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Design thinking White Paper

White Paper

Design thinking White Paper

White Paper

  • White Paper
  • Processes
  • Service management
  • Vision
  • ITIL

Author  Rudolf Greger

May 27, 2020 |

 20 min read

  • White Paper
  • Processes
  • Service management
  • Vision
  • ITIL

Design thinking explores how designers think. Although design thinking is continually evolving, it is not a new discipline and has recently attracted greater interest. Digitally-enabled organizations are looking into design thinking to help them benefit from the current economic turmoil.

Design is about more than goods; it is also about designing user experiences, processes, and systems by applying an approach that has been come to be known as ‘design thinking.1’ Designers create products for a specific purpose, which is to transform an unfavourable situation into a favourable one and ensure that they are fit for purpose and use.

Customers and end-users are not the only ones who use products. Products are also used by the provider, salesperson, manager, developer, operator, and so on. Design thinking tries to solve this ‘wicked problem2’ of balancing the concerns of all these stakeholders, as well as for the organization itself. The consumer, in general, has the highest priority. Their life should be enriched and made easier, especially regarding the use of digital services as customers ultimately finance the organization. ‘The most beautiful curve is a rising sales graph3’ said Raymond Loewy. Designers appreciate this and so are also concerned with economic issues.


Viewed externally the designer’s way of working appears to lack structure and process and may even appear erratic. Sometimes, this first impression may be correct, however when viewed in hindsight a logical pattern of work may emerge. Potential clients can be worried by this apparent lack of structure and consequently, control. To address this concern, a simplified design procedure was developed. This fostered confidence in the designer’s approach.

Image of Figure1.1 shows model of the double diamond by the British Design Council

Figure 1.1 Model of the double diamond by the British Design Council

Yet, this simplified approach is often misinterpreted and taken at face value. It is believed that by following the process innovation will occur, as design thinking is guaranteed to generate innovation. The misconception that design thinking is a guaranteed and clearly defined process occurs after completion. Designers and design thinking researchers always analyse design projects after completion.

From this perspective, each project appears straightforward and easily replicable. The mistakes made during the project are omitted from the final analysis. Causality is often assumed, when it is in fact correlation. The designer attributes the project’s success to their own actions, instead of recognizing that it was a fortunate combination of circumstances. Success is not a result of a specific process, but the result of a process that solved the given task in that specific moment, under those circumstances. A different problem would have needed a different process.

Image of Figure 1.2 shows the double diamond design with scribble through it representing the

1.1.1 Adaptable and flexible

Design thinking is an adaptable and flexible way of working. It requires the same qualities from the knowledge worker; to adapt rapidly to frequently volatile conditions, yet simultaneously trying to meet frequent contradictory requirements. This is called the ‘dragon gap’, the creative space between ‘what could be’ and ‘what is’ or between vision and reality.4 The term ‘dragon gap’ refers to ancient maps where dragons where used to mark uncharted territories. This uncharted territory is where design thinking not only happens but thrives. Designers enter the ‘dragon gap’ voluntarily.

1.1.2 It is not a method, it is the use of methods

Design thinking is result-driven, not method-oriented. The designer exploits every available useful method to achieve a result as quickly as possible and the best possible outcome for the user, manufacturer, producer, entrepreneur, and the organization. To say that design thinking is a process or a method, let alone a toolkit, misses the point entirely. A methodology is a systematic, theoretical analysis of the methods,5 which is not what design thinking is about.

Design thinking is a set of innovative patterns of thought and action that connect fragments of knowledge that appear relevant to the given task. It is spontaneous and coincidental, but also serendipitous.

Design thinking places the user at the centre; it is the way that most designers think. It is a valuable addition to modern management thinking, as described in the next section.

Why do we need design thinking?

Organizations need to rapidly adapt to a VUCA world full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Data can often be unclear, providing an ambiguous picture of the situation.

Interpretation is difficult and can only be made by using proper heuristics. It has become easier to keep pace with changing trends by combining design thinking with traditional management thinking.

It can often appear that people behave irrationally. Users and customers do not know what they really want. It is the service provider’s duty to address this and discover what the user or customer really needs. This also applies to the service provider’s designer.

Designers, developers, and entrepreneurs care for the customer as best as possible. This can be achieved by delivering products that the user desires. Although customers can often struggle to describe what they want, they can immediately recognize it when they see it. Customers want a useful product that supports their lifestyle, at home as well as at work. Most customer surveys are invalid as customers cannot describe their requirements. One reason for this is that in many cases, customers do not know what is technically possible.

Users’ behaviours should be creatively interpreted to create a product that meets the target. Design thinking helps to understand how digital products can be useful to users.

Designers aim for products, processes, and experiences that: satisfy the user, achieve the user’s goals, and assist the user in completing their work. It is not, however, always clear what needs to be done to achieve those goals. In many cases the user’s desired outcome is incorrectly defined. For instance, the research and development department (R & D) solves imagined problems that a user would never experience in real-life. On the other hand, a solution may be found to a real-life problem, yet this solution forces the user to take inconvenient and incomprehensible actions. Design thinking helps to uncover the user’s goals and desired outcomes.


Design thinking provides another perspective where interdependencies can be discovered. Design thinking can help users discover practical and valuable new ideas. This occurs as design thinking aims to make life easier for users.
Innovation is needed to create better, more practical, and user-friendly products. This can be achieved by detecting and repurposing similarities from other areas, which result in doing business significantly differently or creating significantly different business, that is appreciated by customers as it results in a better outcome.


Managers and other roles can benefit from design thinking by using its concepts and techniques. Designers are visionaries that incorporate new products from available technology and recent observations of what the user may need to manage their lives better. The design thinking approach makes it possible to understand the cognitive abilities of the user, by recognizing what the user is currently offered and how that can be made better. Design thinking recognizes how currently available, yet unused, technology can be utilized to the user’s advantage.

Design thinking is an interdisciplinary speciality that combines many points of view and knowledge to create something new.

Essential concepts

There are hundreds of design thinking tools that developed from three core concepts that provide 80% of the desired results:

  • empathize with the user
  • speculate and experiment
  • dare to decide.


The foundation of design thinking is the ability to understand and empathize with the user. Not everyone can do this. Sometimes, even designers need to be trained in this skill. It is necessary to be able to empathize with the user; the greater the ability to empathize with the user, the greater the tendency to decide in favour of their interests, even if this results in greater effort from the provider.

However, even designers exhibit weakness from time to time. Sometimes they favour an aesthetically pleasing design above the best solution for the user. Developers can also be seduced into building a technically simple solution rather than one with more value for the users. Empathy allows the provider to recognize, pause, and reflect and then opt for the better choice.

Empathy can be developed through self-reflection and observation, by imagining that we are the user and observing how we would act in those circumstances. This will sharpen our ability to judge interactions and actions.

The designer can create situations which would cause anger, thereby recognizing unfavourable situations. Conversely, the opposite is also true for recognizing favourable situations. This is how the dragon gap; which is the tension between the existing situation and the desired situation, is identified. When this gap is identified, the designer can consider strategies to resolve the tension and create the optimal experience for the user.

The provider can detect inconvenient and unfavourable conditions by acknowledging which tasks the user can easily complete and which tasks can cause difficulties. Therefore, the provider can then create convenient and favourable conditions. By defining the dragon gap for this problem, the provider can devise ways to solve this tension through implementing design thinking, thereby striving for the best result for the user.


When the user’s unfavourable situation has been identified, the designer can then start to develop better or even ideal situations. The designer can even speculate about the perfect situation. This is an informed speculation, an educated guess rather than a random guess. This is accomplished using the empirical knowledge derived from self-reflection. Designers reflect upon their own past experiences, as well as using the second-hand experiences obtained from colleagues, friends, parents, and strangers. These experiences are analysed to find what was successful and what was unsuccessful. The proposed models are compared to the outcome. Furthermore, the assumptions that were made about the users’ possibilities, education, knowledge, and technology are analysed.

These insights can be used to create a prototype process for the user. Although this prototype is based on assumptions, it is nevertheless derived from observations, self-reflection, and insights. Instead of extensively debating the design of a solution it can be tested using a prototype.

Additional insights can be gained by observing how the user uses the prototype. This will provide feedback regarding areas for improvement, what went right, and what went wrong. These tests should be completed as early as possible and with real users who do not possess any prior knowledge of the prototype.

Consequently, any issues are found are remedied increasing the probability of success. However, for this to work, negative feedback must be accepted and actioned. Naturally, observations must lead to corrections. However, these corrections should not occur too quickly. Instead, the reaction of the user must be appropriately interpreted. After all, it takes courage to make tough decisions.


Design thinking can be compared to interpreting in that the designer has to interpret the interests of today’s users against future users. Interpreters anticipate how users may wish to interact with a product in the future.

When interpreting behaviour, it is necessary to start from a given context and possess an awareness of the users’ level of knowledge. The user cannot possess the same level of knowledge as the developer and therefore must be led to a specific concept first. This may involve intermediate steps until the ideal solution can be offered. However, this does not involve always obeying the user’s wishes, if there is a better solution. There are moments when the user’s wishes are ignored and designers will use their own ideas, for a better solution to the user’s task.

The goals are to closely observe and loosely interpret, not to interpret literally. The user’s actions and needs, rather than what they say, are the highest priority. Therefore, it is necessary to correctly interpret the patterns of behaviour. In most cases, something new is rejected, even if it is better, because it is new and therefore unpleasant. This is known as the ‘status quo bias’ in cognitive science. Users are not used to it and reject it because it forces them to change their behaviour. In these cases, the designer shall decide if the new method will be implemented, even if the user rejects it. The empathic developer will realize what is important.

Sometimes, users are not able to identify their real limits. They can be too cautious, are unaware, or even underestimate their abilities. Users should be given the possibility to grow, build, and develop new processes. New solutions are developed and made available by searching for similar situations in related and unrelated areas of knowledge.

Major concepts

In design thinking tools are used to make work easier and to inspire the work process. There are many design thinking tools used by designers in projects. However, these tools were used by the designer in a specific project to reach the goal as fast as possible.

The most appropriate tool is the one that will help to achieve the required aim at that moment. Tools help to create the preferred situation out of the existing situation as fast as possible. Sometimes tools are used in disconnected or unusual ways.

Basically, design thinking needs practice and experience, not rigid tools. Nevertheless, there are some ‘microtools’ that make parts of the design thinking approach applicable without laborious learning. Yet, microtools should not be thoughtlessly used. Design thinking integrates many knowledge areas and is not a formulaic process. Instead, design thinking encourages the user to apply the processes and tools behind design thinking as they see fit.


Service shadowing is the observation of users in daily life. It can be completed everywhere at any time. by watching how people interact with machines and systems. However, in a specific project users are accompanied, and their tasks and behaviour are documented. Weak points in the process are recognized if the user is uncertain or choses the wrong action.

Behaviour is documented during observations with notes or pictures, or immediately after the direct observation in an internal report. These observations provide insights such as: designers’ expectations of user behaviour, what users already know, user experiences, and user expectations. Service shadowing allows the provider to walk in the user’s shoes and understand their behaviour. Attention is paid to every aspects of the user’s life by considering these questions:

  • where do they click?
  • what do their environments look like?
  • what is their sociological setting?
  • what are their stress levels like?

All of this information suggests how the users can be supported to cope better with their tasks so that they can work better, safer, and more conveniently. When the user’s circumstances are understood the provider can find ways to reduce their stress through appropriate design of the processes.


The observation can be accompanied with verbal feedback. Thereby, it is best to ask the user for general feedback about the situation, how they deal with the service, and listen to their answers without judgement, prejudice, and justification. A special questionnaire is not needed, although it is a good idea to know which areas need to be discussed. However, instead of following a rigid structure it is better to lead the conversation and naturally ask relevant questions


The ability to empathize with the user is the most crucial skill in design thinking. An empathy map; which systematically summarizes the provider’s observations, can increase this skill. The more of these maps that the provider completes, the better they are at understanding the situation and finding additional areas for improvement.

The provider does not need to work directly with this tool as it is better used to document the findings. The result of the observations and interviews should be that the designer, adapts to the user situation in such a way that they almost become the user.


As the designer can now behave like a user they can perform a service staging procedure where they play the situation that needs to be solved or improved. This will allow the designer to experience both the good and poor interactions in a similar way to systemic constellation work. The knowledge gained from
observations, interviews, and self-reflection, will reveal problems with the product that should be corrected.

Over time, it becomes easier to empathize with a user’s behaviour, without possessing prior comprehensive knowledge to evaluate a product/


The designer can now think and feel like the customer. They can see what issues have been resolved and what has not been. With practice, the designer can imagine how a product or service should look or be used to meet the user’s expectations. However, this is contrasted with personal effort, costs, programming, and technical limitations. These may lead to inner conflict.

Yet, this conflict can be resolved by creating two lists: the first will focus on the ideal solutions for the user, the second will list why the designer will not be able to fulfil the demand. Consequently, the designer will be able to devise strategies to solve these contradictions by designing themselves out of the problem.


Another method to design out of a problem is by reversing the assumption. This is a thought experiment, where the designer imagines that the opposite of something is true. What are the necessary circumstances and what are the consequences, if the opposite would be true? What if the call centre agent is paid a premium salary? By asking questions, the designer can discover ideas for improvement to prevent future helpdesk queries. ‘What if …’ is a formula to find new solutions.


Prototypes are very useful and accelerate the development process. This is because hypotheses can be tested using prototypes. Therefore, a hypothesis is needed for a prototype. What should the user do and what can the designer do to stimulate that behaviour? A prototype shows that the designer has made the right assumptions, that they created the right incentives so that the user behaves the way the designer would like them to. A prototype shows the strengths and weaknesses of a model. However, empathy is needed to understand and interpret what is seen.

A tangible prototype is needed so that the users can interact naturally. A prototype can have a variety of forms, depending on the project status, but should be in a form that allows the user to successfully interact with it. At the beginning of a project, a prototype may be drawings or sticky notes that change as the user interacts with them. As the project progresses it may be a simulator in a web browser or an even more sophisticated prototype. Generally, it should be as simple as possible, and it should always test an assumption.

The prototype is tangible so the user can acknowledge what they can do with the product and what they are supposed to do. Of course, sometimes, the user can be given special duties/assignments, but in general the user should be able to use the prototype intuitively.


Design thinking is essential for innovation and economic progress. However, design thinking is not a specific method but the way designers think. It is the approach that designers apply when designing products, experiences, processes, and systems.

By now, you know that design thinking is a customizable and adaptable framework. It is also an orientation system, which can be shown as a process. Design thinking is not, as it is often mistakenly referred to, a precise and accurate process. Design thinking is just a process, not the only process. Every project is different; almost no two design projects will have the same procedure. This is because design is organized chaos, controlled by the intuition of the designer, which is nurtured by experience.

Managers should be acquainted but not necessarily skilled in design thinking. Managers should combine their way of thinking with the designer’s way of thinking. An organization that supports the combination of management or business thinking and design thinking will be successful in the long run. The organization will be more resilient, progressive, and prosperous.

Employees should be capable of working with designers, seeking inspiration from them, and combining their ideas with their management experience.

So, be a key interpreter, use the three virtues of design thinking: empathize with the user, speculate and experiment, and dare to decide.

About the author

Rudolf T. A. Greger is a design philosopher with 30 years of design experience. His mission is to improve people’s lives, both in his vocation as a designer and in his profession as a design thinking coach. He co-founded GP designpartners, a Central European industrial design consultancy, and founded the Design-Thinking-Tank to promote design thinking. Rudolf is a C-level sparring partner; he organizes design jams and design sprints, speaks at conferences, and writes about design.

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Author Rudolf Greger

Further reading

Axelos. (2020). ITIL®4: High-velocity IT. TSO, London.

Axelos. (2019). ITIL® Foundation: ITIL 4 Edition. TSO, London.

Peftieva, Tatiana. (2019). ITIL 4 - Guiding principles: focus on value. Axelos

End notes

1 From the preface of Valuing the Art of Industrial Design. Available at: default/files/Valuing-Industrial-Design.pdf [accessed 21 April 2020].

2 A problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. [accessed 28/11/2019] Available at: https:// [accessed 21 April 2020].

3 Available at: [accessed 21 April 2020].

4 Neumeier, Marty. (2008). The designful company: how to build a culture of nonstop innovation. San Francisco: New Riders.

5 Available at: [accessed 21 April 2020].