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Design Thinking: Empathetic Approach To Problem Solving | Homegrown | Cultivating Success | Entrepreneur Stories | Business Tips
Design Thinking: Empathetic Approach To Problem Solving | Homegrown | Cultivating Success | Entrepreneur Stories | Business Tips
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Feb 2014

Design Thinking: Empathetic Approach To Problem Solving

Design Thinking: Empathetic Approach To Problem Solving

Design: It touches nearly all aspects of your life. Your phone, clothes, and office have all been designed in a manner where form meets function.

A successful design doesn’t just look good on paper. Good design “gets” you. It knows where your feet will rest, where you’ll look for a drop down menu, or what size of a button is big enough for you to find, but small enough to be aesthetically pleasing.

At its heart, good design is achieved through understanding the user, why he does what he does, and integrating a product into that existing picture.

What if we took our approach to designing coffee makers and kitchens, and applied them to solving societal issues and transforming businesses strategies?

The idea behind design thinking

Design thinking is the application of a designer’s mindset to problem solving, with an emphasis on human interaction.

Birdie Salva of Curiosity Design Research explains, “it finds the intersections across the designer’s knowledge of materials, the social scientist’s knowledge of the human experience, and the end-user’s intimate knowledge of their everyday lives.”

Curiosity Design Research was formed in 2012 by Salva and his two partners. Armed with backgrounds in advertising, branding, NGO, and the academe, they apply design thinking to help their corporate and nonprofit clients understand how people use products and services in order to create value and spark social change.

Design thinking is making waves locally. In fact, several organizations and projects utilize it to further social good:

  • Ateneo de Manila teaches design thinking methodologies under various electives, from business innovation to communication to health sciences.
  • Usability Philippines is a professional organization that advocates the adoption of usability standards in the design of products, systems and interfaces in the Philippines.
  • Hapinoy is a social enterprise sari-sari program that applies design thinking to empower and equip local mothers to be effective micro-entrepreneurs.

Solving problems through design thinking

Hot problem sectors in the Philippines, Salva says, include transportation, education, healthcare, and micro-energy.

While the issues they tackle may vary, design thinkers systematically apply the same principles to deliver innovative solutions.


 Infographic design by Wap Martinez-Mercader.

How can an organization apply design thinking?

Are you looking to grow your business? Do you want to apply design thinking to your professional life?


Case study: Financial Literacy Program For Low-Income Mothers

One of the flagship projects of Curiosity Design Research was for Roots of Health, an NGO that advocates maternal health and well-being. They designed a financial literacy program for low-income mothers with little formal education in rural Palawan.

Salva and his team approached the problem using the five-step framework for design thinking.

1. Empathize with the audience: Reviewed existing financial literacy programs for mothers in developing countries and found that many focused on saving as the very first lesson. Learned that in the field, saving was not a priority, as the mothers struggled even to find a basic income.

2. Define personas based on demographics: Developed three distinct personas to group the mothers into, each defined by income level, sources of income, social relationships, priorities, and financial beliefs. These personas became the bases of how the program could be customized.

3. Ideate: Discussed solutions on what the key components would be, what orders they should be taught in, what kind of people should be invited to the communities to inspire them, what teaching aids would be relevant.

4. Prototype: Developed role playing scenarios that aimed to build confidence in earning, and to teach basic math, all in a way that did not make the mothers feel that they were being talked down to.

5. Test: Simulated teaching exercises with each persona and observed how the mothers engaged with the instructor, the math problems, the teaching aids, and with each other. Talked with each mother in their homes to get feedback. Regrouped and built in new insight and ideas into the next round. Tested for six rounds, with each round tackling more difficult skills and more complex ideas.

The project resulted in test scores rising by 260% and long term community change. By applying what they learned from the program, the mothers have managed to save and buy materials for their own homes. They also speak about their experiences to inspire Roots of Health communities who have yet to go through the modules.

“It’s really the mothers’ success,” says Salva. “And the experience has given us much personal fulfillment.”[end_greybox]

Take some of Salva’s helpful hints when applying the design thinking process:

  • Leave no stone unturned. Everything in your business model, from value propositions to revenue streams, can be innovated upon.
  • Don’t take anything for granted. Before you can replace the norms, you must first understand the existing norms.
  • Be people-focused. Don’t be too fixated on a technological or a novel solution – be mindful of the human user of your products and solutions.
  • Listen. Hear out your customers first, and talk to them yourself – Don’t assign this job to anyone else, especially at the beginning. Don’t hesitate to engage with your customers.
  • Tread carefully. You’ll save more money and effort in correcting mistakes early, than when you’ve already invested a lot of time and capital in launching a flawed product.

Salva also recommends downloading IDEO’s free Human-Centered Design Toolkit,  which serves as a reference for beginners and allows you to connect to a global community of design thinkers.

And if you are tackling big problems, “be multidisciplinary,” says Salva. “Work with social scientists, psychologists, industrial designers, graphic designers, and entrepreneurs. The more frameworks you apply, the more you’ll understand the problem and know how to solve it.”