4 Key Questions that Drive the Design Thinking Process

In their new book, Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Toolkit for Managers, authors Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie outline four simple but powerful questions that drive the design thinking process.

In their new book, Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Toolkit for Managers, authors Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie outline four simple but powerful questions that drive the design thinking process.

First, however, a bit of background. Design thinking is one of those terms du jour that get tossed around, but a lot of people don’t understand what they mean. So let’s look at the authors’ definition of it:

“Design thinking is… a systematic approach to problem solving. It starts with customers and the ability to create a better future for them… We believe that the recent explosion of interest in design thinking has a lot more fueling it than Apple’s success and high profile. We are looking for a new toolkit… Design thinking can do for organic growth and innovation what TQM did for quality – take something we have always cared about and put tools and processes into the hands of managers to make it happen.”

The four questions, which correspond to a four-phase design thinking process recommended by Liedtka and Ogilvie are these:

1. What is?

This stage explores current reality, and focuses on the current problem or challenge we’re trying to solve. It includes paying attention to what customers are struggling with, what frustrates them and what trade-offs they’d rather not have to be making. It’s also at this stage that design thinking considers an idea’s potential for value creation. As part of this analysis, we need to assess our own organization’s capabilities and resources.

2. What if?

During this stage, we start to consider new possibilities, trends and uncertainties. We start to envision what a desirable future might look like. This stage leverages what we’ve learned in the first stage to imagine these possibilities.

3. What wows?

This stage of the design thinking process takes the wealth of ideas generated in stage two and culls them down to a manageable number. We do so by looking for those that pack a potential “wow,” that hit the sweet spot of solving the customer’s problem elegantly while also offering attractive profit potential. This is an iterative process, utilizing the scientific method to work through hypotheses and potential outcomes.

4. What works?

At this final stage, we take what we’ve learned from the analytical thinking we did in stage three and build a low-fidelity prototype. We then solicit customer feedback, and use it to build a high-fidelity prototype. We can then take this semi-finished product to small groups of customers to see if they perceive sufficient value in it. At this stage, customer co-creation is a valuable way to reduce the risks of new product development, by enabling customers to help design it.

This set of four questions only scratches the surface of what’s contained in this fascinating book. Designing for Growth is filled with tools, techniques and a common-sense process that you can use to develop your design thinking capabilities. In addition, it contains numerous examples of companies that have employed these techniques, and what you can learn from them.

By Chuck Frey

About the author


Chuck Frey Senior Editor, founded InnovationTools.com and served as its publisher from its launch in 2002 until the partnership with Innovation Management in 2012. He is the publisher of The Mind Mapping Software Blog, the definitive souce for news, trends, tips and best practices for visual mapping tools. A journalist by trade, Chuck has over 14 years of experience in online marketing, and over 10 years experience in business-to-business public relations. His interests include creative problem solving, visual thinking, photography, business strategy and technology. His unique combination of experience and influences enables him to envision new possibilities and opportunities.

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