Design Thinking: Applications to Public Relations

While doing some research on design thinking, I couldn’t find any resources on how to apply it to the field of public relations! I was shocked because design thinking has been around for several years – there ought to be somebody out there who needs to use these principles for PR. This prompted me to seek ways to incorporate design thinking into public relations strategies and tactics, hopefully inspiring us to build empathetic solutions to problems we face as PR pros – and fill the gap for those of us who are seeking to implement these strategies into public relations.

What is design thinking?

According to Stanford, “design thinking is a methodology for creative problem solving” that can be applied to any subject matter. To design an effective solution to a problem, design thinkers typically follow the following steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

Design Thinking Process, Stanford

How did I get started?

My father, Eric Kunnen, Senior Director, IT Innovation & Research at GVSU, introduced me to design thinking while I was a freshman at GVSU. The following year, I decided to jump in and participate in the Design Thinking Academy – an organization dedicated to incorporating these principles to problem solve on campus.

During the school year, my team and I worked to solve a problem with the employee review system at GVSU using design thinking. At first, this was incredibly complex to me – I didn’t understand the model and quite honestly, I was confused about what design thinking even meant. After workshops at organizations like WMCAT (West Michigan Center for Arts & Technology), I began to develop a deeper understanding and passion for design thinking – which has compelled me to incorporate it into my profession today.

Before we dive in – the biggest design thinking roadblock

The biggest difficulty when using design thinking is not accurately assessing the problem. If we do not know how to accurately assess the problem, we can’t develop any effective solutions. It is important to note that it may seem easy to define the problem, but we need to be sure we are not identifying a symptom, and instead, defining the problem itself.

Let me give you an example.

Going back to the employee review system problem. There were a number of issues with the process, a poor user interface, inconsistencies in timing, and plenty of others – but these were not the real problem, they were simply symptoms. The real problem was that the employee review system was a formality, and never truly had personalized meaning to each individual receiving feedback. After realizing this, our team was able to design solutions that targeted the motivation behind the review system, better solving the issue at hand.

Identifying the proper problem is essential, and without it, we design for nothing.

5 Ways to Use Design Thinking in Public Relations

1. Use Empathy to Learn About Key Publics

It can be easy to design solutions that are centered around your preconceptions of a problem without empathy. This is why empathy is overlooked. We often feel like we have everything figured out, which is not the case. People are aware of empathy, but often, do not truly try to understand their audience(s).

In our project, we conducted interviews with faculty members and staff to understand their pain points. This is an easy way to get a gauge of what your key publics are thinking. The Stanford gives us a template to work from while conducting interviews.

4 ways to incorporate empathy into PR tactics

  • Find story ideas (and see where people are passionate) during your interviews
  • Attack people’s pain points in your organization with effective comms.
  • Ask open-ended questions to get the feedback you need.
  • Empathize with journalists and the media to pitch the best stories you can.

2. Use Design Thinking to Define Your Problems

problem’s symptom is an indication that something didn’t work out quite as expected. A problem cause, on the other hand, is the reason why the problem occurred in the first place.

Defining your problems is the most important piece of design thinking. As mentioned earlier, if you cannot accurately define your problem, you cannot effectively design solutions.

You cannot hope to solve your problem by solving a symptom, rather you need to get to the root of the issue.

Back to our employee review system problem – the real problem was that the employee review system was a formality, and never truly had personalized meaning to each individual receiving feedback.

5 practices to define your PR problems

  • Be honest with your research and withhold your personal bias.
  • Let the facts and emotions of others be relevant.
  • Think deeply about each stakeholder and how they affect what you are trying to solve.
  • Make a list of possible problems.
  • Work to determine symptoms vs. problems.

3. Ideate Potential Solutions

Once we have defined our problem, we need to focus on coming up with potential solutions to fix the problem. This part of the process is called ideation.

Workshopper has a fantastic article on this.

I will highlight a few ideation exercises in the list below, and all can be applied to solve PR problems.

  • Crazy Eights – create 8 rapid iterations of possible solutions for problems using a sheet of paper with 8 boxes (one for each solution).
  • Quick Ideas – come up with as many ideas as possible in 8 minutes focusing on quantity over quality.
  • SCAMPER Technique – an acronym that stands for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, and Reverse.

4. Prototype

After we have empathized with our users, defined our problem, and ideated potential solutions, we need to start the prototyping process.

Prototyping is a simple experimental model of a proposed solution used to test or validate ideas, design assumptions and other aspects of its conceptualization quickly and cheaply so that the designer/s involved can make appropriate refinements or possible changes in direction.

Interaction Design Foundation

5. Test

Testing our solutions is essential to success. Without testing, we cannot determine how a potential solution will affect the end-user.

After testing and evaluating your solution, it is important to re-visit previous steps to strengthen your product or service. For example, if you find your users are not receiving your solution, you might need to conduct additional empathy research.

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