Design Thinking – agile innovation method for the industry?

Basic knowledge – Design Thinking
Design Thinking – agile innovation method for the industry?

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Finding innovative solutions to complex problems helps the agile innovation method with design thinking. It puts the customer advantage in the foreground – also something for mechanical engineering?

Innovation with design thinking – the agile innovation method is also used in industry.

Companies, research teams and developers from mechanical engineering are often confronted with complex issues. A dynamic context and many unknown variables are not the exception, but the rule. With the agile innovation method Design Thinking, these issues can be tackled and resolved in an agile way. The focus is on the benefit to the customer or user, also during development and research. The method differs significantly from other approaches in its strict customer orientation.

Customer orientation, agility and interdisciplinarity – the key characteristics of design thinking

Design thinking originally came from the environment of designers who wanted to understand and develop problem-solving-oriented processes – hence the name. The method hit the dam via Silicon Valley in the years after 2007. Today it is used by numerous well-known companies such as SAP, Lufthansa or IBM – be it for individual issues or as a holistic, comprehensive implemented method and way of thinking. The main features of the versatile innovation method include aspects of customer orientation, agility and interdisciplinarity. The core is as follows: Experts from different disciplines work together in an agile way to solve an identified problem – for example in innovative product development in mechanical engineering.

Systematic optimization of a product becomes possible

Feedback loops or iterative loops (iterative = step-by-step) enable systematic improvement of products and services in design thinking. A prerequisite for successful application in mechanical engineering is the presence of a creative, open environment and experts from different disciplines. Companies that have have both good opportunities to benefit from the method – in the development of prototypes and in the further development of existing processes or components from a user benefit point of view.

Rethinking is required in mechanical engineering

Another prerequisite for successful implementation of design thinking in mechanical engineering is the willingness to think along and innovate. So far, the focus in product development has been on technological feasibility, but now that the method has been implemented, direct customer requirements are in focus. As a result, the task itself undergoes a fundamental change. The benefits are obvious: Through cross-hierarchical collaboration between different experts – such as digitization specialists and product designers – problems can be identified more quickly and solved step by step using feedback loops. Incidentally, different means are used for feedback loops, depending on the task. External methods such as surveys or focus group interviews are also used. Properties that the user wants – which otherwise threaten to be neglected – can thus be taken into account at an early stage in the development and implementation process.

The six steps in design thinking

Design Thinking consists of six phases or steps. It is by no means a one-dimensional method, but rather a multi-part process that can be handled variably. Together, the six steps result in an intuitive process that, regardless of all variability, has sufficient structure and strength for a targeted, secure approach. The six steps are:

  • Understand: That way, everyone involved is brought to the same level. You agree on a common language (literally as well as figuratively) and define the problem in its basic features.
  • Watch: Through observation and direct interaction with the customer, the focus is on the user’s needs.
  • Definition of the point of view. The aim here is to develop a framework for solving the problem based on the information gathered.
  • Brainstorming: The team gathers ideas, evaluates and then sorts by priority.
  • prototyping: A prototype is created based on data obtained in steps 1 to 4. It does not have to be perfect, but it must be presentable.
  • Test: In the final phase, the customer or user is confronted with the prototype and asked about it. The knowledge gained here is then incorporated into the further development. Depending on the feedback from the test, it goes back to steps 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 – until the product or service is actually salable.

Practical examples


In mechanical engineering, design thinking typically serves either to fundamentally expand the product portfolio or to improve existing products. For example, components in the automation industry can be developed and brought to market using the agile innovation method. Other well-known practical examples are new business models from the areas of Industry 4.0 and digitization in mechanical engineering. Developments / services and products such as Airbnb, an innovative children’s toothbrush, Embrace baby incubator and a training configurator for Audi employees can also be traced back to design thinking.

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