How Design Thinking Uses Story and Prototyping

Design Thinking - IDEO's Shopping CartAn early ah-ha moment that sparked my interest in user-centered design was watching an ABC NightLine episode.  They showed how IDEO re-designed a shopping cart in one week. The video from the 90’s is still valuable and easily found on YouTube (search for IDEO Shopping Cart). IDEO’s process was depicted as using an eclectic team of designers that applied secondary research, customer interviews, brainstorming, prototyping, and rapid iterations to create a shopping cart that better met the needs of its users. IDEO’s process has matured and is now taught as Design Thinking at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, a.k.a, D.School. Design Thinking is big, with numerous companies reporting how it has improved their working culture and innovation processes.

While Design Thinking is typically described in 5 steps – empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping, and testing – the approach is best thought of as the dance between storytelling and prototyping. This is the perspective shared by Mark Zeh, former IDEO design leader who is now contributing to innovation at Bose, the audio technology powerhouse. In my interview with Mark, he shared the critical mix of storytelling and prototyping in Design Thinking. See the link below to hear the interview.

A Design Thinking Framework

As Mark was “doing” Design Thinking before it was called Design Thinking, he describes the process as four components, which are: (1) identify customer needs, (2) the build, test, iterate, and refine cycle, (3) validate and communicate what you found to the organization, and (4) a product development process (not shown in diagram below). The activities need to be performed sequentially – jumping ahead only leads to problems and missed opportunities. At the heart of what empowers the success of Design Thinking is storytelling and prototyping.

Design Thinking Framework_700

Storytelling and Design Thinking

How do we communicate knowledge? It is not through raw data, but through data in context that constructs a story. Knowledge is captured in stories. Stories are the foundation of the process for examining a customer need and how they are behaving. Stories provide us a context for brainstorming and developing new insights. Building a narrative is how we communicate the customer problem to others on the product team.  Stories convey our understanding of what already exists and then they open the door to envisioning the future. Storytelling is used throughout the Design Thinking activities.

Storytelling and Prototypes

Actors frequently use props to help the audience better grasp the story they share. In Design Thinking, prototypes are props. A prototype is something you can engage with physically. It is a tool to help you communicate and test ideas. It is refined through iterations as the value proposition is further understood.  Putting prototypes into the hands of  customers actually causes them to think differently than simply talking about the concept. As a product designer, you need to get customers engaged in the concept and this is accomplished through the prototype.  By iterating through prototypes with customers, designers can learn what product features are needed and what design constraints exist, preparing for success before incurring the larger cost of building the product.

An Example

Mark shared an example of Design Thinking applied to the development of a recumbent exercise bike. The design of the bike was influenced by observations of the purchasing process of women:  who the buyer is, how they interact, how the exercise bike gets home, and where it is placed in the home.  The key insight learned was that the exercise bike should look like architecture – a design feature of the room where it is placed. Those insights drove the creation of prototypes and ultimately the final product.

To hear more about this example and the Design Thinking Framework…

Listen to the interview with Mark Zeh on The Everyday Innovator Podcast.

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Chad McAllister, PhD is a product innovation guide, innovation management educator, and recovering engineer. He leads Product Innovation Educators, which trains product managers to create products customers love. He also hosts The Everyday Innovator weekly podcast, sharing knowledge from innovation thought leaders and practitioners. Follow him on Twitter.

Chad McAllister




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