What is Design Thinking? Let’s Bake It Out!

Mindhatch Design Thinking Associate, Varshini Balaji, design thinks her way through the baking process.

Around the time when the world started quarantining, and my university moved classes online for the remainder of the semester, I returned to my permanent home to quarantine with my family. At the time, I found myself trying to make meaning of this bizarrely reclusive dystopian reality. I was both amazed and overwhelmed by how the world was slowing down and realized that this was an opportunity to develop and sharpen a new skill/ability. A friend had gifted me a baking cookbook and an apron as a graduation present, and as faithful consumers of baked goods from grocery stores and bakeries, my family and I were interested in identifying ways to minimize our spending on the yummy stuff. Naturally, baking emerged as the appropriate and relevant skill to learn. 

Baking Cookies in Quarantine

I was excited to bake and committed myself to perfecting at least one recipe in quarantine. My family served as keen and patient taste testers. After-all, who isn’t excited by desserts and treats in an especially challenging year?! Little did I know that the process of learning to bake was going to teach me baking,  but also help me understand design thinking.

When I first heard the term, “Design Thinking” (also known as human-centered design), I thought it was a practice and tool that can only be applied in certain settings (businesses, organizations) and by certain professionals (leaders, design thinkers, and innovators).   Researchers are employing design thinking practices when they address their research questions, students are design thinking when they are designing and executing an event for their student organization/club, and chefs are practicing design thinking every time they develop a new recipe. 

What I didn’t realize is that design thinking exists in the everyday and is consistently being practiced around us.

By saying this, I don’t intend to reduce or simplify design thinking, but rather I hope to illuminate how pervasive and expansive design thinking is, which is its greatest strength. Design thinking possesses uniquely broad applicability yet it’s a deliberate and context-specific tool and mindset that promotes expansive ways of thinking and centers the human experience. Design thinking is everywhere, and we are all, inadvertently, design thinkers. However, as with any skill, effective design thinkers consistently practice and employ design thinking.   I know, you are probably thinking about the baked goods! I promise to tell you more about my chocolate chip cookies, but before I describe my cookies in great detail with fervent enthusiasm, let me provide a brief overview of design thinking.

Design thinking is a dynamic and non linear methodology that involves 5 core tenets: 1) Empathize, 2) Define, 3) Ideate, 4) Prototype, 5) Test. 

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The 5 Steps of Design Thinking

1. Empathize: In this stage, designers center human needs and problems by observing and talking (i.e., conducting interviews) to users/consumers. Developing trust with users/consumers is critical to from your conversations, organize and label your data into appropriate themes and buckets. 

To empathize with my family, I talked with them to learn about their needs, preferences, and motivations for the consumption of baked goods. Then, I synthesized our informal conversations into readily workable data and categorized them based on priorities (one family member is vegan, heavy preference for chocolate), feasibility (availability of ingredients, baking tools), and constraints (time commitment, level of skill required for each recipe considering that I was a novice baker). 

2. Define: This stage is an opportunity to craft a problem statement, which is a site of possibility that allows you to rethink your problem in a generative and futuristic manner. “How might we…” statements coupled with a clear target are useful places to start when crafting a problem statement. 

Target: Minimize expenditure on baked goods and developing a new skill.

Problem Statement: How might I create a baked product that is cost-effective and tasty?

3. Ideate: This stage involves generating ideas. Aim for quantity over quality of ideas in the ideation phase. Consider using mind maps and/or employing the “Yes, and…” approach. Start with an idea, earnestly practice “Yes, and…” to further develop your initial thoughts, and observe how your ideas build off of each other. Refrain from using “Yes, but..” or “Yes, if…” as the “Yes, and…” approach is hinged on building layers of intertwined ideas, and the word “and” emphasizes connection over dissonance. 

My conversations with my family informed the ideas I generated. Upon considering preferences, feasibility, and constraints, I brainstormed numerous possibilities: scones, pies, pistachio cookies, chocolate cakes, and chocolate chip cookies. I realized that chocolate chip cookies would be a feasible and forgiving entry point to the world of baking as they are less resource and skill intensive.  

A group of people in a room

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4. Prototype: This stage involves rapidly transforming ideas into low investment, tangible solutions. In the prototyping stage, don’t seek perfection. Prototypes are created as cheaply and quickly as possible. 

The ideating stage adequately prepared me to prototype my first batch of cookies. I had all the necessary ingredients and identified a vegan friendly cookie recipe. Then, I jumped right into my first baking attempt fully aware that my cookies were not going to be perfect. Excitement grew in my house as I prototyped my first batch of chocolate chip cookies (pictured here).

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My first cookie prototype

5. Test: In this stage, you test your prototype and receive feedback from users and consumers about its usability, desirability, and feasibility. The purpose of the feedback is to understand what is working and what isn’t. Additionally, draw connections between the feedback you receive in the testing stage and the data you collected in the empathizing stage. Is the prototype really addressing the problem?

My family (consumers) provided specific and direct feedback: the cookies were too chewy and needed more chocolate chips. I realized that I had made the cookies the way I wanted them by incorporating fewer chocolate chips and not adequately chilling the dough. My family’s feedback indicated clear ways to improve and refine a new batch of cookies. With rapid feedback and testing, I landed on the most satisfactory result: chocolate chip cookies baked for 9 minutes at 375 degrees by chilling the dough for exactly an hour (no more, and certainly no less), lots of chocolate chips, and a generous handful of finely chopped walnuts or pecans. Voila! 

It’s important to remember that design thinking isn’t simply a step-by-step process, which when followed diligently, yields successful results. Rather, design thinking is a way of working and building a culture that promotes collaboration and an egalitarian mindset. Importantly, design thinking encourages new ideas by reframing failure as an opportunity—even a necessary step—in the process of developing a meaningful solution. Finally, design thinking requires the humility to embrace failures, the curiosity to consistently experiment, and a commitment to futuristic thinking. 

Design thinking is everywhere: from baking cookies and writing a research paper for a class to developing a new product/experience and transforming organizational culture. The world is complex, dynamic, interconnected, and profoundly human. Design thinking repeatedly reminds us of our humanness and what we can accomplish by collaborating, asking the hard questions, and fearlessly imagining radical possibilities. This makes design thinking a deeply relevant way of thinking and an impactful mindset to cultivate.

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Varshini Balaji
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Varshini Balaji

Varshini is a Design Thinking Associate at Mindhatch.

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