With Design Thinking becoming quite a bit of a buzzword, IDEO’s Kelley brothers being featured all over Harvard Business Review, and Jonathan Ive taking control over products at Apple I have recently seen a few posts from engineers questioning the increasing focus on design in product development.

I think it’s the understanding of design that’s at issue here. If I’d perceive “design” to be just about the look of things, the shape of an enclosure, the graphic appearance of a web site – I’d probably share the sentiment.

To me however there is a lot of value in “true” design, the kind that goes beyond just surface and looks. The type of design that is concerned with understanding (and not just asking) users in search of the better answer and subjective experience.

The traditional business – and as a result engineering – approach all too often just follows the logic of numerical models, many times simply linearly extrapolating a seemingly successful past.

A recent typical example of that seems what happened to the notebook industry with netbook sales exploding between 2008 and 2010. With all numbers pointing in the right direction, the vast majority of the industry was going for more of the same with longer battery lifetime, more speed, better screens, and lower prices. And if you would just have asked users, they would probably also have answered along the lines of “more for less” and “a bit more lightweight, please”. Enter the iPad in 2010. And if you look around by the end of 2012 – netbooks have become all but extinct.

What happened? Apple had understood what many – if not most – of the netbook buyers truly wanted: a lightweight and ideally inexpensive device that allowed to casually consume internet content. In the words of Steve Jobs: “To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really grok what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that.”

Design Thinking – as I understand it – provides a canon of approaches and methodologies to do exactly that: understand the user and his desires and problems. Applied properly, Design Thinking has the potential to reduce product risk significantly and provide validity to assumptions about an individual user’s desires often “buried” in a market segment in the traditional approach. In addition its collaborative approach helps the early stages of a product’s development by aligning the product team’s vision around a proper understanding of end user requirements.

Best of all Design Thinking does not require a degree in industrial design (of any other of design’s specializations for that matter). It does not even require major investments into technology, software systems or anything along these lines. Fundamentally, anybody concerned with a product’s success can relatively quickly understand and apply the principles. It just takes a shift of mindset. That is probably why large corporates as diverse as SAP and Deutsche Bank (who hardly have a history of succumbing to the fuzzies) are taking to it.