is one of their many successful inventions. [3]

Nowadays, Design Thinking is taught in numerous university courses as part of the management and communication curriculum. Also, there are many companies who attribute their success to this method, like for example Airbnb, who after a reevaluation and redesign project hit the market big, after being just a small company, as the Project leader of their revival states in an interview [4].

Design Thinking is such a successful method because it is both easy to apply without much extra effort to the normal development process and is sure to yield at least helpful insights and at best a perfectly fitted solution. By keeping close contact to the target group and seeking feedback during the development process, it ensures that the solution will be well fitted to the problem and reduces the risk associated with launching new ideas, product lines and conducting novel projects. Applying design thinking also helps organisations learn faster, as solutions are innovative and change does not just happen in incremental steps. In Project management, this would be, for example, that means the project time can be cut shorter and in program management success can be achieved faster, as the optimal solutions will be found in one process instead of steady change and improvement.

As the method of design thinking includes as its first step the focus on the consumer/ target group, it ensures that the people who are actually affected are considered and their mindsets captured, to their needs can be catered for optimally. It makes it also possible to paint a realistic picture of the opportunities and possibilities based on thes people. [5]

The Method

The Process of design thinking is usually described as having five steps. Here, both a description of the steps and possible questions for inspiration in each step are given to ease the application of the method. This desciption shall be more generaly, to be applicable to more situations; while the examples below will illustrate further, how Design Thinking can be applied in Project / Program / Portfolio Management

Design thinking can both be applied by a single person like a project manager, or by a team of people. For optimal creativeness and a well-rounded solution, a team is composed of people with various backgrounds, as they will be able to provide input from different viewpoints and will be able to contribute more aspects to the solution.

1. Empathise

The first step is to empathize with the target group. This means communicating with as many and as diverse as possible individuals from the target group / stakeholders and noting down their perception of the current situation, that is to be improved upon. It is important to note down all aspects of their comments in this phase and keep an open mind - and not only to set Xses on a short form, so that a holistic impression of the situation can be reached. If working in a group, the members should investigate individually to be able to contribute their individual impressions, which will further broaden the gathered information scope.

This will make the outcome actually cater to the target groups needs and not only to those that you decided to put on the form. If applicable, taking pictures might also help the further process.

Possible Questions:

  • Which issues does the user experience with the product?
  • In which situations do those issues arise?
  • How does the user feel about the product? What are his/ her general thoughts about it?
  • What functionality does the user wish for?
  • Which situations is the product most used in/for?

2. Define

Next, the Data from the first step is analysed and the common issues are defined. If working in a group setting, a project wall would be recommendable, on which all impressions can be pinned on post-its and then be clustered as a mind-map to best represent all the issues in correlation with their importance and appearance frequency. From this overview, a project definition should be concieved, that states all the central issues that need to be adressed.

These conclusions of central issues should then, if possible, be validated by discussing them with the stakeholders. If they feel that not all issues were met or that the design group misinterpreted or misweighed some points, the reason for these needs to be investigated and if necessary, the first and second step will be executed again, taking care to examine a wider scope, improve the communication with the target group or rectify whatever reason led to the problems in the first attempt. It is highly important to get this definition right, as all further development will be based on this conclusion of central issues. As one of the main points in design thinking is it's optimizing ability due to it's focus on the target group, it is absolutely crutial to get a correct impression of the target groups needs, requests, abilities and whatever aspects are relevant to the project.

Possible Questions:

  • Which issues were most commonly named?
  • Which situations did those commonly arise in?
  • Are there any situations the product was not designed for but is commonly used in?
  • Have the users expressed a common need for a specific functionality?

3. Generate Ideas

Based on the Issues found in step 2, Ideas are developed and then discussed.

First, creativity should be left to roam freely and the more diverse the first ideas are, the better the outcome will be. It is best, to not focus on one specific idea at first and try to adapt that to all issues, but rather come up with several different solutions and solutions for some details, that might each not be sufficient to solve all problems, but will bring new aspects into consideration.

If working alone, it is best to start fresh in the morning, not right after having focussed on the issues in step two, but with a fresh mind, to come up with creative ideas. If a mind map was made, these could then be pinned to the issues they correlate best with; only after this, a solution to combine all aspects optimaly will be sought.

For a group, the same is recomended. Every member should brainstorm ideas towards any of the issues and either pin them to the issues mind map - or a new mind map could be made, to get an overview over all the ideas generated within the group. This brainstorming should be done individually and only after enough time has been given for everyone to think about all the aspects, should the group discuss the ideas brought forth. Focussing on the idea clusters produces through the issue-mind-map, everyone will present their ideas and the group will discuss the pros and cons and decide on some prefered solution. These are then brought together and an overall solution will be developed.

Possible Questions:

  • How can user issues be addressed?
  • How can the product be optimized for the most common usage situations?
  • How can the functionalities desired by the users be met?
  • Can the product be optimized to be applicable to more situations?
  • Which other solutions to the issues have been found?
  • Are there other radically different solutions we can come up with? Can they be combined?

4. Prototype

To validate the idea, a prototype is produced. In Product development, this would be an actual physical prototype, in project management, this would rather be the outline for the project plan - basically the first issue of the finished product is produced, whether it be a physical product, plan or program. The purpose of this is to be able to test and get reactions for the object, before putting to great an effort into finishing it.

Possible Questions:

  • Which materials/ medium would be optimal?
  • Which detail does the prototype need to incorporate to give a correct impression to the testers?
  • Which aspects identify and define it in the eyes of the user, so that he wil get a correct impression?

5. Test

The last step in the design thinking process, before the actual finishing of the product starts, is the testing of the prototype. Depending on the situations, a selected group of the target group is presented with the prototype/ draft and their opinion asked. It is most important to not defend the product/ draft but to instead keep an open ear to all comments and questions the users have. If there are any issues like the user not understanding some functionality, meaning or process, this should not be seen as the testers inability but as an issue that needs to be fixed and a new prototype produced.

It is important to stay self-critical in this step and be open to all suggestions, as even though in step two the issues might have been understood correctly, the solution the person or team came up with might not be completely in the user's interest or some previously overlooked aspects might come up.

Possible Questions:

  • How do the users feel about the new product?
  • Is it applicable to all necessary situations?
  • Do they have any suggestions?
  • How accessible was the product to the users, did they need help or explanations? – revise those issues!


To better illustrate how the Method can be applied in Project, Program and Portfolio Management, some examples shall be given:

Project Management

Setting: Two make up companies merge and a project team is set up to improve customer perception of the new brand to help its launch, which is trying targeting a young audience.


  1. The team will both research the current perception of the two brands (who buys it, why do they choose it, which articles sell better than others within the brands range?) and their products as hold meetings with the new board to properly understand the goals of the newly merged company and how they wish to be perceived (here: attractive to young people)
  2. The team discusses the input and defines project goals, e.g. offering low price products with a wide range of colours, focus on nail polish vs. offering a wide range of products as before, marketing campaign focussing on young people in a party environment. This is brought for review to the companies board, to check whether that really is the part of the market the brand is going for.
  3. Next, the idea is further developed, the new product range defined, details worked out and a marketing campaign drawn up. Details include eg a new creative naming scheme for the colours to distinguish from other brands. These Ideas are and then brought through polls on online platforms or questioning in shops to the customer to check their response - is the target audience of young girls attracted to party pictures? Are they interested in a new brand of nail polish with fun colour names?
  4. If the last points have met approvement, prototypes are produced and introduced to a selected tester group from the target audience. Did they like the product? Do they agree with the colour naming? Do they eg like the idea of producing bottles in fruit shapes matching the colour or does that maybe make the nail polish more difficult to use? Although, it might be a buying argument and therefore be still worth the extra production cost?
  5. Produce the actual product, conduct photo shoots and launch the marketing campaign.

How Design Thinking improved the process:

Through the application of the design thinking method, the product was tailored to the customer from the beginning on. As in this case, the target audience is quite different and has different goals and preferences than the companies board, it was important that the project managers considered both sides and included their opinions in the design process, to fulfil their own goal of a successful launch of the new brand.

Program Management

Setting: A car company wishes to improve the user media interface for the new edition of an already quite successfully running car line. The Management team look into the optimization.


  1. Two sources of information are considered for the customers side: A poll is sent out to costumers who bought the current model of the car a minimum of 4 months ago and are asked about their user experience. In parallel, product testers who have never used this car are invited to use it and report on their experience. Main issues for the experienced user turn out to be finding certain favourite songs within the onboard music system, which is sorted by album and artist in the current model. The inexperienced users found a problem in having to spend time transferring their music to the cars memory and often did not own the music they use to listen to on streaming services, so had to resort to the radio.
  2. The team invites a young, tech-savvy engineer from the construction team to join the development team and they discuss the issue. Different options like a voice search for songs and the option of creating playlists are explored. When consulting with representatives from the product testers, it becomes obvious, that many people don't know the exact name of many songs and prefer online suggestions of similar songs to a topic, so a voice search would be redundant. A new brainstorming results in the idea to include an internet connection in the car, enabling the user to directly play music from their streaming provider like Spotify.
  3. The engineers in the team look into possibilities of how to implement this idea. Will the current media interface OS be able to integrate the streaming apps or is a new one needed? What other services would the internet connection enable, like a read-aloud function for emails? What screen is needed to service the new capabilities of the system?
  4. A prototype is build and added into an existing model car, to which product testers are again invited and their reactions documentet. How can the new OS be optimized? How can road safety be ensured with the new tech features not distracting the drivers too much? All these information lead to reflections on the prototype, its improvements, new tests, maybe new improvmetents.
  5. The new car design is handed over to the production team and a marketing campaign is drawn up, highlighting the revolutionary improvement of the new model that now includes internet and a greatly expanded media capabilites compared to the old model.


  1. Article describing the history of project management and how Design Thinking is a logical development of our modern times
  2. A PMI conference paper describing the relevance of design thinking with examples for the applicability of each of the steps
  3. The description of Design Thinking by the company who invented it
  4. An interview with AirBnB on how they benefited from the Design Thinking Method
  5. IDEO, who invented Design Thinking, describe its application
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