Unpacking Design Thinking:  Define

Unpacking Design Thinking: Define

Have you ever thought you defined a problem or solved a challenge by implementing your “pet idea” — an elegant product, groundbreaking system or awesome experience?

No doubt, the solution itself was probably fantastic, but did it actually address the real individual or organizational needs of the people for whom it was designed?  In retrospect, did they actually use it? Discarded products (remember Windows VISTA) and failed reforms (New Orleans all-charter system that heightened educational inequality) litter the landscape of pet ideas leading to “great” solutions.

Design Thinking , a human centered design process using rapid prototyping to solve complex problems, views each challenge through the eyes of the actual users before designing a solution.  Design thinking has five “spaces” — empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. define hexagon

To better understand the overall process, we have unpacked design thinking with a focus on each of its five spaces. The foundation of design thinking is empathy. The empathy space focuses on understanding the needs of the users through observing people, engaging them, asking questions and collecting information.

The empathy process produces lots and lots of ideas that demand reflection and synthesis, which are often documented by jotting down thoughts on post-its, building mind maps or drawing pictures.  Reflection and synthesis are crucial steps necessary to define the right question or challenge.

Framing the right problem is the only way to create the right solution.

Defining the question or challenge based on a thorough understanding often alters or changes the question to be answered or the problem to be solved. My own personal experience at the Madre Admirable School in Lima, Peru illustrates how the perceived problem and solution had to be redefined after I actually observed and listened to teachers and students.

Defining, or redefining, a problem consolidates insights and patterns based on the needs of the users into a specific “actionable problem statement.” This statement is the first iteration of the problem or challenge through a specific point-of-view (POV).  According to experts at Stanford’s design school, to define a problem is to devise a baseline that provides focus, frames the problem and

  • inspires and empowers you (and/or your team)
  • informs criteria for evaluating competing ideas
  • saves you from developing concepts that may be too broad to be actionable.

Once you define an actionable problems statement, let the design challenge begin! The next space to discuss will be the idea stage — wild, darling and practical ideas.


Ideate will be the next design space


Karen Collias

My name is Karen Collias and I founded Knowledge Without Borders™ to infuse creativity and innovation into the most salient educational issues affecting global contemporary society. I attribute my enthusiasm to cross the borders of traditional knowledge domains to the multi-disciplinary nature of my education and professional experience. The first in my family to go to college, I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University. My professional experience focuses on interdisciplinary research, teaching, and strategic thinking at a variety of institutions, including Princeton University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Department of State. I currently live in Shanghai, crossing borders and exploring cultures in Asia.



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