Design thinking led innovation

Design thinking - solving problems through innovation

Designers have been doing ‘design thinking’ for decades. More recently, more and more leading companies have embraced the power of design and ‘design thinking’ to help provide solutions to problems all over the world. In this article, we’ll look at what design thinking is, how it can help you innovate and why it’s just the start of the process.

In this age of digital disruption, as the pace of change accelerates, brands must increasingly respond and innovate. To do this successfully, brands and businesses must first place people at the centre of everything they do. Innovation is a word that is sometimes overused, but we believe it means taking a fresh idea, doing something that adds value and implementing the idea. At ribot, we think the most important part of ‘design thinking’ is empathising with others. Our designers make an effort to understand people, why and how they do things and what is meaningful to them.  At ribot, we start with humans, listen to and observe their experiences.

Design thinking for a competitive edge

Designers can build an emotional connection through the solutions they build, keeping the voice of the user they are designing in their thoughts throughout a project. Doing this can affect how a user feels about a product/service or solution.

The likes of Apple, Google, Nike, Tesla and Netflix have good design at the base of their foundation and it can translate to a big competitive advantage. Stanford University believes ‘design thinking’ is accessible by all organisations. At ribot, we believe that anyone can take on the mindset of a designer if they are willing to understand and share the feelings of another.

Design Thinking can help you innovate, by solving problems and creating solutions for people. As technology advances, the need to understand users becomes more important. Design thinkers continue to help businesses rethink and explore how we solve problems and create better experiences.

89% of companies surveyed by Gartner expected customer experience to be their primary basis for competitive advantage in 2016.

So what is design thinking?

Design thinking is an iterative process used to form a hypothesis to test new thoughts, ideas and creations. It’s a methodology used by designers and others to solve complex problems and it’s focussed on solutions. Design thinking builds ideas up from customer insights gained by observing, engaging and listening. Implementing solutions and gaining feedback.

The basics?

Define the problem, identify patterns and research for a solution, ideate, create one or more prototypes, learn from them and iterate. Roll out and learn from it.

It sounds simple, but there are there are some complex psychological processes and methods that form part of true design thinking. The more complex explanation of the stages in the process are explained in great detail by Jon Kolko.

As technology advances and data becomes more complex, filtering data also becomes more complex and you need to make sense of all that data. The aim of ‘design thinking’ is to explore information in different ways in order to formulate, iterate and push forward the best solutions.

It’s rooted in abductive reasoning. Abductive reasoning is very different than deductive reasoning, often used in maths, where you use facts, rules and properties to reach a conclusion. When using ‘abductive reasoning’ you make ‘inferences’ based on the observations you have made and the knowledge you have. This will be an incomplete set of information. You use ‘abductive reasoning’ in order to create solutions to prototype. Designers gather lots of information and constraints. During the design thinking process, they will explore solutions rapidly using sketching to connect the dots in different ways. This helps you find the best solutions quickly.

The practice allows you to test quickly and with a tolerance for failure. It’s ok not to get things right the first time. Design thinkers do this by communicating concepts and ideas through models, sketches and stories. The tools they use are an important part of the design thinking process. The ideas created in design sprints are often voted on by a diverse group of stakeholders and tested with real customers.

“Leaders need to create a culture that allows people to take chances and move forward without a complete, logical understanding of a problem.”  Jon Kolko

What are the stages of design thinking?

Stage 1 - Empathy

empathize, gather data & define

An important part of the design thinking process is empathy and understanding your user. Usually, a large volume of data is collected when trying to observe and understand users. This could include stakeholder interviews, market research, observation, cultural trends, videos, photographs and forecasting. Most importantly, you should try and experience what your end user experiences and walk a mile in their shoes. Listen to the end user and lean, when you listen well you can create a better solution.

Stage 2 - Reframe

In this phase of design thinking, the focus is on becoming aware of user needs and creating insights. If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at begin to change. You can define if you the challenge you are solving by adding new insights. During this phase design thinkers synthesize and select a limited set of needs they think are important. They define the problem.

Synthesis, sensemaking and abductive thinking

Synthesis is the process of making meaning of this and creating connections between seemingly unrelated data sets. During synthesis, a designer will aim to organize, manipulate and filter gathered data into a structure for information building. The designer must decide which one piece of data is more important than another and what is most significant. Synthesis can be a collaborative, external process. Once a designer shares their thoughts and ideas they become something that can be discussed and become part of a larger collaborative process of synthesis. During this process, a designer may ‘reframe’ the problem several times. They will create a visual representation of the data.

They use abductive thinking to come to the best explanation. They will create a hypothesis that makes the most sense, given both the behaviour that has been observed and based on their previous experience. The aim is to find relationships and themes in the data that uncover meaning in the behaviour observed. Synthesis methods are the ways in which ethnographic insights lead to new, innovative ideas.

Sensemaking is a conscious effort by the designer to integrate experiences into their understanding of the world around them. Sensemaking is an internal, personal process. The designer looks to understand connections among people, places and events in order to anticipate what they will do in the future.

Stage 3 - Ideate

In this stage you will brainstorm a rapid amount of ideas - these can be wild and crazy as all judgement is suspended during this process. The best ideas come from the needs of the end user.


Brainstorming together as a collaborative group and surrounding yourself with inspiring materials can allow the team to reach new ideas. You may look to other industries to see how other problems have already been successfully solved to draw inspiration. Other tools, as well as brainstorming, may be used in the ideation process. During this process several ideas will be created, sketched and roughly storyboarded in order that one or more solutions can be chosen to prototype and test.

Visual Representation

Designers may follow a user-centred discovery process to immerse themselves in a particular subject or discipline and then go “incubate” the material. After a period of reflection, they will produce a tangible, visual representation of the reflection. A good designer can communicate a complex problem in easy to understand visual formats. They may use methods such as concept mapping or insight combination to create these visuals.

Stage 4 - Prototyping

Designers will collaborate with key stakeholders and choose one or more ideas to prototype and build. The aim is to show users what the idea does, not tell. Design thinking needs to have some ‘doing’ attached to it. Prototyping ideas, testing and iterating to improve those is an essential part of the process. Creating prototypes allows you to create a low fidelity version of designs quickly and easily.

Stage 5 - Testing

You can then test designs quickly and easily and get instant feedback from users on whether to take an idea forward and how it needs to change. The process saves time and budget in the product and service design process. There are various ways to choose the best solutions and to pretotype or prototype. That’s a whole new post!

Examples of Great Design Thinking

There are many design thinking examples from the likes of AirBNB, Nike, Apple, Netflix and Google. All organisations who are now famous for placing design at the heart of their businesses. Here we introduce some less well known design thinking success stories from businesses that have adopted design thinking techniques.

Mayo Clinic

The Mayo Clinic centre for innovation is transforming the way that patients everywhere receive and experience health care. They put doctors together with designers, with the hope that creative ideas from the latter could challenge and be challenged by those who are delivering the care.The CFI observes patients and providers, interviews families and conducts traditional consumer research. The centre visualises, models, prototypes and tests possible healthcare delivery solutions.

The team have developed and tested several prototypes one of which is the successful ‘e-consult’ project which has now been implemented enterprise-wide through the Center for Connected Care at Mayo Clinic. This was piloted as a formalized communications approach between providers when a complex question or an opinion from a specialist is needed, but a face-to-face examination of the patient was not. The team found that ‘eConsults’ allow for non-visit collaboration between providers, reducing inconsistency.

The format also opened up staff time to see patients who benefit the most from face-to-face expertise.


eConsults shortened visit duration and gave patients the care they needed faster.  eConsults significantly benefited non-local patients by reducing the need for a return trip to Mayo Clinic.

Barclays PingIt

Barclays Pingit is a mobile payment service that allows customers to send and receive money using a mobile phone number. The Head of Design said their team thought:

“What if we did it differently? What if we did it like a start-up? What if we said: you don’t have to work on anything else, just Pingit? And you’re going to roll up your sleeves and sit at the same table with the operations guy and the coder and the developers and the marketing guys? We’re all going to sit together and make decisions and build this product.”

This more collaborative approach allowed a much faster time to market than a traditional approach, with a solution that was grounded in customer insight.


Pingit has now been downloaded over 2 million times, has won over 20 awards for innovation in the banking space and is proving a commercial success. It has also enhanced the brand through delivering a differentiating, innovative service for customers that makes their lives easier.


We collaborated with Harris+Hoole to rethink the coffee experience and design a new physical and digital experience that was integrated to allow customers to get their better coffee faster, but also to maximise interaction with baristas. The approach enabled customers to enter H+H and check in on the app, walk up to the counter and say “hello”.  The barista will have already have seen their customers name appear on their till, they’ll also know their usual coffee and payment balance. This means that more time can be spent having a nice little chat while your usual is prepared to perfection.


The H+H app brought about real positive behavioural change for customers, fusing together a brand new ‘phygital’ experience and in some stores the app drove up to 50% of orders.The project  has a tangible benefit for app-using customers as they are able to get their better coffee faster, as well as for H+H who are able to serve more customers - and serve them faster - through the busy hours.

Design thinking & doing

The goal of design thinking is to make something better than what already existed. What is unique to design thinking is its focus on the people using the end product. Much like artists, designers are experts in their craft. A great idea usually comes from a great designer collaborating with a multi disciplinary team, empathising and being given time for synthesis and sensemaking as a start in the process. As technology advances, we are designing for experiences in an ever-broadening context.

At ribot we like to collaborate throughout the design process whilst still allowing our designers a period of ‘sensemaking’ and reflection. Allowing time for design thinking, sensemaking and abductive reasoning is likely to ensure you are on the right path to a useble solution and are solving the right problems.

Whilst ‘Design Thinking’ is the start of the process, true success comes from “design doing” powered by practices such as rapid iteration and real world testing. In this fast moving world, multi-disciplinary teams are needed to create innovative solutions.  Valuing ‘design thinking’ and experienced designers is a great first step. This often involves huge cultural change and the willingness to accept a different way of working. It’s a collaborative approach and ‘design thinking’ can involve many stakeholders.

Design ‘doing’ should involve design experts and be driven by those passionate about the craft of design.

Our team of designers are well practiced in helping other businesses transform, weaving design thinking into the heart of a business and helping manage change through organisations. If you want to learn more about our design sprints or behavioural design workshops contact