IDEO Design Thinking: Process and Practice (The Complete Guide)

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IDEO – an influential Design Thinking consulting firm at the forefront of Design Thinking – has become popular for sharing its approach through stories, tools, and techniques.

This article will explore the IDEO Design Thinking process and the role that IDEO played in popularizing it.

IDEO and Their Role in the World of Design Thinking

IDEO is a renowned design thinking consultancy with an interdisciplinary team that draws on various backgrounds – from industrial design to social innovation – and skills to develop innovative solutions.

In recent years, Design Thinking has become increasingly popular thanks to the efforts of Tom and David Kelley.

The brothers co-founded IDEO in Palo Alto, a leading design, and innovation consultancy, in 1991 and have since been instrumental in spreading and legitimizing design thinking – a problem-solving approach that combines creativity and practicality – across companies and industries.

“Enlightened trial and error succeed over the planning of lone genius.”

IDEO motto

Design thinking has its roots in product design and is now used to develop better customer experiences, organizational structures, marketing strategies, business model design and more.

From the development of the iconic Apple mouse to the extensive use of industrial and mechanical techniques, IDEO has established itself as a thought leader in design thinking.

IDEO U – they offer an online learning experience where anyone can learn design thinking techniques at the forefront of global creativity and problem solving trends.

IDEO has also created an open innovation platform that allows them to collaborate on projects with clients and members of the public.

The IDEO Shopping Cart: A Design Thinking Workshop by IDEO

In 1999, IDEO made a special appearance on Nightline ABC. Faced with the challenge of reinventing the shopping cart in just 4 days, they provided an informative and creative demonstration of their design thinking process.

From researching user needs to prototyping new ideas, viewers got a glimpse of how these professionals could transform an everyday product quickly.

IDEO Shopping Cart Redesign – 4 Day Challenge

What Is the IDEO Design Thinking Process

IDEO describes its process as a series of thinking and design-based activities without a fixed definition, methodology, or approach.

The process is fluid and adapts depending on the context of the problem being solved.

You decide what to focus on as you learn and gather evidence and insights throughout the project.

The role of the design thinker is to bring together a diverse group of minds, set the stage for innovation, and guide the process based on previous experience.

That said, some of the most successful projects have a pattern of steps.

IDEO describes the steps of the Design Thinking process as follows:

  • Inspiration
  • Synthesis
  • Ideation
  • Testing
  • Implementation

However, David Kelley – founder of IDEO – also founded the Stanford University D.School.

The program teaches the Design Thinking methodology as follows:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Develop ideas
  • Create a prototype
  • Test

D. School provides learning materials to teach the tools and techniques used in each phase.

The IDEO Design Thinking Toolkit and the Stanford Universities D.School materials give us a comprehensive overview of how IDEO approaches Design Thinking.

“Design thinking is a people-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolbox to integrate people’s needs, technology’s capabilities, and business success requirements.”

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO.

IDEO Brainstorming Principles

The creative process is about divergent thinking, making associations and connecting dots.

One idea can trigger another or connect in an exciting way to an unrelated topic to give us new ideas and fresh inspiration.

Every idea produced has the potential to be the spark that leads to something innovative.

That’s why it’s essential to generate lots of ideas freely, no matter how wild they may seem.

These ideas are the raw material from which we build, experiment, and discover radical innovations.

IDEO has formulated a set of brainstorming principles to create the conditions for innovation and creativity to flourish.

These principles are designed to remove obstacles encountered in the brainstorming process and encourage ideas flow.

Here are IDEO’s 7 rules for brainstorming:

1. Defer judgment

The creative process is far-reaching. We need to give it space and foster conversations through support and encouragement for it to flourish. This allows thoughts to flow freely and increases the chances of coming up with a new innovative idea.

2. Encourage wild ideas

A wild idea could catalyze a new understanding of the problem area. This understanding can lead to a new perspective and, ultimately, a viable idea that would otherwise have gone undiscovered.

3. Build on each other’s ideas

Ideas that emerge during the session become the inspiration and stimulus for other new ideas and deeper conversations. By building on the ideas of others, we expand their thought process and add fresh ingredients to the mix.

4. Focus on the topic

When so many new aspects are being discussed, it’s essential to stay focused and bring everything back to the goal of your project. Stay attentive during the discussion and remove any distractions that could lead you off track.

5. One conversation at a time

With so many creative people in the room bursting with ideas, it can be tempting to split into groups. It’s essential to focus on one conversation at a time, so everyone stays on the same page, develops a common understanding, and works toward a common goal.

6. Be visual

We work best when we’re having fun, which is when we stay stimulated and creative. Being visual throughout the process helps keep the energy flowing in the room. Use post-its, sticky notes, markers, and sketches to make each decision and idea tangible.

7. Go for quantity

The more ideas you can produce, the better. Lots of ideas give us lots of direction, inspiration, and potential talking points. Set high goals and encourage your employees to work quickly. This also helps us get past the obvious ideas and spurs us to look for more creative ideas.

“Ideation is about shared invention. A single person’s attachment to a single idea hinders collaboration and greatness.

Brendan Boyle, IDEO Partner.

Take these principles and try them out in your own brainstorming sessions. Print them out or display them on a screen for all to see.

Explain why they’re essential, and if you’re working with a new group, conduct a brainstorming warm-up exercise to demonstrate how the principles work.

IDEO Design Thinking Project Case Studies

IDEO publishes many social design case studies on its website, along with descriptions of the tools and techniques it uses during the process.

Here are a few examples:

Vroom: A human centered view of early childhood development

The background
During the first five years of life, when brain development is most active – an incredible 700 synapses are formed per second – children’s readiness for kindergarten and beyond depends on positive relationships with parents or caregivers. The Bezos Family Foundation and IDEO have developed tools to drive home their message in response to this critical stage in child development. It isn’t just books but all forms of interaction that are critical in giving little ones a solid foundation before entering school.
The result 
Based on extensive research, IDEO helped the Bezos Family Foundation launch Vroom – an engaging campaign highlighting potential moments of growth and learning in everyday life. The design team spoke with parents, child development experts, and pediatricians, who provided invaluable insights on delivering this inspiring message.

Brilliance by D-Rev: Combating jaundice in the developing world

The background
Millions of newborns worldwide suffer from jaundice, with developing countries facing an even more significant burden due to high premature birth rates and inadequate medical resources. To address this global problem, the design organization D-Rev worked for two years to develop a lower-cost phototherapy device – Brilliance. Designed using LED instead of inefficient CFL bulbs requiring frequent replacement, it provides low-income families affordable treatment for their babies suffering from jaundice.
The result 
Since 2014, D-Rev’s Brilliance device has made impressive strides worldwide. With more than 800 devices sold in India and 18 other countries from East Africa to Colombia and Nigeria, it’s an effective tool for preventing baby death and disability. D-Rev isn’t only carefully measuring its impact through metrics but is also scaling its production process and taking further steps to expand internationally.

Viva toolkit: A budgeting toolkit for Latino families in San Francisco

The background
MEDA, a nonprofit financial services organization based in San Francisco’s Mission District that supports low-income Latinx families, recently partnered with to explore new ways to make their existing coaching more accessible and impactful. A key takeaway from this collaboration was how inaccessible the language around finances can be – and how little incentive or hope it offers for people seeking more excellent asset stability.
The result 
Financial coaches use the Viva Toolkit to redefine how their clients think about money. This innovative coaching tool helps people focus on life milestones, not financial milestones, by guiding them through self-reflection exercises and simple concepts for long-term success. Since October 2019, Outcome has achieved an impressive 62% conversion rate, reaching more than 1300 people.

IDEO Desirability, Viability and Feasibility

IDEO suggests that an idea must be desirable, viable, and feasible to have the potential to be implemented and create value.

These three ideas form what we call the DVF framework. The DVF framework gives us the desirability, viability, and feasibility criteria against which we can test our hypotheses.

The DVF framework is a set of criteria that can be used to evaluate ideas.

After ideation, when we have developed a variety of ideas. Before we commit to a particular direction, we should ask ourselves:

Is the idea desirable?

  • Have we established that there is a valid and demonstrable customer want or need?
  • Can we say with certainty that customers want this product?
  • What data do we have as proof?

Is the idea viable?

  • Does this idea make sense for the company? Does it fit our strategy?
  • Does this idea make sense for the community it serves? Is it ethical and helpful?
  • Does the idea have the potential to generate the profit the company needs?

Is the idea feasible?

  • Do we have the resources and capabilities to implement this idea?
  • Can we produce this idea within our means and still add value?
  • Can we bring this product to market on time and within budget?

By asking ourselves the above questions, we can begin to prioritize and decide which ideas deserve our time and attention and which need to be either developed further or discarded.

Creative Confidence

IDEO and Stanford University D.School founder David Kelley has written a book called Creative Confidence, describing the characteristics and value of creative confidence.

In summary, David Kelley describes creative confidence as the belief in one’s abilities to be creative and develop ideas that can significantly impact society.

It is commonly believed that creativity cannot be learned, but this book challenges that notion by presenting a different way of thinking.

Creative confidence – confidence in one’s ability to create something new and meaningful – can be acquired through training, just like any other skill.

With hard work and dedication, anyone can develop their creative skills, no matter where they started!

The Art of Innovation

The Art of Innovative was written by Tom Kelley, David Kelley’s brother, and partner at IDEO.

This book is about business management practices that complement innovation.

It includes insights into the design process from IDEO, including an emphasis on people management and rapid prototyping for success.

The book emphasizes employee management techniques and frequent brainstorming sessions to develop innovative ideas.

Design Thinking vs. Human Centered Design

In short, Design Thinking is a human centered approach to innovation.

Human centered design is an approach to problem solving and innovation that focuses on the needs of people as the product’s end users.

Design thinking aims to achieve solutions that are desirable, achievable, and feasible.

During the Human Centered Design process, there is a significant focus on gaining empathy and understanding for the community you are designing for.

This deep understanding of their needs allows us to make human-centered design decisions and develop a potential solution that adds value by aligning with people’s wants and needs.

Design thinking is a human centered approach to innovation that uses design skills to develop an innovative solution that combines human needs with technical solutions to add value to the business and community the solution serves.

Design thinking leads to solutions that are desirable, achievable, and feasible.

Did IDEO Invent Design Thinking?

IDEO designers did not invent Design Thinking, but they have popularized the method, demonstrated it’s creative potential, and made it accessible to the masses by sharing their stories, experiences, and techniques.

The term Design Thinking was first coined by Herbert A. Simon, in his 1969 book The Sciences of the Artificial. In this book, he explored the ideas of rapid prototyping to build and observe systems from which we can gain insights into how to solve complex problems more effectively.

‘Wicked Problems’ were coined by Richard Buchanan to define the types of problems that Design Thinking is particularly effective at solving.

The principles of design thinking continued to gain momentum as a response to the chaos of the 1960s as a way to solve problems with a focus on human needs.

In later years, the term ‘Wicked Problems’ was coined by Richard Buchanan to define the types of problems that Design Thinking is particularly effective at solving. Wicked Problems can be defined as complex, open-ended, and ambiguous.

They are not quickly addressed with a definitive solution because these problems are often multi-faceted and have many changing variables – like complex social problems encountered by social designers.

This makes them ideal candidates for design thinking because design thinking considers the diverse and changing needs of all stakeholders and looks at the problem from a systems perspective.

Key Takeaways

  • IDEO is a renowned design thinking consultancy that has been instrumental in spreading and legitimizing the use of design thinking in companies and industries.

  • The IDEO Shopping Cart: A Design Thinking Workshop by IDEO aired on Nightline at ABC in 1999 and gave viewers insight into how these professionals could transform an everyday product in such a short period.

  • What is the IDEO design thinking process? The process is fluid and adapts depending on the context of the problem being solved. There is no set definition, methodology, or approach. However, there is a pattern of steps that are used in some of the most successful projects, including Inspiration, Synthesis, Ideation, Experimentation, and Implementation.
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