Those who work in the social sector know how difficult it can be to make clear choices regarding solutions to social problems. There often seem to be a million ideas and a tremendous lack of resources to execute them successfully. It’s also difficult to always pinpoint the audience for which you are designing a solution – it is easy to say we want to help everyone. This is where a methodology called Design Thinking can help. Design Thinking is a collaborative, iterative, and human centered approach that is used to test solutions to problems. We attended the webinar “Design Thinking to Solve Social Problems” hosted by the Stanford Social Innovation Review to dive deeper into this creative methodology for changemakers.

Design Thinking is a nonlinear approach that can feel messy, but is sprinkled with moments of extreme clarity. First you must reframe the problem – make sure you’re asking the right questions and allowing for open-ended solutions.

After reframing the problem, design thinking can be broken down into 4 Foundational Elements: Empathy, Definition, Ideation, Prototype & Iterate. These elements are often repeated (as needed) and can be done non-linearly. There is no right or wrong way to to implement design thinking, it’s simply a formula to help think about problems in a new way.

1. Empathy
Empathy is all about understanding the end user that needs the solution. It’s important to specify who exactly is the target audience, and this is often helped by engaging actual end users, beneficiaries and stakeholders. Picture a specific person and ask yourself “Who’s experience am I trying to transform?” This is the part of the process where you uncover motivations, beliefs, and feelings behind your end user. Remember, if you try to design for everyone, you’ll end up with something that is useful to no one.

Another way to connect with who you’re designing for is to identify extreme beneficiaries: users who highlight needs and insights quickly. Often, this is the user who is not as easily seen. This is an especially useful approach in the social sector, because we tend to focus on users who walk through the door of your non-profit and announce they need help. They are already showing up, and seeking out the people who are not actively showing up for a multitude of reasons are most likely the ones who can offer the deepest insight.

So what does empathy actually look like? In Design Thinking, it’s about engaging with your users, immersing yourself in the experience you’re designing, understanding how the flow of the experience feels, and observing patterns and insights. After the Empathy process is complete, unpack it all with your team to create a shared understanding of the problem at hand.

2. Definition
Define is about uncovering explicit and implicit needs to get to true meaning. These insights allow you to make choices on what needs drive your design process. Generating a range of possible solutions to these needs allows you to begin creatively solving the problem, or going through the process of Ideation.

3. Ideation
The goal of ideation is to generate as many ideas as possible. Go for quantity and build on each other’s ideas. As your teachers used to say, ‘No idea is a bad idea.” This time is a chance to forget constraints and self-consciousness for a moment and go between phases of brainstorming and flaring with your team. Make sure you write down all ideas because you never know when a word or a phrase is going to spark a genius idea in someone else.

4. Prototype & Iterate
Prototyping is mocking up a quick and dirty design with the goal of making something physical that your target audience can interact with. You prototype to learn from your user, to see how they interact with your solution, and maybe get new ideas through observation. Always build in low resolution, because blunt and honest feedback will be returned since it’s so rudimentary; your audience will think you haven’t spent that much time on it and are not actually attached to the idea. Experiment with creative approaches to building prototypes: even the simplest of materials can do the trick. The main idea behind prototyping to to fail fast, early, and often, and to challenge your assumptions about your idea and design in general. Prototyping does not have to slow down your process as long as you are iterating on your ideas quickly. When ideas can be challenged and improved upon quickly and without consequence, people are more likely to take a chance that could lead to genius.

Encourage Creativity
Experts in design thinking recommend building radically collaborative teams that include target beneficiaries and end users and to energize your space with creativity: photos, sticky notes, maps, drawings, etc. Getting your team standing and moving around encourages an atmosphere of positivity and creativity so that everyone knows they don’t need to be self-conscious about their ideas. Separate moments of brainstorming and flaring, and explicitly say how much time you are going to spend on each; these meetings should be emotional experiences, and you want your team to be fully ‘on’ and engaged so they will bring their best ideas and not be afraid to improve on others’.

The mindset of design thinking is focused on human values – designing for actual people. You must show, not tell, be biased toward action, and embrace experimentation.

There are definitely some common challenges involved with design thinking. It’s a time intensive methodology, can be messy, and certain teams may not have the internal capacity to execute it well. To do design thinking well, you need complete support from leaders and everybody needs to embrace that your final solution (although almost always better) will be inevitably different than what you thought before you started the process.

Overall, Design Thinking is a radical, creative, and collaborative methodology. It’s highly recommended for teams working in the social sector due to its experimental approach into solving complex social problems.