How to use design thinking to solve problems

Leaders collaborating on a project

Ask any designer and they will tell you that a design is never truly done. Much like a business, design is not linear — solve one problem and overcome another, yet more will undoubtedly follow.

Businesses are faced with challenges on a daily basis, from staff retention problems and cybersecurity threats to regulatory concerns and supply chain issues. Leadership is evolving to accommodate a post-pandemic workforce, and businesses are changing the way they address concerns. 

While many businesses have a history of adopting design thinking principles and methodologies, the term itself is relatively new. Today, applying the problem-solving skills of a designer is a powerful mindset to take into an ever-changing business landscape.

Those who use design thinking in their work are well versed in its applications and uses. The process involves analysing and defining a problem from various angles and then taking part in a collaborative, iterative approach to solving that problem. It’s no surprise that entrepreneurs, managers and business leaders are successfully applying design thinking to solve business challenges. 

How can you apply and use design thinking problem solving strategies in your business? 

Let’s take a look. 

How to use design thinking in business

Design thinking isn’t just a way to solve a problem — it’s also a way to identify problems. And for many businesses, it’s becoming the new normal. 

During UberEats’s Walkabout Program, designers inspected major cities in which the company operates. They noticed the difficulties drivers were experiencing with parking in highly populated urban areas. From this, UberEats upgraded its app to provide drivers with step-by-step directions of their route, ensuring a smoother delivery process for all parties. 

Design thinking tips and examples include:

  • engaging with the end user or customer
  • defining their needs and problems
  • spending time ideating and testing products or solutions to those problems
  • creating products specifically for that end user or target market

It’s no longer enough for leaders just to manage their teams. Successful business leaders also inspire their workers. These leaders can apply design thinking in leadership and support their employees to do the same for customers.

Why design thinking works

Design thinking is about collaboration and enabling everyone to have a say. It encourages left-of-field ideas and different perspectives. It’s a human-centred design process that puts the needs of people first, ultimately delivering a fantastic outcome for customers. 

Leaders can also apply design thinking to their teams, allowing employees to feel heard and valued. Today’s business leaders who embrace design thinking are finding themselves ahead of the pack.

However, it’s not just leaders putting design thinking to good use. Entrepreneurs use design thinking to create and grow their own businesses. Employees who apply design thinking to their roles are recognising that it’s not just beneficial for their customers and employers but also for their careers. 

For those who feel stuck in a state of ‘analysis paralysis’ when it comes to their career, design thinking can offer a new framework for sparking positive change. Using the same steps — empathy, defining the problem, creativity and testing — the process can help employees reframe their perceptions and set them on the right path. 

Thinking like a designer is a handy skill to have.

How to think like a great designer

Sarah Nally knows a thing or two about design thinking. As the Chief Design Officer at New Zealand bank ASB, she lives and breathes human-centred design in her work, both inside and outside the bank.

She describes design thinking as not just a process but as a mindset where the customer is put at the centre of the design process. But it’s not always easy and you have to work at it.

“It needs to be a discipline because naturally we don’t put people at the centre. Naturally, we get pulled in other directions, particularly in business,” says Ms Nally.

“One of the most effective things that the design process does is actually check your bias and make sure that you’re not just designing something you love. You’re actually designing something that not only your customers are going to love but that works as well.”

Problem-solving strategies in business

In a recently released report, KPMG surveyed more than 400 CEOs, emerging business leaders and non‑executive directors about their major concerns in 2022. Accessing and retaining talent in an increasingly digital world was a major concern. Cyber vulnerabilities, the challenges of managing remote teams and keeping up with regulatory processes were also concerns for business leaders.

There’s no doubt that business leaders need to become agile problem solvers, however, it’s also clear that new problems can require new solutions. Design thinking is a hugely effective problem-solving strategy in business. It allows creativity to work alongside critical thinking, where the focus is on the solution, not the problem.

Design thinking tips

Too often, businesses are constrained by what can’t be done. Design thinking requires leaders and employees to embrace creativity. This can be daunting.

“We talk about going from designing for a customer to designing with a customer,” says Ms Nally. 

She offers the scenario of letting customers design products themselves. While that might produce a fantastic product that the customer loves, it may also be far too expensive or unrealistic for the business.

“Keeping close to business and navigating the tensions of feasibility, viability and desirability means you get that sweet spot. It’s right between the customer’s needs, the business’ needs and the thing that’s going to be achieved,” Ms Nally advises. “So I often say that designing is all about navigating tensions.”

This tension not just helps you arrive at a great product, but it’s also a great way to improve problem-solving skills in business.

Challenges in design thinking

While design thinking is being embraced to solve problems and overcome challenges, there are also challenges in design thinking itself.

“The risk is that some of this stuff, because it looks fun, can come across as being quite self-indulgent,” Ms Nally says.

“Unless you take action on the customer feedback, why did you ask? And so the tension for us to navigate is very much a complex matter. It’s between spending time in that possibility space, connecting with insight, really understanding customer empathy and deeply thinking of possibilities. But then it’s also about taking that through to the real world and doing that in a way that aligns to strategy.”

Design thinking in the real world

There is a reason why Ms Nally is such a proponent of design thinking — she’s seen how it works in her role. The New Zealand bank ASB recently developed new credit cards, and it’s a great example of design thinking at work.

“We had one of those really lovely moments that validated the value of the design process when we took the credit card to our low-vision customers,” says Ms Nally. 

“We got them to play with some of the accessibility features that we were hoping would work. And they were reading these accessibility dots thinking, ‘What does this even say?’ 

“And, you know, acute-vision people had just put together dots rather than actually thinking about what they could be saying. And so we ended up changing the dots to braille, which was a really nice shift.

“The next kind of shift was that we made the cards from biodegradable plastic. These are the types of features that cost a bit more, but ultimately make a better product.

“When you design for others, it ends up making it more accessible. Some of those accessibility features have tested really well with our customers.”

How to become a design thinker

As an expert on the subject, Sarah Nally has had an important role in developing RMIT Online’s Master of Business Administration – a program perfect for future design thinkers.

The RMIT Online MBA introduces the concept of design thinking and allows you to tailor your studies. You have the choice of four minors, one of which is in design thinking, so you can further explore the subject.

If you want to upskill your existing qualifications, accelerate your career prospects and boost your pay packet, studying an MBA is well worth considering.

Leader focused on her work

Your future in design thinking

The design thinking skills you’ll learn as part of the program will not only be invaluable for future careers, but they will also help you clarify your own career direction.

“I’m a big believer in writing your own job description,” says Ms Nally. “And I’ve done that a few times. If you see a need in a business, frame it, bring it to life, use your design thinking skills to actually show where that can add value. Then prototype it out and see what can happen.”

If you want to write your own career, studying an MBA is the way to go. As part of the program, you will learn how to:

  • be an authentic leader
  • manage emerging tech 
  • problem solve with creativity
  • communicate authentically
  • lead transformative business strategies
  • apply an innovative way of thinking

According to a 2020 RMIT student survey, the salaries of RMIT MBA graduates increased by an average of 50 per cent. The ABS reports that in Australia, earners with MBA qualifications are in the best position to become the nation’s top 3 per cent of earners.

Ready to fast-track your career?

The business world is ever-evolving. Leaders are confronted with new problems every day and organisations need skilled workers to stay ahead.

But a new breed of leaders are using design thinking to solve challenges, and they’re thriving. Design thinking has become a desirable skill, and an RMIT Online MBA can equip you with the knowledge and skills you need for a new business world.

Don’t have an undergraduate degree? That won’t stop you from studying with RMIT Online. Find out more about the MBA program today.