Design Thinking and Research Methods

Lately I have been reading about Design Thinking (DT) and its application in libraries. Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO explains that “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” In essence, it’s a design methodology that provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. The Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford ( proposed a five-stage Design Thinking model – Empathise, Define (the problem), Ideate, Prototype, and Test. This model actually shares a lot of characteristics of the research process – I often tell students that our research methods course aim to equip them with practical problem solving skills via a valid and reliable research process, that is, a process of arriving at dependable solutions to problems through the planned and systematic collection, analysis, and interpretation of data.

Here’s how the DT process and the research process overlaps:

The first two steps of DT are emphathize and define (the problem), which focuses on determining the problem that needs solving through observing, engaging and empathizing with the target population people to understand their experiences and motivations, and then analyzing the observations and synthesizing them in order to define the core problems in a human-centred manner. This is similar to the research question formulation stage of the research process, where we determine the objective/problem of our research study (e.g. to provide better library services to international students) and develop the question our research seeks to answer (e.g. what are the library needs of international students).

Then, the third step of DT is ideate, where ideas are being generated to identify solutions to the problem. In the research process, in order to generate ideas to solve the problem (e.g. figure out how to provide better library services to international students), we need to choose a proper research method (e.g. survey), devise a meaningful data collection instrument (e.g. the survey questionnaire), and collect data from the appropriate population (e.g. a representative sample of international students).

The fourth step of DT – prototype,  is an experimental phase that seeks to identify the best possible solution. The prototypes are investigated and either accepted, improved and re-examined, or rejected on the basis of the users’ experiences.  This sort of mirrors the data analysis stage of the research process, where we analyze the collected data and synthesize it to answer the research question (e.g. describing the library needs of international students), and such an answer will tell us what we should do to solve the problem (e.g. based on the needs of international students, what changes we should make to current library resources/services/programs, and what new elements we should add).

In the final stage of DT – test, rigorous testing is conducted to examine the efficacy of the solution, and alterations and refinements are made to continuously improve the solution. In research, especially applied research, it is not uncommon to conduct evaluation of the actions we take to solve practical problems as a result of a research study (e.g. after we implement changes/additions to library services for international students as informed by our research study, we evaluate the efficacy of these changes/additions and to make further refinements if necessary).

So, looks like I can include some readings on DT in my research methods class now. 🙂

For those interested, here are some useful resources on DT:

IDEO Shopping cart example

A Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking

Design Thinking for Libraries Toolkit



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