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Design Thinking ICM512

Divergent and Convergent Thinking in the Design Process

Learning when to generate ideas and when to make decisions.

Design thinking can seem a little fuzzy at first. As Ideo describes it, “There’s no single definition for design thinking. It’s an idea, a strategy, a method, and a way of seeing the world.” Fuzzy indeed. It is a process and a mindset. It requires both empathic and analytic thinking. Plus, we have to switch between divergent and convergent thinking, too! 

“There’s no single definition for design thinking. It’s an idea, a strategy, a method, and a way of seeing the world.”

Ideo

What is divergent and convergent thinking?

Divergence and convergence are complementary modes of thinking—each has its own practical uses and advantages. In design thinking, we hop between each of them throughout the process. 

Let’s take making dinner as an example. You just got home from work, and you are famished…but you also haven’t been to the grocery store in a while, so your supplies are low. You examine what ingredients you have to work with. Mentally, you imagine every combination possible to make a tasty meal. No idea is off the table, and you’re enjoying the process of inventing numerous options. Zucchini pesto… why not?! At this moment, you are exercising divergent thinking. In divergent thinking, your mind expands outward as you generate as many ideas as possible. Instead of griping about not having the ingredients you need to make a particular dish, you embrace the challenge of creating something new by using what you do have. As Ideo says, in divergence, you “create choices.”

In divergent thinking, your mind expands outward as you generate as many ideas as possible.

Ok, back to dinner. After you’ve explored all meal possibilities, you begin narrowing down your options. You may decide to cook a dish using a particular vegetable before it goes bad, or choose the quickest and simplest option you came up with—this is convergent thinking. In convergent thinking, you analyze and synthesize the information you have and use it to make informed decisions. As Ideo describes it, in convergence, you “make choices.”

In convergent thinking, you analyze and synthesize the information you have and use it to make informed decisions.

Design thinking is a natural ebb and flow between divergent and convergent thinking. As we move through each iterative stage, our frame of thought should shift with us. 

Diverging in the Empathize Phase

In Empathize, you seek to understand your users and their current challenges with a specific product, service, or situation. You observe them closely, engage with them personally, immerse yourself in their world, and try to see things through their lens. Keeping an open mind, eliminating judgment, and exploring all possibilities require divergent thinking.

Empathize methods help expand our view and understanding of the users and the scenario. 

Research

User experience design hinges on research. During the research phase, you conduct a mix of secondary, primary, quantitative, and qualitative research to understand your users and the design context. 

User Needs & Feels Statements

This quick exercise will remind you that your users are real humans with real feelings. It will keep you connected to them throughout the design process. Learn more about user need/feel statements here.

Empathy Maps

Empathy mapping describes a user’s behaviors, motivations, and attitudes. It helps you and your team focus on building products for the user’s needs versus your own desires. Learn more about the elements of an empathy map here.

Personas

Immensely popular in UX Design, personas use storytelling to convey data. By transforming abstract data into stories about people, personas equip design teams with Empathy for their users. Learn how to create a persona here.

Journey Maps

A journey map is a visual form of storytelling that provides an overhead view for stakeholders that reveals how and where user-segments interact with their brand, product, or service. A journey map aims to uncover useful insights and opportunities that companies can use to build better strategies with their customers in mind.

Check out my personal exploration into journey mapping a travel booking experience here.

Converging in the Define Phase

After immersing yourself in your users’ world in the Empathize phase, you review all your data in the Define phase. Uncovering valuable insights, identifying the problem, and clearly stating it all require convergent thinking. 

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions”.

Albert Einstein

Define methods help synthesize information and make sense of it.

Problem Statements

A problem statement identifies the user, their challenge, and the reasons they face that challenge. Thoughtful and well-crafted problem statements are crucial for the success of your product. They provide a clear goal for your team to solve and give your project a measurement for success. Learn how to construct a solid problem statement here.

POV Statements

A Point of View (POV) statements is one specific type of problem statement. A POV statement is an opportunity to tell a meaningful story that captures valuable information about the user, their needs, and your insights about the situation. The comments should be clear and concise but captivating as well. Learn about the Anatomy of Point of View (POV) statement here.

Diverging Again in the Ideate Phase

In Ideation, we return to divergent thinking to explore every possible idea for solving our well-defined problem or POV statement. Go wide and wild with ideas—don’t constrain creativity with judgment. 

Ideation requires a high-level of divergent thinking as you cook up new ideas for solving your problem statement. 

“How Might We” Questions

HMW’s are commonly used in the Ideation phase of the design thinking process to help spark divergent thinking. As explained by Stanford’s d.school, “The goal (of How Might We) is to create questions that provoke meaningful and relevant ideas; do so by keeping the questions insightful and nuanced.” 

The goal (of How Might We) is to create questions that provoke meaningful and relevant ideas; do so by keeping the questions insightful and nuanced.

Standord d.school

Learn about the value of How Might We statements in the Ideation process here.

Ideation Methods

In Ideation, you and your team brainstorm different solutions to your problem statement. There are many methods used to help generate ideas. Although each method is unique in its approach, the goal is the same for each—to kick-start creativity and develop as many creative solutions as possible.

Take a deep dive into the Ideation phase here.

This pattern of diverging and converging continues throughout the design thinking process in Prototyping and Testing as well. In a later article, I’ll continue to explore this topic in the last two phases. For now, I encourage you to embrace the fuzziness of the design thinking process, knowing very that there are plenty of tools to help guide you through every divergent hill and convergent valley. 

References & Resources

UX Design Process: Choosing and Scaling Methods by UX Planet

Human-centered design sits at the intersection of empathy and creativity by IDEO.org

Convergent Thinking Versus Divergent Thinking by John Spencer

Design Thinking Defined by IDEO

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