The unspoken rule that anchors design thinking

Why am I doing this, who am I designing for?

Design Thinking shouldn’t be perceived as a long and complicated methodology. It all boils down to understanding and empathy. No matter what industry you may be in, whatever product or service you are providing, there is a person at the end of the line using and benefiting from it—understand why and for whom your provision should exist in the first place.


  • Design thinking is just a way of thinking/process/methodology that is suitable for everybody
  • The stages of design thinking include
    1) Empathy and understanding your users: Are you asking the right questions?
    2) Creating solutions from multiple angles that target the problem you found in Step 1
    3) Prototyping and testing multiple versions of your solutions, then improving on them
  • Design thinking, which we may already be doing without knowing, gives structure for us to practise
  • For non-designers, the key takeaway about design thinking is to know the importance of understanding the person at the crux of your situation
  • Regardless of the industry you’re working in, it’s good to just take a step back and say, “Why am I doing this, who am I design for?”
  • Design thinking in sales can be as simple as asking “Do you have 5min to spare?” before sharing a sales pitch; it shows empathy for your customer and truly understanding what that person really needs
  • Increasingly, Design Thinking is more commonly called the Human-Centred Design Process, and design thinking is merely one method to get to a human-centred process
  • Widespread adoption of accurate vocabulary will come slowly with the maturity of information and knowledge, but the simplicity of “Design Thinking” enabled its proliferation in the first place, which still feeds to the eventual goal of a more human-centred design state

Full Transcript

Sometimes it’s just good to be reminded that at the end of the day, whatever you’re doing, be it a service or product, there is someone at the end using it. And why is this thing existing in the first place—it’s the very first part of understanding and empathy.

Is design thinking for everyone?

Yes, I think so. I think design thinking is actually suitable for everybody. It’s just a way of thinking, or a process or methodology that designers use in their day-to-day. But if you break it down into the phases, or the benefits of it, actually it’s very suitable for everybody.

We inevitably have to talk about the stages of design thinking then. There is the part where you have to understand people, create empathy, and through understanding, frame up questions or things that would be beneficial and relevant to them. So that’s the very first phase of the design thinking process, right? To understand and create empathy. We can go a little bit deeper into that, but the basic fundamental is to understand the person or the user, so to speak in a design sense, and subsequently coming up with relevant questions or problems that you should be addressing.

So I think the very first lesson in design has always been: are you asking the right questions? Before you invest the time into solving a problem, are you actually asking the right problem? And that initial phase of empathy and understanding will help to define the right problem.

And then the second stage is actually the creative stage where you start coming up with solutions. And why I think it’s very relevant to everybody is because number one, you need to understand, let’s say even in planning a travel trip for your parents, for example, or planning an activity for your kid, or planning something for yourself, you need to understand the user. It could be your parents as the user, the kid as the user, or yourself as an end user. So when that happens, you can understand what they need at that time, so it’s contextualised, it’s relevant. With that, then you ask the right questions like, okay, should I then go for a cruise because they don’t maybe like to walk too much, or they like to have it contained and it’s easy for my parents, for example? Or should I engage in more hands-on activities for my kid, because he’s at a stage now where he needs to maybe explore a little bit more about his psychomotor skills and activity-based learning? So that kind of understanding and questioning forms up the basis of the framework to find solutions. That’s when you start looking for the right cruise, the kind of cruise that will fit them, but you know you’re looking for something like a cruise, right? And for the kid, you know you’re looking for some sort of hands-on activity. Then you start problem-solving, coming up creative solutions, like should I use materials at home? Or should I start buying from Carousell or buying online? So that goes into the next stage of creativity.

And I think the design thinking process is to help you come up with a lot of solutions from multiple angles based on the question and framing.

Then that naturally goes into the next stage where you start prototyping and then testing and improving. So in this case, let’s say the travel example, you could prototype it by just showing your parents the itinerary or the website of the cruise ship or the activities that happen on a cruise ship. And you could test it with different multiple versions. You could go with this particular cruise provider, or go with another and say, maybe you don’t like cruise… So that’s where your parents might feedback and say, “Actually we’ve been to cruise last year, can we try something different?” So okay, let’s go for a staycation or let’s go for Club Med, whatever. And then you start prototyping again, collecting the information, coming up with the solution, the package, and then trying to show it to your parents and say, “How about this, is this good? Is this timing good?” And you get feedback, and you iterate and improve on it. So similarly for the kid as well, you could just try out a little activity at home and see if he’s responding well. And if it does well, you could go a little bit deeper into developing a solution, like for example, engaging him in a longer time-frame activity or making a routine. So you do prototype, and you test and you kind of gauge the feedback, and that’s essentially the whole design thinking process.

It sounds like it is something that maybe people do a bit of in their everyday life, but they may not actually see in through the lens of a design thinking process as explicitly labelled. So I was wondering whether for people who… maybe the examples that you mentioned, could you share how they can think of it in the design thinking way or see that design thinking process a bit clearer, and how it might help them?

For non-designers or?

Yeah non-designers.


Yeah, I mean, like you mentioned, it’s actually a very natural thing we do. But putting it into a framework and process just helps to kind of structure it so that you can train to do it if you’re not familiar with it, or you don’t practice it often, or you don’t even know you’re practising it.

So sometimes to designers, the term “design thinking” seems rather obvious, right? Like hey, I’ve been doing it in my own practice. But that’s because of the nature of the work that designers engage in, they need to understand, create, test, and before they eventually roll out, and improve on it and rollout.

So for non-designers, I think it’s just a matter of understanding the fundamental mindset behind it.

You don’t really need tools, you don’t really need very sophisticated things. It’s really just about understanding who the person is, and it could be yourself. So sometimes that framework, or that process can be applied on yourself.

Like okay, which school should I go to, then you need to understand yourself a little bit, what you’re interested in, blah blah blah, then you go through the process of coming up with different solutions, like studying overseas, part-time, full-time… Coming up with different solutions and you could test it as well, half working half studying, you could test it out as well.

So I think it’s just embracing that mindset of understanding the end user, and then subsequently coming up with multiple variations of solutions, and then testing a few of the more potential or the ones that resonate a little bit more. So testing the ideas out by prototyping or making a little bit more concrete, and then just improving based on the test. So that’s as simple as I think it is for design thinking.

Can you give two different scenarios where design thinking can play a part in maybe two very different disciplines, just to give a contrast?

I think in terms of product development, let’s say from an engineering perspective… Or rather, if you look for extremes, or different value chain of the whole service or product, rollout or development phase, I think the ones that will benefit a lot from design thinking will be areas where you don’t directly work with the end consumers. So that’s where you’re kind of siloed, or you might be overtime, because of the nature of work, be separated from the end user. So having a refresh of design thinking, using it as a process to even noting down: okay I’m building this feature (like the waterfall kind of process in app development), I’m building this thing that is trickled down here, a lot of different work streams, I need to do this, I need to do that.

But at the end of the day, I think it’s good to just take a step back and say, “Why am I doing this, who am I designing for?” And that’s the very first step of design thinking, it’s to understand and have empathy for the end user.

And you might not get access to the end user, but it might be just good to clarify with your different departments or your team. If it is a mixed discipline team, you could say, “Hey why are we doing this in the first place? Can I understand the motivation and nature of the feature so I could then programme it or code it in a way that it fits as well?” So that becomes a very healthy discussion, and you always make sure whatever you’re doing is beneficial to the eventual user.

Because it’s called design thinking, but actually, it’s a very fundamental and normal thing that we do, sometimes along the way as we silo ourselves into industries and practices, you kind of forget… A doctor or a lawyer, they practice different ways of design thinking. They need to understand their client, they need to understand their patient. And sometimes it’s just good to be reminded that at the end of the day, whatever you’re doing, be it a service or a product, there is someone at the end using it. Even if you’re building a robot, there is someone at the end using it or benefiting from it. And why is this thing existing in the first place—it’s the very first part of understanding and empathy.

I mean, naturally, there are business considerations like productivity, technological advances, political advantage, strategic reasons that this product might exist. But at the end of the day, there is going to be an end user, and it depends on where you want to place the end user role. The end user could be the board members of the company because they will benefit strategically from this and how would they do it? And you could then package that solution or strategy or product to fit that end user’s motivations and goals. The end users could be eventually people who actually use the product, that’s typically for a lot of product design, the end users are the people using the product.

So you could have multiple users of a solution, or multiple stakeholders, they would call it. And so I think that’s if you really expand the design thinking framework, you’re not only looking at the eventual eventual user.

That’s only if you come from a value-driven perspective that whatever I want to create, in terms of service or product, has to be valuable to people. That’s from a very value, people-centric perspective. But you could also be a stakeholder-centric perspective, because design thinking, the broad term of it, is human-centred. A human can be a business stakeholder, it can be a political stakeholder, it can be a social stakeholder, it could be the user stakeholder, so to speak. So there’s multiple different stakeholders as well, could be an operator as a stakeholder.

So just now you were mentioning that example was from a product development standpoint. Is there another maybe contrasting example?

Hmm sales? The service standpoint would be… Yeah, it’s quite funny. I was just walking towards the meeting room here, and a person is asking for a survey, it’s a door-to-door cold call survey. And, I mean, we’ve never met before, and he’s at the door. And when I opened the door just now, immediately it was a bullet of things coming out from him, “We’re doing this survey for [this party], and if you scan it here, you can do the survey, and I’ll come back and give you a voucher later on.” And this is… I mean, it’s a service, right? I mean, it’s a door-to-door service. And as an end user, what I’m getting is: I’m not being understood at all. Right from the start, regardless if he’s trying to sell something or giving a service or experience, I’m not being understood at all. The person is coming out from an office, and the first thing he didn’t ask was, or maybe you should have been asked was, do you have five minutes? You look like you’re rushing somewhere, but do you have five minutes? [To let me know] how long the survey is gonna take, and how much time I need from you, if not can I come back another time? This would come from a very user-centric perspective, where you understand the person.

So very good examples of sales and service people is, whenever you enter a shop, they would always try to understand what you need first. In a way, maybe it’s also understanding that people who go into the shop might not want to be disturbed immediately, so they will sometimes observe first. So you can see different methods of working. That solutioning, deciding to say I approach you this way, or I wait five minutes before I approach you, I call you up first, or when I meet you, I actually state my purpose, or how long I’m going to need from you, is a different solutioning. But that coming up with understanding that someone might have different needs, and everybody is different, is actually quite human-centred. So going to a shop, I appreciate salespersons who observe and see if this person likes to browse first, or is looking around for an answer, and then approaches you.

So he’s very human-centred, person-centred right, he’s looking at you and seeing, “What do you really need and therefore I provide different forms of solutioning.” Rather than “I have a template, I’m going to come up to you, and this is what I’m going to sell you and this is my speech.” Then that’s very sales-centred, or very process-centred, it’s not human-centred.

So that’s another example where design thinking can really help. You don’t need to go through the complex methodology, but you just sit down and say, “What does that person really need?” And maybe observe a little bit, that would be really helpful.

Just now what you mentioned actually reminded me of this Grab ride that I was having just yesterday. So I was on the way to NUH and the Grab driver, after I ordered the Grab, he called saying he saw that I was on the way to the hospital, maybe you want to cancel the order because there was a jam on the way to the hospital. So I thought that was quite nice. It’s not just telling the end user the benefits you’re trying to bring him, it’s empathising with the person of what that person actually needs. So maybe the person actually doesn’t have time to listen to you then just don’t force it in that sense.

Yeah, that’s why I think it’s beneficial overall, because after he’d explained to me for like, five minutes or so, I had to say, “I’m sorry, I was rushing for a meeting.” Because I asked him how long it takes, and he said 20 minutes, so I said, “I’m rushing for a meeting, and you can try some of my other colleagues,” which if he had asked me right from the start, “Do you have 20 minutes,” I would have said, “I’m sorry, I don’t have but maybe my colleagues have.”

It would have saved him five minutes of his time. And if every door that he knocks, it saves him five minutes, I think overall, he would have less frustration from people, but at the same time, he would also have gotten a better process for himself.

So I think generally, just being able to always try to empathise… and I didn’t want to be too rushed with him as well, because I know he’s doing door-to-door, which is quite tough. If you apply design thinking on his side, if he applied design thinking and you applied design thinking, and even if I don’t say design thinking, but empathy, then I think the process of either the service or the product, or just generally interaction, would have been better. It would be always better, I think.

Okay, so one thing I was thinking of as you’re talking about that, it’s like, is maybe even the term “design thinking” very human-centred? Because sometimes I feel like, “Aiyo, what is this methodology that I need to follow?” And it feels like, oh design thinking is this silver bullet to solve whatever problems that I have. If you were to rephrase “design thinking” to be maybe even more understandable by people, how would you know that?


I think the more accurate, which is now becoming more commonly used, is the human-centred design process, or the human-centred innovation process, or the human-centred creation process. I think because when you use the word “human-centred”, it embodies a little bit more of the value and the motivation behind it. And you can see design thinking as only a method, or one process or one framework, to get to a sense of human-centred process. And I think that’s important.

For example, when we did a project with the nursing home, it was people-centred care, right? So it was anchored then by the value that it’s people-centred, or person-centred care, so it was anchored by that person. But there are multiple ways to get to a person-centred care, there’re multiple frameworks, multiple measurements, multiple methodology, right? But that person-centred care example, that value is person-centric, and “person” means one, so it’s kind of nice to know that it’s an individual person-centric model of care. So when you look at design thinking, sometimes engineers would say, “I don’t need design thinking, I’m practising engineering, right?” Or finance, “I’m doing finance, why would I do design?” But if you use it as a value-driven thing, like it’s human-centred, it’s about people, then it applies anywhere, everywhere.

But I would think that it’s the maturity of information and knowledge also, or rather, the widespread adoption of vocabulary. So when you first roll out something new, you need a simpler anchor that says, okay what is the four steps that I need to do? Or what is the three things I need to do to get there, when you want to first roll out.

And that’s why I think design thinking coined by, or popularised rather by, IDEO is great, because then everybody suddenly has a very fixed way to do it. Of course, along the way you get backlash from designers who say that we are kind of underselling or repackaging things in a too simplified manner. But I think it’s simplified enough so that majority of non-designers can pick that up, and then practise it, and then subsequently move up the value communication that this is not just about design, it is actually human-centred. If you start off with human-centred, people might get a little bit lost, right? “Well what do you mean human-centred? Isn’t everything human-centred? So what do I do about human-centred? Isn’t my legal practices human-centred?” So we get a lot of debate and misalignment.

But when you do a very simple framework… so we always say, it’s quick wins, small steps, right? It gets you towards the bigger goal of human-centred design.

So I guess, design thinking for me, might not have been a very accurate way to define design, but it was an instrumental method and communication to get us towards a more human-centred design state or process. And that’s why I think a lot of times you see even in briefs or tenders, they start writing “human-centred”. It doesn’t need to be a user journey anymore, it doesn’t need to be design thinking. Although you’ll still see it as a deliverable, because that’s how they understood the methodology of getting there, or rather, a tried and proven way that if you can do a user journey, most likely I will get to a rather human-centred outcome because I do a user journey, or if I do apply design thinking procedures so to speak.

Desiree Lim, Kevin Yeo, Matthew Wong


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