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Design thinking approach to problem-solving vs the traditional approach

creativity design-thinking May 07, 2024
Waterfall vs design-thinking
Design thinking is, mistakenly, often seen as a post-it game to engage people. Some fluffy methodologies which do not add much to the process of innovation. Mistakenly, because design thinking is a very different approach to problem-solving that de-risks the whole process. But before we talk about this, we'd like to dive deep into both approaches' concepts.


What is traditional problem-solving?

Traditional problem-solving is a methodical approach to addressing challenges and issues by identifying the problem, analysing the factors involved, planning a solution, executing the solution, and then reviewing the effectiveness of the intervention. This approach is characterised by its linear, step-by-step process that relies on logical reasoning and established practices to achieve a desired outcome. It often emphasises efficiency, predictability, and control, making it suitable for problems where the desired result is clear and the path to achieving it is well-defined.

Exploring Design Thinking

Description of the Approach

Design thinking is fundamentally a human-centered innovation process that seeks to solve complex problems through a direct understanding of the needs and emotions of the people involved. This approach operates on the principles of empathy for the user, holistic thinking, and iterative learning. Unlike traditional methods that follow a linear path, design thinking involves five dynamic, non-linear stages:

  • Empathise: Gain an insightful understanding of the problem from the user's perspective.
  • Define: Synthesize the information gathered during empathy into a clear, actionable problem statement.
  • Ideate: Brainstorm a range of creative solutions, challenging assumptions and exploring alternatives.
  • Prototype: Transform ideas into tangible forms so that they can be tested and refined in real-world scenarios.
  • Test: Rigorously test the completed prototypes with end-users, receive feedback, refine the solution, and repeat the cycle as necessary.

Advantages in Product Design

The application of design thinking in product design provides several unique advantages:
  • Fosters Creativity and Innovation: By encouraging out-of-the-box thinking and continuous iteration, design thinking allows designers to explore a wider range of possibilities and innovative solutions.
  • Enhances User Experience: Since the process begins with a deep empathy towards the users, the resulting products are often more aligned with what users genuinely need and want, thereby enhancing user satisfaction.
  • Adaptability: This approach's iterative nature allows for flexibility in adapting to new insights and changes during the development process, making it ideal for addressing complex and ambiguous problems where user needs evolve over time.


While design thinking offers many benefits, there are also challenges associated with its implementation:

  • Time and Resource Intensive: The iterative process of prototyping and testing can be resource-heavy and time-consuming, which may not be feasible under tight deadlines or limited budgets.
  • Dependence on User Input: The effectiveness of design thinking heavily relies on the quality and depth of user involvement. Poor user engagement or inadequate feedback can lead to less effective solutions.
  • Risk of Scope Creep: Given its iterative and open-ended nature, projects driven by design thinking can sometimes suffer from scope creep, where the project's objectives start to drift due to constant changes and iterations.

In conclusion, design thinking is a powerful approach for innovation in product design, offering significant advantages in creativity and user satisfaction. However, it requires careful management to ensure that it is used effectively within the constraints of project timelines and resources. 

Comparative Analysis of Outcomes in Product Design

Approach to Innovation
  • Traditional Problem Solving: This method is typically process-centric, prioritising efficiency, cost control, and predictability. Innovation tends to be incremental, as solutions are often constrained by existing frameworks and processes.
  • Design Thinking: By contrast, design thinking is user-centric, focusing primarily on user needs and experiences. This orientation fosters more radical innovation by encouraging the exploration of a wide range of possibilities and redefining the problems based on user feedback.
Quality of Outcomes
  • Quality in Traditional Approaches: The solutions derived from traditional problem-solving methods are generally reliable and effective within established parameters. They excel in environments where problems are well-defined and the solutions are clear-cut.
  • Quality in Design Thinking: Design thinking typically results in products that are highly tailored to meet user needs, often yielding more innovative and transformative solutions. These outcomes may better address complex or ill-defined problems that require a deep understanding of user contexts and behaviours.
Speed and Efficiency
  • Speed in Traditional Problem Solving: Traditional methods can be faster when dealing with familiar problems since they utilise established processes and rely on prior knowledge. This can lead to quicker decision-making and implementation in structured environments.
  • Efficiency in Design Thinking: Although design thinking can be more time-consuming and resource-intensive, its iterative process helps prevent costly errors later in development by involving user feedback early and often. This can lead to more effective and sustainable solutions, albeit with potentially higher initial time and cost investments.
User Satisfaction
  • Satisfaction with Traditional Methods: Products developed through traditional methods might not fully meet user expectations if those methods do not involve extensive user engagement. This can result in a mismatch between the product features and the user's actual needs.
  • Satisfaction with Design Thinking: Design thinking’s empathetic and iterative approach generally leads to higher user satisfaction, as products are continuously refined based on user input. This leads to products that people find more useful, desirable, and enjoyable.
Market Success
  • Market Success of Traditional Approaches: Traditional approaches might quickly capitalize on known markets with products that meet existing demands efficiently, potentially achieving faster time-to-market.
  • Market Success of Design Thinking: Products designed through design thinking may open up new markets or create new demand by introducing innovative features that redefine user expectations, potentially leading to significant but less predictable market success.


Both traditional problem-solving and design thinking have their merits and demerits depending on the project context. While traditional methods can offer speed and efficiency, design thinking brings depth in user understanding and innovation. Organizations aiming for groundbreaking products may benefit from incorporating principles of design thinking, especially in complex or rapidly changing environments.


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