If you could solve one problem in your world right now, what would it be? The challenges of this season look different for each of us. Design Thinking is a simple problem-solving method that can help you navigate the challenges you may be facing. You can even get your kids involved in the process.

At Canopy Life, we use Design Thinking to find innovative solutions for teaching, organization, processes, construction projects…the list goes on and on.

In Episode 11 of the Canopy Life podcast, we interviewed Sara Musgrove. Using the Stanford D-school method, Sara explains the six simple steps of the Design Thinking process and how to apply it to our own lives in this season.

Sara is a faculty member with The Leaders Lyceum, a consulting firm that focuses on developing leadership maturity and effectiveness. She received her Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychology at the University of Georgia. She also has a Master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy.

Sara retells this story from Standford’s Design for Extreme Affordability project.

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a creative, problem-solving approach that is based on empathetic need-finding. The central focus of the process is on the people you are trying to help rather than the solution. It’s a collaborative process with a team of people with different skillsets and perspectives.

One of our key phrases at Canopy Life is “Real leaders serve others with resources, power, and ideas.” Design thinking is the ultimate way to serve others with your ideas. It’s why it’s a perfect fit for Canopy Life. It’s a method of problem-solving that is putting others ahead of yourselves.

The 6 Stages of Problem Solving

The Design Thinking process is cyclical. You begin by observing and getting to know the person or group you are designing for, known as empathy, and continue by working through this process as many times as needed to ensure you solve the right problem for the right person. These 6 stages are:

  1. Empathy
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test
  6. Redefine/Reiterate

Stage 1- Empathy

If you don’t have the Empathy stage in Design thinking, you can’t call it Design Thinking. Empathy is learning to see the world through the eyes of the people you’re trying to help. In order to empathize, you have to go back to a beginner’s mindset.

Assume you don’t know anything and say “I want to get to know you. I see things that you know that you need. I also see things that you can’t identify that you need, but I see an opportunity and a pain point.

Sara Musgrove

In this stage in the process, you follow that person you’re helping as they go about their day. You observe what’s working and what’s not working. The heart behind this stage is “I see a problem, and I want to help this person.” It is the foundation of Design Thinking.

*It can sometimes be difficult for children to fully empathize with the person or group they may be helping. In this case, it’s helpful to use storybooks and fictional characters to help kids design for others’ needs. For example, check out this project we did with our students at Canopy Life.

Stage 2 – Define

The Define stage is about taking everything you’ve learned and narrowing it down to one meaningful challenge you wan to address. This stage can be difficult because we often want to solve all problems for everyone! In this stage, ask yourself, “How do I address the biggest need that will make the most long-term impact?”

Stage 3 – Ideate (brainstorm)

Ideation means to expand the pool of choices you have in order to pick the solution you want to pursue. Take the time to pause to dream, create, and push beyond the boundaries of your first good idea. Throw as many ideas up on the board from as many voices as possible! Involve family members or coworkers outside your team. Give yourself prompts like:

  • If you had an unlimited budget…
  • if Hollywood or Disney was going to create a solution…
  • if you had to come up with a solution with no money…

…what would you do? These kinds of things make you think outside of the box with no filters.

Hopefully, you now have 50+ ideas from the Ideation phase. Now you have to narrow them down. Consider the Swiss Army knife. Often, people will try to cram ALL of their ideas into one product. Instead of one flimsy thing that has multiple functions. Try to narrow them down to create one thing that solves the most pressing problem.

To narrow them down, ask yourself:

Which of these ideas would make the biggest impact for the problem we are trying to solve?

Stage 4 – Make a prototype

Prototyping is taking an idea that you have and bringing it into the tangible world in a way that someone can interact with it somebody who is not a part of the design team and doesn’t know what it is. Your idea now comes to life with scotch tape and construction paper…

Prototypes need to be quick, dirty, and low-resolution. It needs to look messy. It needs to engage your imagination. If it is something that looks polished, you’re not going to get good feedback, because people are going to know you’re invested, and they don’t want to hurt your feelings. But if I give you something that is made of pipe cleaners and aluminum foil, there’s a sense of ‘Oh bless your heart. That’s a mess. Let me help you make it better.’ Which is what we want.

Sara Musgrove, Canopy Life podcast

Prototypes don’t have to be objects! Prototypes can be experiences, like a skit or role-playing. You can then gauge REAL reactions from those interacting with the prototype. If you only tell someone about your idea, without that necessary interactions, you don’t get those reactions!

Stage 5 – Test

The test stage involves taking your prototype and getting it in the hands of the person or group you are designing it for. It is intentionally unpolished and unfinished. Your goal is not to figure out if your solution is right. It is a prop for you to learn more about the person you are trying to help.

If I have to throw my prototype in the trashcan at the end of this time with that person, I celebrate that and say, ‘Awesome. I’m so glad I learned when it was made our of craft supplies instead of spending months and thousands of dollars building something. I learned something new about that person that’s going to help me make my idea better.’

Sara Musgrove, Canopy Life Podcast Episode 10

Stage 6 – Redefine/Reiterate

Now, it’s time to go through the process again. Ask the person you’re helping how you can make it better, and use that as the fuel to go back into the empathy conversation. Leave the prototype and say “Tell me more about another time you had an experience like this.” Test it, and start the Design Thinking loop over again.

Sometimes, you will find that the problem you were first trying to solve was not the actual problem. The problem was something underlying. Keeping the process “low res” allows the person you’re helping to figure out for themselves the deeper issue or problem. The outcomes are AMAZING solutions.

Early on in the design process, you should spend more time redefining the problem rather than tweaking the solution. Focus on naming the right problem and the right person or group.

As you work through this process, avoid these mistakes:

Spending too much time in the empathy stage

Think of this as analysis paralysis. You can spend too much time here when you feel the need to talk to every person and solve every problem.

Spending too much time on your prototype

Don’t get caught up trying to make a sleek and polished prototype. Sara suggests spending 20 minutes building your prototype and jump into the next phase. What gets you to the solution quicker is not more time to make it better. It’s more laps through the whole design thinking process.

Listen to the full interview here:

In Episode 11 of the Canopy Life podcast, Sara, Christi (Canopy Life founder), and Evan (show host) break these six steps down even further and give tips on how to use this process to cultivate healthy mindsets in ourselves and in our children. Be sure to stream on iTunes or Spotify for the full interview.

Stream on iTunes and Spotify.

Helpful links

How Tough Times Shape Good Leaders

Standford’s Design for Extreme Affordability project