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Design Thinking Using Behavioural Science

The scope of what design is is as broad as this expanse. By and large, it is safe to say that design is anything tangible or non-tangible created and constructed by us humans. Creations by artificial intelligence included. This means design as a human skill existed since the time when the first tools were made. But it was only in the 60s, through industrial design and product design, did this field of work see the light of being distinguished as a discipline on its own. Away from the shadows of engineering and science. Ever since the design discipline has transformed. From being a mere skill-based domain, it is now a multidisciplinary approach to problem-solving. The term ‘design thinking’ thus caught on since.

Design Thinking Defined

In simple words, it is a problem-solving process that anchors to a creative approach to perceive a problem and solve it. The problem to be addressed may be at a functional level, a strategic level or a process level. Applications for Design Thinking in problem solving is expansive. For example, based on feedback from a users’ use of a faucet, design thinking can be applied to redesign the faucet to become more efficient in managing excessive water loss (functional). Similarly, it can also be applied to develop marketing and selling strategies for the faucet (strategy and process). This means design thinking is applicable to anything from simple tool design to organisational development to social change and innovation. In all, Design Thinking deliberates designers to achieve what Victor Papanek preached design should be:

“Design must be an innovative, highly creative, cross-disciplinary tool responsive to the needs of men. It must be more research-oriented, and we must stop defiling the earth itself with poorly-designed objects and structures.”
“Design, if it is to be ecologically responsible and socially responsive, must be revolutionary and radical.”

Design Thinking + Human-Centred Design (HCD)

A key to solving these social or organisational problems is understanding the stakeholders and users, their needs, goals, expectations, capabilities, etc. To achieve this, Design Thinking through the lens of HCD relies on explorative research and empathizing with the stakeholders for whom the systems and interventions are to be designed. Usually, the HCD driven design thinking process involves 5 stages:

  1. Empathize (with the stakeholders, understand their needs)

  2. Define (the problem)

  3. Ideate (outside the box thinking, challenging conventions)

  4. Prototype (Ideas materialised into small-scale tangible intervention artefacts)

  5. Test & Iterate (Pilot run and test final prototypes to scale, iterate based on feedback, up till final solution decision)

At each stage, this process deliberates the designer to focus on the stakeholder and rely on their intuition to synthesise, derive insights and ideate.

What is Behavioural Science and why is it necessary for use with Design Thinking?

Behavioural science is the study of human behaviours dominantly spanning the disciplines of behavioural economics, cognitive neuroscience, sociology, and anthropology. In application, it is an interdisciplinary field of study not limited to the listed four disciplines. Since our behaviours are the manifestation of the conscious and non-conscious decisions we make, human decision-making and thus the emotion appraisals are a focal point of research that uses behavioural sciences.

Acknowledging the success of design thinking+HCD application to problem-solving, I have identified two key advantages of embedding behavioural sciences in this process:

1.Behavioural Sciences are inherently human-centric and provide answers to the deeper whys: Road accidents are common, the safety issue is personal and their occurrences are life-taking threats. Still, we adhere to rash and highspeed driving, do not wear seat belts and helmets and jaywalk. This is because, as behavioural science informs us, we are overconfident about our abilities in driving, we are cognitively limited in judging the speed of big, fast-moving objects, and our brain is not cued to distinguish between highspeed driving and overspeeding.

These user insights are not merely what we empathetically hear or see as behaviours. These are insights dug from the deep workings of the human brain; those that drive the decisions inside, which manifest as actions outside (behaviours witnessed).

Using behavioural science for problem-solving will thus shift the solution direction from ‘How might we make the road users reduce speed’ to ‘How might we make the road users judge their speed’ and ‘How might we make risk available in lieu of their overconfidence’ — it will make us address the deeper whys of our behaviours. And may be, enable the interventions to be long(er) sustaining of the intended behavioural outcomes.

2. Behavioural Sciences Inform Intuition: Intuition expands with our experience. Our every experience including those that were processed non-consciously gets catalogued in the brain as memories. At the time of decision making the brain makes associations with our catalogued memories (experiences), to inform our decisions. But intuition can backfire because it is based on subjective perceptions of individual experiences and we will fall prey to our own biases.

On the other hand, reliance on insights and facts derived using behavioural sciences at various stages of the problem-solving process would reduce dependence on ones own perceptions and help validate or negate assumptions. Thereby directing our inferences to be more objective and better informing intuition.


Everything is interconnected. Contributions from all disciplines add significant value to understanding the workings of this universe. At last, we have gradually started to acknowledge this. Put together, the knowledge that we have gained of us now is the most advanced than ever before. What is then stopping us from applying these learnings to our everyday lives, to find answers to our daily perils, and to design solutions for them?

It is established that Design is a knowledge-based process that is ever-evolving. Merging behavioural sciences to advance this knowledge is the only natural step forward to addressing complex social problems.



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