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Outlier’s Path

What is Design Thinking?

This past week, I had dinner with Brian Chesky and had a fascinating discussion about design thinking. Design thinking can be traced back throughout history in various disciplines, but it was popularized in the business world when IDEO CEO Tim Brown wrote this article for Harvard Business Review in June 2008. Since then, many more articles, blogs, and books have been published, including a Stanford process guide for design thinking. At its core, design thinking is an approach to innovation and problem-solving that starts with the solution to the problem rather than starting with the problem. In other circles, it is about working backward from the solution rather than working forward from the problem.

Rather than accept what I’ve read in the past, I went to the source and asked Brian how he applies design thinking. As with many practicing their craft in expert mode, he was caught a little off guard and said no one had asked him that question directly. Also, as with all experts, after a quick pause, he took a stab at my question by outlining the following five steps:

  1. Essence. How will users interact with the solution? What is the essence of the solution? At its core, what is it?
  2. Altitude. How does the solution operate and look at different scales by zooming in and out? At what altitude do users spend most of their time with the solution? At what scale can we get our arms around it?
  3. Assembly. How is the solution put together? What are its components? How do you assemble the solution in a prototype, small volume, large volume, and cost-optimized scale?
  4. Interconnection. How does the solution relate to users, their experience, their environment, and the world?
  5. Stories. How do you connect the solution to its users, their environment, and the world through stories?

I had assumed that Brian applies these steps to finding innovative solutions to problems in creative, marketing, or product. The more we spoke, the more I learned that he uses this framework for many cross-functional challenges, such as recruiting, growth marketing, conversion funnel optimization, customer service, finance, and operations.

Brian’s steps are also applicable to working from the problem forward. What is the essence of the problem? What does the problem look like when we zoom in and zoom out? How do we break apart the problem into smaller and more manageable problems and then assemble the solutions to the smaller problems to solve the original problem? Once we have an answer, how does it affect users and their experience? What is the narrative for my problem and solution?

The best solutions can often be derived by working backward, forward, bottom-up, or top-down. Regardless of how you prefer to work, how might you apply Brian’s design thinking steps to find an innovative solution to a problem?