Design Thinking Explored: A Primer

In September, I was fortunate to again attend the Medicine X Conference at Stanford University. A core focus of this conference—which is now tag lined “People. Technology. Design.”—is that of design thinking and the possibilities of the How Might We? style of thinking. Last year, after returning from Medicine X, where I was given the opportunity to observe the MedX-IDEO Design Challenge, I wrote a post about the phrase How Might We, and how it might pertain to asthma and design. This year, I was directly involved in the MedX-IDEO Design Challenge as a patient. In an upcoming post, I will share about my day spent at IDEO in 2017, and the process of brainstorming, ideating and prototyping a solution for asthma during this rapid-fire, eight-hour workshop.
However, before IDEO I had homework, and I think that’s because they want you to have the background to really immerse yourself in the process rather than the theory on Challenge Day (although we got some valuable, tangible lessons from Dennis Boyle, Partner and founding member of IDEO, on challenge day!).

How Might We: Exploring Possibility
Each word of the How Might We mantra of the IDEO design methodology is chosen deliberately 1:

  • how seeks ideas, and descriptiveness
  • might means there is no correct response, and encourages out-of-the-box thinking
  • we encourages participation by all, and emphasizes teamwork.

The phrase How Might We—abbreviated as HMW—encourages wild thinking, collaboration, tangible ides (and intangible ones!), and problems solutions that can be both expanded upon and refined in the rest of the design process. HMW = possibility.

The “Rules” of Brainstorming for Design Thinking

When you walk into IDEO, Dennis tells you no matter what your actual ‘title’, “Today, you are ALL designers.” He’s not joking. If you read that post on How Might We, above, you may realize I wrote I am not a designer. I was wrong, okay? Dennis made me a designer when I spent the day in his world, with an amazing team, on September 14. My team included four designers of different capacities (two members of the team at the Sibley Innovation Hub at Johns Hopkins, which Kat and I visited in March!) and a parent-innovator—can you say dream team? However, that day, we were all designers.
What are the brainstorming rules at IDEO? 2

  1. Defer judgement. Everyone should feel welcome to share their ideas, as you never know where the “aha” moment will arise from!
  2. Encourage wild ideas. Think it’s impossible? Write it down anyways. Don’t think with limits or constraints.
  3. Build on the ideas of others. Build up ideas that may not be your personal favourite instead of tearing them down. As the DesignKit website states “we try to use ‘and’ instead of ‘but’”. 2 Huge.
  4. Stay focused on the topic. You know how brainstorming sessions tend to explode into things that are not actually relevant to the task at hand? Yeah, that. One thing at a time, don’t solve every problem at once.
  5. One conversation at a time. Converse with your whole team, with everybody engaged.
  6. Be visual. This is where those Post-Its come in. Write it, draw it, and after the timed brainstorm (if used), throw it on a wall for “show and tell”. Written ideas, random words, design principles/needs, and drawings of potential prototypes were all things that ended up on Post-Its.
  7. Go for quantity. I took pictures of our Post-It boards on Design Challenge day. A quick count? Approximately 250 Post-Its were cranked out by our group—most of those over the course of a 10 minute brainstorming session. And they kept coming as we continued to sort and refine the ideas!

These truly should be the rules for brainstorming everywhere. Because, while IDEO may be the largest consumer of Post-Its worldwide, these rules work.
As evidenced by the 250 Post-Its that made it on to our team’s boards alone.

Empathy: The core of human-centered design.

Being the patient that my group was trying to “solve” a problem for, I spent close to two hours answering in depth questions about asthma, my experiences, and my feelings, as they related to the problem and so that my team could have a better sense of what asthma looks like, for me. I’ve done this process twice, but I truly think there is no better way to create empathy than spending an entire day putting yourself in “someone else’s shoes” to create a solution for that person. I had a rather empathetic group to begin with, and their questions were on point right from the start. Plus they were super-smart! In my post on the Medicine X-IDEO Design Challenge itself I’ll share more of my experience, the design problem I face that we chose, and how we refined those 250 Post-Its into a prototype!

Have you ever been a part of a project grounded in human-centered design thinking?


This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.