What Is Design Thinking
Author: Chantale Hedgeman
September 1, 2020

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Imagine kicking off a corporate brainstorm session in which your team is focused on developing a new product for a specific consumer type. You walk in (or log on) expecting a slideshow analyzing the challenge with some demographic segmentation and relevant metrics. You’re thinking you’ll sit down, open up your laptop and take down notes for the next hour or two, maybe with some seated discussion thrown in.

Instead, you’re all handed one sheet of paper. The leader tells you to hold it behind your back, close your eyes, and create an elephant. You’ve got 30 seconds. No further instructions.

This “Elephant Fold” activity is an exercise in design thinking methodology. At the end of the half-minute, participants share a diverse group of paper elephants, based both on their own interpretation of an elephant and their quick decisions regarding the best way to create one. Some try to shape the elephant by tearing, others opt for rapid origami folds. You’ll see crumpled paper sculpted into an elephant head, amongst other impassioned creative attempts. And as they share their creations, each participant will get insights into the thought processes of their colleagues.

“This exercise shows the value of prototyping and aligning – of getting on the same page. The concept is centered around the reveal – of seeing what everyone created,” says Chantale Hedgeman, Innovation Analyst for InComm’s Go Studio team. It’s a great stage-setter for understanding the different ways people think and approach a challenge on the spot – and the ways different ideas can all lead to effective results. It also reinforces the value of showing rather than telling – and it’s the latest way InComm is advantaging its resources and giving partners near and far (and remotely!) an outlet to collaborate, ideate, and help us develop breakthrough solutions that benefit, first and foremost, our clients and their customers.


What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is more of a theory or concept than a step-by-step process. It’s not that its underlying principles can’t be laid out concisely, but practical understanding of design thinking requires a bit more digging into the processes, principles and methods of which it’s composed.

In short, design thinking is a (relatively) modern approach to problem solving 1 with a focus on empathy with the end-user and fast-paced testing of the viability of potential solutions. When practiced and applied intentionally, it can open doors for creativity and innovation in a fast-paced environment while limiting lost productivity. Rather than prescribe a concrete method for problem-solving, design thinking calls for a flexible process that puts the end-user experience first and builds toward a solution without losing sight of that user’s goals and pain points 2.

“The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.” – Leonardo da Vinci

A wide range of understanding goes into that process. “One key element is to avoid designing from assumptions,” says Hedgeman. Instead, design thinking requires first understanding the user and their specific challenges through immersion in their situation – the classic “mile-in-their-shoes” approach. If you’re trying to improve a mobile payment interface for a pop-up merchant, what could provide a stronger foundation than going out and physically buying and/or selling at a street-level pop-up? Solving for alt payments at a big box retailer in Japan? You should be listening to people with direct personal experience with that process (and taking detailed notes).

This sums up the first step in design thinking: empathize. Success here can require a hands-on approach, as researching and understanding consumers “in the field” is important for fully appreciating the real-life application of the eventual solution and the specificities of the environment in which it will operate. When InComm says “Everywhere payments happen, we’re there,” this doesn’t just mean our technology and processing systems; it means people on location, understanding the ins and outs of unique environments, customer bases, and challenges as we begin developing as-yet-unrealized solutions.

The next step is definition; here, the user’s needs and challenges are clearly identified and laid out, to make sure the team is asking specific questions, and most importantly, the right questions.

A quick aside: these steps don’t always follow a linear model. Think of the process more as an infinity loop, where the results of any one step could move the process forward to the next or signify a need to return to a previous step(s) and troubleshoot.

Definition is followed by ideation, the step during which the knowledge gained through empathizing is used to formulate and present ideas and solutions. Avoiding preconceived notions and not leaping to conclusions remains a major theme here, which is why ideation comes only following a deliberate focus on the user. Whereas many visualize typical corporate action as a top-down structure, in which ideas are handed down by higher-ups and lower-level employees take orders to build them out, design thinking fosters inclusive innovation by calling for ideas from all levels, once again with the focus – from the beginning – on the customers who will be served by the final product.

“Human-centered design is a philosophy, not a precise set of methods, but one that assumes that innovation should start by getting close to users and observing their activities.” – Donald A. Norman, Co-founder of Nielsen Norman Group

After ideation comes the prototyping step. In a design thinking approach, prototyping can look a lot different than a nearly functional proof of concept. Low-fidelity prototypes are the standard, and these can be effective – even though they may look low-fi to the point of disarming an outside observer. Take, for example, a smartphone app in which the initial prototype is simply a cardboard cutout of a phone screen, held in front of a real person actively miming or acting out the app interface. Or a new alarm clock that’s simply a cardboard box with Post-it Notes representing the time and digital features.


Design Thinking in Practice

In a vacuum, walking (or videoconferencing) into a high-stakes workshop and witnessing a colleague pantomime a smartphone interface might be amusing, but it’s also quite useful. Seeing is believing, and such early-stage functionality highlights the elements of the experience, providing critical information regarding feasibility and pain points for the end-user well before significant manpower has been poured into a more developed prototype. Said Hedgeman, “it’s about understanding potentially unforeseen challenges or limitations as early as possible, while ensuring you’re keeping the end-user’s perspective.”

Coinciding with the fifth stage, testing, this approach can help get ideas to market by moving fast early to determine viability. Testing, in this case, also moves beyond the studio; it means taking the prototype back into the field and gauging results from the perspective of the ultimate end user. This feedback, both immediate and thorough, can help fix issues or revise ideas right away, keeping the focus in the right direction as testing bears out more fruitful understanding (and deliverables). It’s where the idea gets validated, or holes get poked and the team takes a step back to work up a prototype that better serves the user.

“The largest source of waste … is building a product that no one will find useful.” – Eric Ries, The Lean Startup

This is an approach InComm’s leadership team expects to see put into practice on the regular at Go Studio. The Studio, InComm’s big new venture, is embracing design thinking, collaborating with partners to problem-solve by empathizing first when addressing consumer challenges and working quickly toward grounded, focused solutions. More than just another tool in our belt, this commitment to building innovative practices out to maximum efficiency is a widely shared vision. As a whole, InComm is embracing its innovative history and refining its approach to ensure inclusivity and narrow its focus on the forward-thinking application of emerging technologies as the business (and global commerce as a whole) continues to evolve.


Design Thinking at a Distance

Go Studio is tailored to address challenges with a design thinking backdrop. Not only will the Studio call for ideas from all areas and regions of the company, but its team will be mobile, traveling to client sites and researching “in the field” to ensure a full appreciation of the context and challenges (there’s that empathetic first step!) before ideating on a company-wide scale (and beyond – partner companies and university systems will be called upon to help reach viable solutions that solve for a variety of consumer challenges worldwide).

The team is also well-adapted to deliver value remotely. When international travel isn’t an option, field research can be completed by leveraging remote data collection, CX monitoring and testing, and other fact-finding in conjunction with clients. As long there’s a consumer challenge worth tackling, the full scope of a well-thought-out design thinking approach remains applicable, even from a distance. The elephant fold exercise described earlier in this piece can be easily completed over a video call, as can many of the icebreakers, brainstorms and explorations of ideas that make up the team’s eye-opening workshops. In fact, the Go Studio team has already completed three remote client sessions and over a dozen remote exercises. With tools such as Miro, an online collaborative whiteboard, and video-conferencing technology, the Studio’s unique blend of customer-focused research/analysis and outside-the-box thinking is smoothly translated to remote collaboration.

Hedgeman added, “Our goal with these sessions is to help people pour out as many ideas as possible.” She stated that directing focus and keeping everyone present requires a slightly different approach with remote workshops, much like the adjustments being made for any online group work, but her team has seized the opportunity to take advantage of remote tools and continue providing valuable sessions.

Our partners now have opportunities to attend design thinking engagements, gaining insights and collaborating with the Go Studio team in order to brainstorm solutions and establish their viability. If you want to learn more about the ways Go Studio can help research, ideate, or build towards a POC, get in touch with us at innovation@gostudio.io or visit Go Studio.io. Design thinking is just one way we’re leveraging our resources to transform global commerce, and we’re here to help you anticipate trends and meet consumer needs every step of the way.

Get in touch with Go Studio today.



1. Our current understanding of design thinking as a framework originated in the 1970s out of the engineering and computer science industries – though it’s too nebulous a concept to truly attribute to one inventor or singular moment of creation. Modern design thinking has its pioneers – including Nigel Cross, an academic who undertook design research in the 1960s; Frog Design Inc., a global design firm founded in 1969 with fingerprints on the personal computer industry; and Tim Brown and David Kelley, who founded design firm IDEO in 1991 with a focus on “user-centered design,” among many others – but these names only added insights and categorized to broadly shape an approach whose principles can be seen in great innovators throughout history.

2. For some successful companies who applied this methodology to help get where they are today, see industry disruptors Airbnb and Uber Eats – or check out long-time design thinking proponents IBM.

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