Design Thinking – A literature review

This 2013 review for my MSc in Software Product Management examines the Design Thinking literature from the perspective of the software product manager who seeks a better framework or model for developing innovative products, a model that can help to deliver the right products for the right user while enhancing the strategic outcome for the firm.

1. Key arguments and ideas in the literature.

Design Thinking is an approach to product develop­ment where the fundamental premise is that direct collabora­tion between stakeholders in solving complex, ambiguous problems leads to positive user experience outcomes.

Generally, Design Thinking provides a set of conceptual models rather than specific processes. It stresses the importance of empathy in understanding users’ problems, as well as the rapid prototyping of possible solutions, all embedded within an organisational culture that nurtures the Design Thinking approach. Essentially, Design Thinking is about creating great experiences for users. When successfully applied, Design Thinking produces feasible product implementations that unify viable business requirements with desirable user experiences. For the firm, this approach can translate into a new source of competitive advantage.

Whereas traditional problem-solving might have focussed solely on new technology and techniques, the Design Thinking approach begins with an understanding of the user through empathy and observation. This approach requires the product manager and other stakeholders to ask new questions about the problem and, importantly, about the assumptions underlying the problem. These investigations, conducted in an open and creative way, inspire potential solutions that must be validated before an ideal candidate is produced. Most of the authors reviewed here advocate the use of iterative prototyping and testing so that multiple possible solutions are explored.

Although the methods described by the reviewed authors are typically not grounded in the academic theoretical discourse, they have been applied in real business contexts and thus can claim some legitimacy as best practice models for the firm. (Incidentally, the same models can be applied to non-commercial organisations, such as public service bodies.)

2. What are the authors seeking to do in writing these articles?

Not surprisingly, given his role at the IDEO design consultancy, David Kelly offers practical advice about implementing Design Thinking, along with anecdotal evidence of applications of Design Thinking. His formula for applying Design Thinking to business innovation problems can be summarised as “Observe, brainstorm, prototype” (Kelly & Littman, 2001). The book offers detailed advice about setting up a suitable environment, including hiring and training the right team of people, to stimulate and support Design Thinking in the firm. In this book, Kelley seeks to report IDEO’s research as well as express opinion.

The Developing Design Sensibilities paper is a manifesto for the introduction and championing of design sensibilities in the workplace, where these sensibilities include intuitive human qualities such as “delight, beauty, personal meaning and cultural resonance” (Suri & Hendrix, 2010, p. 59). Balancing design sensibilities with design methods creates a framework where complex problems can be resolved with solutions that support the firm’s strategy. The authors seek to contribute to theory and give advice on future policy directions.

Tim Brown, also of IDEO, positions Design Thinking as a discipline for achieving innovation in product development, emphasising its use as a strategic tool for differentiation and competitive advantage (Brown, 2008). He defines Design Thinking as a discipline that can deliver desirable products within the context of a viable strategy and the constraints of technological feasibility. He advocates that the firm integrate the discipline into its innovation processes and, moreover, use Design Thinking to reimagine the organisational structure.

Brown’s book goes into detail about how Design Thinking can be applied to the firm to foster a culture of creativity and thus improve innovation (Brown, 2009). While describing the stages of a Design Thinking project, he emphasises the value of storytelling as an input to human-centred design and, ultimately, as a basis for improving the user experience. Brown seeks to report his own research as well as give advice on future policy directions.

In their book, Liedtka and Ogilvie attempt to provide techniques for managers who want to introduce systematic methods of product innovation into their organisations (Liedtka & Ogilvie, 2011). They describe a detailed framework of tools – including sections about brainstorming, visualisation, and prototyping – that can help managers both to understand the designer mindset and apply the Design Thinking discipline. They suggest applying the tools in response to four overarching questions (“What is?”, “What if?”, “What wows?”, and “What works?”). Their book seeks to express opinions and report their own research.

Roger Martin focuses on marrying the often mutually-exclusive modes of inductive and deductive thinking with the abductive reasoning mode, and using it as a basis for applying Design Thinking to the firm (Martin, 2009). He also explains how to negotiate the tensions between business innovation outcomes, as measured according to standards of either reliability or validity, by adopting Design Thinking principles such as experimentation, heuristics, and creative thinking. His book seeks to contribute to theory, criticise what is currently being done, and express opinion.

The Beckman and Barry paper urges design thinkers to make use of user-based storytelling in their approach to Design Thinking. They suggest including user stories in the design approach and telling inspiring new stories to drive the Design Thinking project (Beckman & Barry, 2009). They propose a framework that combines the abstract and concrete elements of the design process, specifically in that concrete observations are developed into abstract insights and ideas which later form concrete solutions. The authors seek to express opinion and contribute to theory.

3. What are the authors saying that has relevance to my work around Design Thinking?

The Art of Innovation (Kelly & Littman, 2001) contains some useful pointers to ways in which a product manager might organise Design Thinking projects that are focussed on product innovation. The techniques of observation, brainstorming, and prototyping are described in great detail and can be usefully added to the portfolio of the product manager’s tools. The theme of innovation is predominant throughout the text and Kelley provides advice for exploring diverse and often unusual methods. He emphasises the value of stimulating the people involved in the project and gives concrete examples of the tactics to use for exploration.

Suri and Hendrix (2010) explain how designers can bring their sensibilities to the business innovation process and then delve into some specific attributes, such as observation practices, the ability to sense “opportunities for change” (p. 60), and the skills to design the expression of such changes. Designers use their sensibilities to connect to the sensibilities of the users of their products and this symbiotic relationship sums up a core aim of Design Thinking – to focus on users when solving their problems.

Brown posits a simple formula of the stages of Design Thinking: inspiration, ideation, and implementation (Brown, 2008). Specifically, he describes a ”creative, human-centred discovery process [that includes] iterative cycles of prototyping, testing, and refinement” (Brown, 2008, p. 87). These are useful concepts for the product manager because they help identify the methods and models that can be applied to innovation processes that might ultimately deliver practical business goals. Brown emphasises the use of iterative prototyping as a method both for learning about the feasibility of an idea and for indicating the next steps to take in the project.

Liedtka and Ogilvie provide several templates that might, with considerable effort, be applied to the firm, although it might be more useful to compare these templates to the models of other Design Thinking proponents (Liedtka & Ogilvie, 2011). Nevertheless, the book reminds us that a design thinker can be anyone – not necessarily an accredited designer – who approaches complex problems with empathy and an open mind before exploring the possible paths towards a solution. Iteration is a key feature in this model: whereas traditional business managers prefer a linear path to problem-solving, designers approach innovation through iterative experimentation.

Martin’s discussion about ways to transcend the exploitation and exploration approaches to business innovation is helpful because it might uncover patterns in the firm that have become embedded and unnoticed (Martin, 2009). The analysis of how the firm usually makes business decisions based solely on data from historical results, and often losing market share as a consequence, could help to reduce unnecessary dependence on reliability yardsticks. Martin argues that the firm should consider an alternative approach, favouring unpredictable initiatives situated in a Design Thinking context. The discussion about heuristics and algorithms provides further clarity about the nature of innovation. The book also offers techniques for developing personal Design Thinking skills, which can be categorised into three components: Stance, Tools, and Experience. Furthermore, Design Thinking is a useful model for managers seeking to tackle complex problems at an organisational level (Dunne & Martin, 2006).

The storytelling framework proposed by Beckman and Barry reflects the models that are proposed by other Design Thinking authors but is a greatly simplified version. In that respect, the framework might be more useful than the multifaceted techniques found elsewhere because the essence of this framework is observation, insight, and ideas, and it can be readily applied to a Design Thinking project. Above all, the paper advances the use of storytelling as a vital tool in the innovation process. That assertion seems apt in the agile development process, where formal user stories are the driving force behind development.

4. How convincing is what the authors are saying?

Kelley’s book reads, at times, like a eulogy to IDEO with repeated references to the company’s past achievements and its prowess at innovation. Such information is not necessarily relevant to the theory. Nevertheless, Kelley provides interesting descriptions of how IDEO’s projects usually begin with brainstorming and prototyping. Apparently, he neglects some of the processes that precede and organise these activities. In that respect, the book is not especially authoritative as a source of best practices in Design Thinking. Having said that, it might provide useful interview material for an aspiring IDEO intern.

Both Suri and Hendrix are managers at IDEO and draw on their own experiences but also describe detailed corporate examples of Design Thinking, including those of Starbucks, Proctor & Gamble, and Virgin America. There is little discussion of practical, step-by-step techniques that, if applied consistently, could replicate some of the anecdotal examples described in the paper.

Brown brings considerable experience as both a designer and a consultant, and his practical outlining of techniques, along with numerous examples from business, offer substantial evidence of the applicability of his vision of Design Thinking.

Most of the techniques described by Liedtka and Ogilvie are common to much of the Design Thinking literature that is aimed at the firm, but whether they can be realistically applied is an open question. Moreover, the book contains few references to the theoretical underpinnings of Design Thinking and also lacks convincing real-world evidence of the application of its framework.

Martin makes a powerful case for the use of abductive logic in his discussion of the struggle between analytical and intuitive thinking. He elicits examples of applied abductive logic at several businesses, including Cirque du Soleil, Herman-Miller, and Proctor & Gamble, to show how a new mindset, when applied to established products, can lead to revolutionary innovation.

There are several references in Beckman and Barry’s paper to the Design Thinking and sociological literature to support the authors’ claims for the power of storytelling in applying Design Thinking. The paper provides a detailed description of the innovation process that resulted in Kimberly Clark producing the ground-breaking Huggies Pull-Ups product.

5. How can I make use of this analysis?

Design Thinking has the capability to help solve complex problems and thereby increase the likelihood of developing compelling, creative, and disruptive product innovations.

A key tenet of Design Thinking is that everyone in the organisation – or, more often, the project team and especially the product manager – has a role in working with and applying the principles of Design Thinking. This teamwork approach means empowering colleagues with suitable mental models to aid decision-making – as opposed to dictating prescribed processes and activities.

The models and techniques outlined in the literature emphasise the importance of cross-functional collaboration. In order to achieve their innovation business goals, team members must collaborate effectively with internal stakeholders and clients to uncover market needs. In particular, the entire project team must focus on the user experience by both understanding the user’s – often hidden – needs and creating an outcome that enhances the user’s experience. In short, putting the user at the centre of the release.

This shift in thinking – and the concomitant expansion in mindsets from purely technological to sociological or psychological – might require sustained programs to educate project teams, if not the whole organisation.

Aside from the challenge of obtaining organisational buy-in for the Design Thinking model, there are probably new resources needed to gather and analyse user research, which is vital to capturing the data that provides the basis for inspiration and ideation. It might also be necessary to change attitudes to iterative prototyping, and to educate personnel about its importance in quickly validating the ideas that emerge from the ideation stage.

The product manager will continue to drive innovation but will need to engage sooner with designers and developers to induce them into the Design Thinking culture. On a Design Thinking project, all three functions are likely to collaborate more closely than before. Ideally, this new level of collaboration and decision-making leads to better user outcomes in the form of innovative and profitable products.


Beckman, S. L., & Barry, M. (2009). Design and innovation through storytelling. International Journal of Innovation Science, 1(4), 151-160.

Brown, T. (2008). Design thinking. Harvard business review, 86(6), 84.

Brown, T. (2009). Change by design: HarperBusiness.

Dunne, D., & Martin, R. (2006). Design Thinking and How It Will Change Management Education: An Interview and Discussion. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 5(4), 512-523.

Kelly, T., & Littman, J. (2001). The art of innovation: Lessons in creativity from IDEO, America’s leading design firm: New York: Doubleday.

Liedtka, J., & Ogilvie, T. (2011). Designing for growth: A design thinking tool kit for managers: Columbia University Press.

Martin, R. L. (2009). The design of business: why design thinking is the next competitive advantage: Harvard Business School Press.

Suri, J. F., & Hendrix, R. M. (2010). Developing Design Sensibilities. Rotman Magazine, 58-63.


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