Design Thinking as a Strategy for Innovation

An old man was sitting at the corner of a busy street  – we’ll call him Williams. Every few minutes, he stops people passing by and asks them what the time is. Most people ignore him; others get disgusted and move on. Very few people stop, tell him the time, and try to start a conversation.

Right across the street is a lady working in a high-rise building – we’ll call her Bella. Seeing how people act towards Williams, she’s driven by sympathy and decides to do something to make life better for him.

The next day, Bella walked up to Williams and gave him a watch. He was so happy, and he asked her to wrap the watch around his wrist. The next statement from Williams shocked Bella. He stretched his hand further and said: “please can you tell me the time on the watch?” This was when Bella discovered that Williams was blind.

In her mind, Williams’ problem was dependence on other people to know what the time is. The solution was straightforward: Get him a watch.

If we reflect deeply on this, did Bella make life easy for Williams? I don’t think so

If we reflect further, perhaps, stopping people to ask for time is the only human interaction this lonely man had all through his day, and this was not a problem he wanted a solution for.

So, what do we learn from this story?

When we solve problems based on our preconceived notions, assumptions, and biases, we create incomplete, inaccurate, and unsustainable solutions.

I know you will agree with the fact that most of us solve problems with that approach. The traditional problem-solving approach has some inherent gaps. Human-centered intuition or Design Thinking is the method of developing solutions for the service of people.

What is Design Thinking?

In 1969, Herbert Simon said “Design can be a way of thinking”, and it is too important to be left to designers alone. It’s a way of thinking that inspires creativity and innovation in providing solutions to problems.

In 1986, Rolf Faste expanded to say that: “Design is a method of creative action.”

If we can put it in one sentence, we can say that Design Thinking is a creative and practical method of solving wicked problems. Let’s break this sentence down into three keywords; “creative”, “practical” and “wicked problems.”

Creative – Using the non-linear and non-standard way of thinking to solve problems

Practical – There is no design thinking if you cannot put it into practice

Wicked Problems – in the beginning, are almost impossible or difficult to solve. Problems that we don’t have data on why it occurred. E.g. Lagos Traffic, decrease in sales, or queues in government offices.

How Does Design Thinking Really Work?

First, you need to ask yourself a few questions, because not all problems can be solved by design thinking.

Is the problem focused on the end-user?

Is it wicked; difficult or impossible to solve?

Does it have a high level of uncertainty or the solution is ambiguous?

Is there a scarcity of data, or we do have data, but don’t know which of them will be relevant?

To answer these questions, we need to break down the stages of design thinking, starting with empathy. To empathize is to share and understand the feelings of someone else. Empathy requires a deep understanding of the users’ pain points by engaging them and discussing their challenges. The next activity is to define the problem, which involves a proper breakdown and analysis of the problem to be solved. After this, gather as many ideas as possible with the aim of 2 -3 ideal solutions. Afterward, these solutions will be developed into prototypes that can be interacted with, then we can move to the final stage, testing. To test the proposed solution, we have one-on-one interviews and review sessions with users within the target audience. Users should be observed while they interact with the prototype and the interviewer/facilitator should take notes on challenges experienced by the user and areas for improvement. Based on the user feedback, the team goes back to the drawing board and applies the 5 stages all over again until a solution that solves the users’ needs is achieved.

Why is empathy important in design thinking?

  • To know what our target group really wants – Don’t assume (For example, If you don’t wear high heels as a man, you can’t solve the problem of why women carry extra slippers everywhere)
  • The problems are rarely ours, we need to intentionally put ourselves in the users’ shoe
  • To remove “filters” from our heads (E.g. If I ask you what you feel about cereals, some will say it’s a valuable breakfast, and some others will say it has too much sugar. The same question about energy drinks, some people will say it’s bad for your health while others will say it is actually good energy if you have a long day)
  • Empathy has also revolutionized into analytics, screen time, etc. that innovators use to make decisions for new products.

Why Define?

At this stage, we define or redefine the problem from the data we got from the market. We present all the information collected on a whiteboard and figure out what our target group really wants, and what’s their pain.

Some years ago, a company called Parker, a manufacturer of Ball pens, had a challenge. Their sales were decreasing, so they hired a consulting company. During the research they discovered that (i) the product cannot be bought in local supermarkets, (ii) when the ink runs out people don’t throw out the pen and buy a new one, and (iii) people feel different using the pen compared to other regular pens. The consultant then gave them feedback and concluded that they are not manufacturing ball pens… they are manufacturing gifts because their target group perceived the product as a perfect gift. After that, they re-invented the whole packaging and repurposed their marketing to present their product as a very good gift, and they positioned themselves in places like gift shops. After which the sales go up.


Once we have defined the problem we are trying to solve for our target group, we search for a broad solution for it. It is often said that, for one problem, you need to have about 50 ideas to find that 1,2, or 3 ideas that can be transported to the prototypes.

Go beyond rational thinking (Ask yourself – How can this problem be solved by a 6-year-old boy, or how can I solve this problem if I have control of all the forces of nature).

When we were young, we had every medium we could think of to represent the world around us (colours, pencils, drawing sheets, etc.). As we get older, the mediums get smaller and smaller until we are left with a pencil and biro. Some people don’t even bother about the pencil anymore. All we are left to do is to solve an equation or write an essay and this has affected how we solve problems. You need to take back your mediums. You don’t have to be good at drawing. In fact, you can take a picture of what you think the problem is and put it on a blank surface. It helps us see patterns, contrast, and consistencies. It helps connect the dots.


This is where the best ideas generated during ideation are turned into a concrete, fully conceived action plan. Turning ideas into actual products and services that are then tested, iterated, and refined.

Through prototyping, the design thinking process seeks to uncover unforeseen implementation challenges and unintended consequences in order to have more reliable long-term success.


  • Present prototype
  • Don’t defend your prototypes 
  • If users don’t understand your prototype, note it down, go back, and see what you can do better
  • Bring in a novice to interact with your product or service.

It is important to note that design thinking is not only about developing a new product, it’s also about improving user experience.

Design thinking is about creating a product or service that your target group will love

Does this really work?

The Embrace Infant Warmer – a solution by Stanford graduates to prevent mortality in local communities. A sleeping bag that can be placed in hot water and accumulate the heat for up to 4 hours. Enough time to transport the infant to the city for a proper incubator.

Jerry the Bear

When do we need design thinking?

Here and now. We need to join the mission to make the world better than we met it. Big brands and other countries are implementing our idea better than us and they are taking the heart of our clients. It should be our common goal to not let them do this.

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