Design Thinking With A Touch of Physics


I will like to open with a quote by Albert Einstein, Theoretical physicist (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955). “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”.

I have chosen to touch on Einstein’s unique approach to solving problems. He was known for dropping out of school at 15 because his use for visual imagination for learning and understanding which was fundamental to his extraordinary thought process was viewed unfavourably by his teachers. This ideology of imagination which is fuelled by understanding and empathy is noted to be more important than knowledge by this renowned theorist who conceptualised a great many scientific concepts, even the famed E=mc2.    Yes, the very same equation that aided in our understanding of modern nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Design thinking is no different. It’s stepping stones to a problem solution or innovation are empathy, define, ideate, prototyping and evaluate. It is a solution base approach starting from a clean slate with unbiased information / reasoning endeavouring to understand a problem with a human centric perspective to solve it.


Design is a two-way street; not only must we try to solve a problem for the end-users, but we must consider the various stakeholders involved and recognise as well as appreciate the various touchpoints of the users in the journey. By doing so, we won’t be too fixated on the functional needs of the users but also the cognitive and emotional needs, which are also known as “latent needs”; needs that these users may not know that are essential which could be converted into demand. In the words of Kelli Anderson, “design is more of a conversation than a monologue”. In order to truly empathise, we ought to submerge ourselves in the users’ environment to get a feel of it ourselves if we aren’t familiar, place ourselves in their shoes, even talk and conduct interviews to hear and understand their experiences and motivations.

We need to look out for non-verbal cues, things that they do and/or don’t do or things that they don’t say and ask ourselves “why?”.  We also must look out for the extreme users, those who don’t partake or are enthusiastic about a concept or item and again ask ourselves what is causing this lack of motivation and passion respectively. After such a thorough examination, we can humanise our target segment by creating a user persona (the main segment that we choose to focus on) and justify why we want to focus on this group and elaborate on their potential vexations, interests, motivations and even possible personalities where we can derive their unmet needs comprehensively. By drawing out a user journey map, by shadowing a user we can illustrate profoundly what are their respective interactions, pain points and even their emotions by noticing their pitch of voice or body language. Empathy is thus a cornerstone. It was because of Einstein’s placing himself in a situation where he imagined “himself” riding a free-falling elevator that eventually allowed him to understand that gravity and acceleration was the same thing.

Define and Ideate

Next will be the problem definition and ideation stage. This is where we synthesise the information gathered from the empathy stage in order to analyse them to come with up a problem statement. This problem statement will be the basis of what we are trying to solve, for whom and why we are keen in solving it. It is my personal favourite because the sky is the limit here. We want to come with as many as ideas and possible solutions for the problem we have at hand even if it may not seem feasible; here, in this stage we want our imagination and creativity to reign.

Again, I will touch on Einstein’s thought process where he was able to envisioned and conclude that the Universe was four dimensional which includes the stars, planets and celestial bodies all acting like “fabric” being pulled and tugged by gravity, whereas prior to him, Isaac Newton proposed the universe to be just one- dimensional, so do not let prior knowledge or feasibility limit you but actually build upon ideas. Just keep generating ideas and synthesis them whether using an affinity map for multiple ideas and categories, a Venn diagram to see similarities and differences or using a spectrum to illustrate a range comprehensively.


Now, we move on to the prototyping stage which is where we will get our hands busy. We want to explore whether our possible solutions are meeting or not meeting the needs, where are they meeting or not meeting the needs, and if they are invoking the right emotions in the humans involved and help us gauge whether we have deduced the right pain points from the empathy and ideation stages. It is where we can build a mock-up, a wireframe, role-play or even develop a 3D model for us to validate and test our assumptions with the users intended. It is quick and can be inexpensive and it is a stage where we must be mindful not to fall in love with our prototypes. Prototypes are meant to fail, and we must not be discouraged to revisit the empathy and ideation stages to evaluate the right pain points and possible solutions. Be prepared to pivot your ideas and solutions. You could either zoom in to a feature to solve a problem or zoom out and cover a multiple of areas.

Do not be afraid to make changes and draw inspiration from various places. Einstein just like all of us too actually fell prey to this. Despite being a remarkable scientist, he limited himself to reconciling general relativity with Newton’s theory which was where he drew inspiration from and that is great, but he was also stuck in his own quest of unifying all these field theories which limited his research significantly. He believed that he only had to deal with gravity and electromagnetism, but now modern physicists have realised that there is a force connecting atomic nuclei and another regulating radioactive! Einstein himself have written this “I have locked myself into quite hopeless scientific problems.”


Finally, the testing stage is where users get to experience the prototype without actual guidance. Before putting something out in the market or to be deemed “the” solution, a full-scale testing is required. This helps prevent unnecessarily low market receptivity, lack of problem solving or in worst cases amplifies the problem or create more problems to solve. The testing stage is what provides us an opportunity to evaluate and observed the natural behaviour and receptivity of the users in a non-biased setting to collect end process data. This stage prevents us from making the wrong and massive investments both cost and labour wise in building a “solution” that wasn’t one in the first place. It is the very reason why people ask why Einstein didn’t build a time machine. Well, that is not what he was trying to solve and even though his research may be ground breaking in that field, he believed that his theory should not to be taken nor necessary to be taken practically but as a tool to envisioned and provoke concepts in this field.

Do not be afraid of failing

Last but not least, do not be afraid of failing. Fail fast and fail often. It will help you discover what is wrong quicker and makes you much closer to the solution as you gain much experience and understanding. Fear limits creativity and imagination. Remember, I told you at the beginning he was dropped out of school due to the way he thought things through and was disapproved by his educators, well he ended up being one of the most remarkable scientists of his times.  In the words of the man himself, Einstein, “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new”. Thank you for having me and have a wonderful day ahead!


2 thoughts on “Design Thinking With A Touch of Physics

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