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Embrace Design Thinking for Research Impact

It is hard to translate academic research into practical real-world applications.  The journey from academic research to meaningful socio-economic impact is fraught with challenges and obstacles. Design Thinking is one of the most useful tools for helping researchers navigate this journey. This means it is a must-have framework for any researcher who aims to deliver impactful and practical solutions.  

Design Thinking is a user-centric approach based on empathy, creativity, and iterative learning. It equips researchers with a toolkit for translating academic research into practical application.  

In this 5-minute read, we will introduce you to the key concepts of Design Thinking. Then we will make the case for why researchers who want to deliver impact should know how to apply the framework and supporting tools.  

The Core of Design Thinking 

Design thinking is a methodology designed to solve complex problems with a focus on understanding the needs of those who will be impacted by the solutions. It has five key stages – empathise, define, ideate, prototype, and test. Each of these stages is critical in developing innovative solutions grounded in real human experiences. Thus, integrating design thinking into the research process offers researchers a unique lens through which to view their work, ensuring it is innovative, impactful, and useful.

Design Thinking Article Graphic

Empathy: Understanding Beyond “The Tech”

Empathy is at the heart of design thinking. It is the ability to understand and share and understand the feelings of others. For university researchers, this means stepping beyond the hard numbers, technology, and science to become immersed in the lives of those they aim to help. Consequently, this deeper, more nuanced understanding of human behaviour helps identify the root causes of issues, leading to more targeted and effective research. 

Define: Sharpening Research Focus 

In the context of design thinking, defining helps researchers crystallise observations into precise problem statements. This clarity helps to direct research efforts towards well-defined challenges, thereby ensuring the solutions are relevant to user needs. Achieving a clear focus can mean the difference between interesting research and research that has an impact on society. 

Ideate: Broadening Horizons 

Ideation encourages the generation of a wide range of solutions, promoting creative thinking and collaboration. This enables the creation of opportunities to break free from traditional constraints and explore innovative approaches that could lead to ground breaking discoveries. Though creating a large volume of diverse ideas, the research process is enriched. Which, in turn, can lead to more innovative and effective solutions.  

Prototype: Testing Ideas in the Real World 

Prototyping is a powerful process for translating abstract ideas into something tangible, allowing for testing, evaluation, and high-quality feedback. This iterative approach not only facilitates immediate feedback, it also offers a better understanding of how solutions might be implemented and scaled in the real world. Consequently, prototyping is a critical step in the process of finding viable applications for research outside “the lab.” 

Test: Refining for Greater Impact 

The final stage of the design thinking process is testing. Typically, it involves obtaining feedback on prototypes from end-users, and then refining the solution based on learnings. By adopting this cycle of testing and learning, researchers can  fine-tune their research outcomes to meet user needs. This commitment to testing, learning, adapting, and continuous improvement is fundamental to developing solutions to complex challenges. 

The Value of Understanding Design Thinking for Researchers 

By applying Design Thinking to projects, researchers develop the ability to deliver impact with their research. However, the benefits of embedding Design Thinking as a core competency and mindset with university researchers go well beyond affecting any one project.  

Design Thinking can help cultivate a culture of innovation. Grasping the principles of design thinking promotes an innovative mindset among researchers, encouraging them to view challenges through a holistic lens. This mindset then supports the development of more robust solutions that are technologically advanced, socially equitable, and commercially viable.  

Design Thinking promotes interdisciplinary engagement. It does this by fostering interdisciplinary engagement and breaking down academic silos. By encouraging researchers to collaborate across disciplines, design thinking brings together diverse perspectives and expertise. This can then lead to more comprehensive and innovative solutions. 

Design Thinking ensures relevance and accessibility. Understanding design thinking ensures that research is relevant to society’s changing needs. This is critical for delivering socio-economic impact that is beneficial and accessible for key stakeholders.  

Design Thinking positions researchers to deliver real-world impact. This approach prepares researchers to navigate the uncertainties and complexities related to developing solutions for application beyond the lab. It also equips them with the skills to engage with diverse stakeholders, adapt to shifting needs, and drive innovations that have lasting socio-economic impact. 

Design Thinking empowers researchers with a robust framework for enhancing the socio-economic impact of their work. It also grounds research in empathy, encourages ideation, and embraces iterative development. By utilising these skills and approtaches, researchers can ensure their contributions are both innovative and attuned to human needs.

Translating academic research into practical applications is more important than ever. And, Design Thinking is one of the most useful tools researchers can use to turn their groundbreaking research into impactful, real-world solutions. 

Design Thinking

Explore the key elements of the Design Thinking process using engaging, interactive approaches.

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