Design Thinking

Ajay Kolhatkar represents a great combination of academics and industry. His academic background spans COEP, SIBM and IIT Bombay SoM. Though he has had a stint with Infosys at their Research and Development division, most of his working life has been spent in the Tata group. At Tatas, he has worked across companies like Tata Power, Tata Motors – before finally becoming faculty at Tata Management Training Center. He is now on his own – and does a range of consulting and training assignments. 

Ajay started with Brand Chaos – nowadays, there is nothing that really seems to be differentiating one brand from the other. The refrigerator example that Ajay cited resonated with me. Ten years ago when we bought this then unknown refrigerator brand called Haier. The only reason to buy was the freezer location. Most refrigerator designs are directly borrowed from the West. I assume that a typical European / American household consumes meat everyday – and that no one goes everyday to the supermarket to stock up. So for them, a freezer is a commonly accessed compartment in the refrigerator. And in access – height matters. You are lucky if you have a spouse who is a foot shorter than you. Then you need not fight over which shelf houses your clothes in the common cupboard. Talking of other members of my family, the major user of our freezer is the younger daughter who likes eating ice (note – ice not ice cream, ahem, we are a healthy family!) The rest of us make a journey to the freezer – probably once a week. So no use giving it prime real estate – push it to the bottom. And that helps mitigate another access problem, getting the vegetable tray height up. For most Indian families the vegetable tray is the one that really matters. The Haier has turned out to be a pretty sturdy fellow – still going strong. Ajay tells me that all refrigerator brands have a model with the freezer at the bottom now. Brand Chaos. In all this chaos, I am thankful that there are no patents for common sense.

Ajay talked of the blurring dividing lines between suppliers and aggregators. Cases in point being Amazon/Flipkart, Ola/Uber, Oyo/Treebo and Swiggy/ Zomato getting into conflicts with their partner suppliers, car owners, hotels and restaurants. The basic grudge is cannibalism – as partners find their original customers walking way to these platforms. And there are more industries joining the bandwagon. Netflix has already bankrupted Blockbuster, will it do the same to Hollywood and Bollywood? Ajay talked of the virtual reality players getting their foot into the entertainment industry door through virtual reality based rides in theme parks. Will they become the camel in the tent soon?  Am not too sure what the lesson in these stories is – maybe one is that you own the market, if you own the platform. After having been the recipients of so much of the aggregator largesse, time for us as consumers to reciprocate – and help bolster the RoI that investors have started demanding now from aggregators. So what should we do if the industry we work in is faced with a well funded aggregator? Btw, that seems to be happening in the education industry that I am part of – with Byju’s. I was hoping that Design Thinking would provide answers to such questions. 

Design Thinking as a term originated about 40 years ago. And its birth place was the Silicon Valley. Steve Jobs was just back from his visit to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, where he stumbled upon their fantastic invention – the Mouse. It was love at first sight. And Steve was sure that he wanted to have one of his own for the next Mac. The assignment of designing the Apple mouse was given to Ideo – and the design consultancy went on to rise to the top of their field. Like any good design house, Ideo did some interesting work in ergonomics before coming up with the packaging for the mouse. Ideo was smart enough to realise that this human centred thinking approach could be applied to almost all the work that they did. 

Design thinking started off as a process for products, but nowadays is increasingly used for services / experiences design. Design thinking has a lot of alternate definitions. Tim Brown in a famous HBR article talked of how it is the intersection of desirability, feasibility and viability. Yet, what is common to all definitions of design thinking, is a sort of process codification. In the most generic form, design thinking consists of these 4 stages. 



The first step is to spend a humongous amount of time observing people. I remember a 2007 conversation with my batch mate Ramakrishna, who used to work with Quicken, the accounting software company. All Quicken employees then were mandated to do a follow through on a product sale. Customers were intercepted when they had just picked up the package from the shelf. Those were the days you used to buy software off the shelves of stores like Best Buy. These customers were followed to their houses – and were observed loading the software onto their machines. The employees were only supposed to observe, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. 

On a personal note, I have also had this on my wish list since then – observing students study at  home. Hasn’t happened – but I guess the easy thing for teachers is to observe students appearing for a test. Am sure it tells you a lot more about the student than the test itself. As you observe, you ask interesting questions. For example, why are people struggling with something? This can also become an interesting exercise in itself. Ajay showed us the photo of an old man in front of a laptop – and asked us what did we observe? There is always a huge variety in the interpretations of this image as there is always huge variety in our experiences and expertises.

Going back to the Apple Mouse, the first step that the Ideo team took was to spend hundreds of hours observing how people used computers. I believe such depths of observation create the context for any product design or development. It seems wasted time, but all the stuff that you see goes and resides at the back of the mind – ready to come out when the time is right.

Sometimes the jargonized empathy is used instead of observe. There is some difference between empathy and observe. In empathy, you try to experience the stuff yourself. You have to get into the CT scan machine innards and stay there for half an hour to experience the utter claustrophobia that happens. The superficial designer is happy drawing cartoons on the machine – to make it appear more cheerful – but I would rather that change starts from the inside. Ajay did cite an interesting example of empathy in a hospital context. Georgia Tech designed arthritic gloves for hospital employees to build empathy. Helps them understand usage context for a patient. Helps them feel the world through the body of an arthritic patient. I loved this quote from Ajay: ‘To get into someone else’s shoes – start by taking off your own.’ Suspend judgments and assumptions to start empathy.



One of the biggest hurdles in any problem solving process is the problem itself. How many times have we realised, late into a project, that we are solving the wrong problem. This is possibly because we rely too much on our customers to define problems or project specs. Don’t focus on the problem that is brought to you. Here is where the empathy and in depth observations make a difference. Who’s the actor? What is the scenario? What are the interaction points? What is their emotion when they interact? Start with a clean slate – and work out for yourself what the REAL problem is. At a macro scale, a good problem is one, if solved, that makes a huge impact on society at large. 



Also called brainstorming for solutions. Getting more people involved at this stage helps. The reason is the one cited earlier – because of the wide variety of thinking methods that they would get – based on the wide variety of experiences that they have had in their lives. In ideation, quantity beats quality all the time. Respect and treat each of these ideas as a candidate for execution, so that there is an equal chance for each of them to develop. Yet, at some stage there will be always a first amongst equals. But that does not mean that the other ideas will be consigned to the dustbin. Preserve them carefully, we are going to come back to them. One tip about prioritising ideas – a good idea is one that enhances positive emotions of the user or mitigates negative one in their interactions with the product or service.



The shortlisted idea is then taken to the next stage of consumer testing. One interesting thing about Design Thinking is the emphasis that it lays on prototyping. Though you could describe a concept to a user and take feedback, design thinking frowns down upon that. The user needs something less abstract. For a software product, the user needs to have a dekko at the Input Output screens. 3d digital rendering and virtual reality can do a great job of simulating a new concept. But, DT believes that consumer testing is best done in a physical context. Users can then interact. Not just 3d printed objects, even simple things like cardboard boxes are kosher. Users don’t know what they want – but they definitely know what they don’t want. They can verbalise it better when they touch and feel a physical prototype. Prototyping and ideation are looping stages. Iterate, Build – Learn – Build – Learn. till you truly get something that people need. Sometimes the feedback from stakeholders can also mean going back to the drawing board and redefining the problem.



No new product can be successful unless the user takes a metaphorical ownership of the same. Make your solution their solution. For the early adopters to become ambassadors, there has to be a huge element of simplicity that your product introduces into their lives. And you have to be a good storyteller to sell this product. Steve Jobs was a master at this. His speeches in introducing the iPhone, or for that matter the convocation at Stanford, are pieces of art. Elon Musk is another of the master storytellers. And to your investors, the business plan has to be part of the story. 


Can Design Thinking be a differentiation replacement? The jury is still out. Most of the jargon we hear in our lives turns out to be fads. But for every hundred fads – one turns out to have the longevity to be truly called a revolution. Will pause to quote from an article in Medium. (Reference link in Appendix.) 

Economists and historians who study innovation, like Nathan Rosenberg, David Mowery, Steven Klepper, and David Hounshell, often write about the genesis of entire industries born around new fundamental technologies, like steel, railroads, automobiles, electricity, airplanes, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, petroleum, electronics, computers, and the Internet. As Robert Gordon argues in The Rise and Fall of American Growth, most of these technological breakthroughs happened before 1970. We have been stuck in a period of slow economic growth and lagging productivity since that time. Yet, innovation-speak claptrap has mostly only developed since then. 

Yet there is always something we can take away even from fads. As for me, the take away has to be in the observation stage of the DT process. Most of us are obsessed so much with our own thoughts and ideas that we rarely pause and see how the customer is behaving. If we can do that – we can become much better at thinking and designing.



Here is an interesting article that takes a critical view of Design Thinking.  

Ajay recommends these videos

For prototyping,  

For empathy,


Ajay’s Comments on the Note

Please allow me to disagree with some of the views presented in the write up.

I do strongly believe that the philosophy of involving users/ customers in addressing their daily concerns, helping them elaborate their immediate concerns to some different and bigger, presenting to them possibilities they would never have imagined and being willing to not be married to one’s solutions if they don’t do the job, is an obviously / intuitively noble approach of doing things. (Co-creating with customers, another concept professed by management thinkers earlier, had the same notion). What has changed is that today the advances in technology and other social changes have made this user/customer engagement easier. And therein lies the attraction for following the Design Thinking approach.

The case about the inverted refrigerator, is a classical example of the reality that one size does not fit all. Before the advent of the global markets and global competitors, brands and marketers were happy to categorise customers in segments that behaved /consumed similarly. Products and services were standardised across these segments. When such segmentation did not yield expected results, companies started looking further and realised that customers are not mere segments, but individuals with unique needs. The “personalisation” approach was then born. But while it was easier for the creating an understanding of customer segments, it was difficult to determine their personal interests and requirements. This is when some approaches such as ethnographic studies, anthropological evolution studies etc. were explored. From these came the notion of “observing people in their natural setting,” which resulted in several insights about what people need and want. Hence, Observation became the cornerstone of building insights. What we sometimes call as intuitive or common-sensical, is usually a result of such observations and the associated analysis of observed data. So while putting the freezer at the bottom of the refrigerator could be interpreted as a common-sense, its emergence is far from it. As is commonly known “Common sense is quite uncommon.” The point I am making is simply that what is today de rigueur was once an aha moment discovered by someone, deliberately or serendipitously. So let us not discard that it merely as un-patented common sense.

The point about owning a market if you own a platform is absolutely right. And, if one studies the so called platforms, one will realise that they stumbled upon the unfulfilled needs of customers, who were not able to individually demand and influence the large marketers to offer services / products / solutions (hereafter referred as offering) that were personalised. Platforms are not just the internet based aggregators, but at an earlier time even the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF), better known as AMUL, created a crowd-sourcing operation (in other words Platform) in the form of a collaborative of small milk producers to facilitate a market for them.

The Long-tail, coined by Chris Anderson, was just one of the ways of defining unfulfilled needs of several thousands of customers who could never come together as a segment and therefore could demand a certain offering. Platforms discovered that they could meet this requirement. In fact according to the “Diffusion of Innovation Theory”, proposed by E. M. Rogers (link to PDF file of the book), the innovators and the early adopters were the primary target of these innovative portals (which only incidentally realised later on that they could become Platforms enabling peer to peer commerce; assisted by the fact that they had gathered an initial mass of users). In fact in the internet and sharing economy world of today, it is everyone’s quest to be “Platform” rather than a product or service company. To answer your specific question of how Design Thinking might provide an answer, identifying the unarticulated and unfulfilled needs of users is what DT would help discover and when a company is able to offer that it will be able to create the nucleus for a Platform. An excellent example of this in recent times is The likes of Byju’s and Khan Academy’s are trying to get that going by attracting as many viewers (paid or otherwise) to their portals. If, and when, they get enough of such visitors, which others may find attractive, there might be an evolve into becoming education platforms.

Design Thinking as a body of knowledge predates the Apple Mouse development and the rise of IDEO. The timeline that I showed as a slide in my presentation was borrowed from a presentation by Natasha Jen, but that was only for the convenience of visualisation purpose. Some experts believe that DeBono was an earlier proponent of this approach and so on. While the etymology of Design Thinking is useful to a certain extent, what must be highlighted here is that its prevalence in business language was seen only after the Kelly brothers of IDEO and Tim Brown (all three being designers themselves), brought this topic to the senior leadership and board room conversations. This, incidentally, is also where the trivialisation of this philosophy started. The strong anti-thesis in the blog by Lee Vinsel (as shared by you in the appendix of your note) can be attributed to the right of free speech on the internet. While the points made in his blog are relevant and to some extent even true, but a wide brush stroke of why Design Thinking is humbug is also an extreme opinion. Like in life, everything in management thinking has a place for itself. Whatever works for someone, doesn’t always have to work for someone else. After all, we are talking about a sociological / behavioral body of knowledge, not the sciences. Hence, while drawing of cartoons in a CT scan room might appear to be a trivial and childish, it might still be better than the alternative of not being able to sell a very useful medical equipment (which is expensive as well), for no fault of the equipment itself, but because the people who were impacted with it were emotional fools who were unable to deal with that situation rationally. As humans, most of our decisions and habits are driven by our emotions. The work of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman (along with Amos Tversky), Dan Ariely, Richard Thaler,  in irrational behaviour (leading to the development of Behavioral Economics) is testimony to the importance of emotion over rationale. So if it worked to just offer some additional wall-papers and painting to reduce the anxiety of patients, their family and the medical staff, it is a justified solution and if Design Thinking approach enabled them to come up with it, long live the approach. I am pretty sure the hard working designers and engineers developing the next generation of medical equipment are working on reducing the claustrophobic feeling of the CT / MRI machines and they will, eventually, develop more elegant solutions if they really involve users / customers from the early stages as proposed by Design Thinking philosophy.

By limiting the Ideation stages to be called brainstorming; I think we are undermining the other tools used for ideation. For example Bio Mimicry, DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats, 5W1H technique, “SCAMPER”, Picture Building, TRIZ, Inversion Thinking, “Jobs To Be Done” framework, Lego based ideation methods etc. are some of the other techniques used in Ideation.

Likewise, in each stage of the Design Thinking approach, several tools or techniques are available. For example, today with the presence of so many cameras in some of the developed countries, no one needs to shadow or follow a customer in their buying experience. People today are more free to share their usage experiences of offerings through peer review websites. Potential customers are relying more on other buyer’s reviews rather than those by “Paid” influencers on the same websites. So it is easier today to gather customer data (or indirectly involve the customers in the development process). In problem definition, TRIZ – a methodology developed by Altshuller a Russian inventor, could help frame problems such that the solutions to those may be have been developed by someone, somewhere, sometime earlier. These and several such techniques make Design Thinking as equivalent of a multi-course buffet which the foodies can select from and relish whatever they like to develop their own unique experience.