People Innovation Excellence

Design Thinking: The Loop by IBM

The heart of IBM Design Thinking is a set of behaviors focused on discovering users’ needs and envisioning a better future. We call it the Loop. The Loop is a continuous cycle of observing, reflecting and making.

  • Observe to see what others look past. Take it all in with open eyes and ears to find out what’s important to your users and also see how your ideas hold up to their expectations.
  • Reflect to synthesize what you and your teammates have learned, articulate a point of view and come up with a plan.
  • Make to give concrete form to abstract ideas and turn intent into reality.

While you can start your journey anywhere on the Loop, we recommend beginning with reflection to form your intent. Then make or observe to open up the possibilities and continuously build on your understanding.

Shaping the possible

If research is the discipline of understanding the world, design is the discipline of shaping it. While research asks “what is?” design asks “what should be?” Design problems are problems with no predetermined solution. They are questions with no right answer. They require us to make decisions about an uncertain future.

Some of us thrive in uncertainty. Some of us went to school for it. But for others of us, the fear of making the wrong move can paralyze us, trapping us in a cycle of doubt and inaction. After all, what do you do when you don’t know what to do?

In the midst of this uncertainty, design thinking provides us a model for action. We call this model The Loop: a continuous cycle of observing, reflecting, and making. It drives us to understand the present and envision the future. It enables us to build on our successes and learn from our failures along the way. When taken to heart, the Loop keeps us moving forward despite the uncertainty the future may hold.

Finding your momentum

To get started, bring your team together to reflect. What are your capabilities as a team? What problem are you solving together? What do you know, and what don’t you know?

As you work to answer these questions, come up with a plan. You can learn more about your users’ world by observing, or you can get your hands dirty and make your ideas real. Go in any order you like, but make sure to do all three. Observing and reflecting without making is analysis paralysis; making and reflecting without observing is blind faith.

Take as many loops around the problem in the time you have, but be ready to commit to the decision you believe is best. Even after you commit, you’ll discover new problems to solve and new ideas to explore. What’s important is that you find your team’s momentum and keep moving.

Step 1: Observe

Observing is immersing yourself in the real world in order to get to know users, uncover needs, understand context, and listen for feedback.

Immerse yourself in the real world

Whether you’re identifying new opportunities or evaluating existing ideas, breakthrough ideas are born from a deep understanding of the real-world problems we’re solving for our users. This understanding isn’t gained by sitting at our desks and conference tables. It’s gained by getting out of the building and meeting our users where they are.

Observing users in their world gives you the opportunity to empathize with their experience, understand their context, uncover hidden needs, and hear their honest and unfettered feedback. As you investigate their world, soak up what you see without judgement and observe the obvious with a critical eye. Great discoveries often begin with an observation you can’t explain.

Understanding can’t be delegated. Observe as a team when you can and share your findings with each other when you can’t. Everyone on your team should have chance to see their users’ world so they can contribute their unique perspective to the situation.

Step 2: Reflect


Reflect is coming together and looking within to get to know each other, align intent, uncover new insights, and come up with a plan.

Come together and look within

As a project progresses, we’re constantly taking in new information. Observing generates fresh data about the real world, while making generates new ideas and opportunities to pursue. But as this information reveals the complexity of our problem space, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, drift out of alignment, or lose sight of the mission we set out to accomplish together.

This is why it’s important to regularly reflect as a team. Reflecting brings your team together to synchronize your movements, synthesize what you’ve learned, and share your “aha” moments with each other. If the situation has changed, it’s also a time to rethink how you want to move forward.

When reflecting, have the empathy to understand diverse perspectives, the flexibility to respond to change, and the integrity to stay true to your team’s values. Be honest about what you know and be open to what you hear––positive or negative. It isn’t easy to get started, but when you reflect regularly, the feedback you receive will give rise to your best ideas.

Get to know each other

Cultivate a common identity by discovering what unites you as a team. Get to know each other as people and build empathy with them as you would with your users. Take stock of the diversity of perspectives. Acknowledge everyone’s strengths and think of your own limitations as an opportunity for others to shine. Venn diagram, common ground at the center overlapping images of minds

Align on intent

If you find yourselves drifting out of alignment, slow down and examine the intent and motivations behind your work. Come to a common understanding of your users, the problem you’re solving, and the outcome you’re working to achieve together. Take stock of the work you’re doing and make sure it’s aligned with your team’s big picture mission.

Uncover new insights

As you take in new information, take stock of what you know and what you don’t know. Synthesize your knowledge to uncover hidden insight that illuminates the path forward. An insight isn’t restating an observation––it’s a leap in clarity, reframing your point of view and changing your convictions about what’s important.

Plan ahead

As your understanding evolves, don’t move forward blindly. Decide together on your next move. You can either take another loop, or put a stake in the ground and commit to an idea. Whatever you decide, make sure you’re all clear on what you’re doing next.

Step 3: Make

Make is giving concrete form to ideas in order to explore possibilities, communicate ideas, prototype concepts, and drive real-world outcomes.

Give concrete form to abstract ideas

We all get caught in “analysis paralysis” sometimes. It’s tempting to put off making because we aren’t confident we have enough understanding. Sometimes we’re just afraid to share ideas before they’re fully baked. Some of us are conditioned to save making for last.

But at the end of the day, the only way to see an outcome is to make one. Making gives form to abstract ideas, giving you the chance to try out new ideas and see them take effect in the real world. The earlier you make, the faster you learn. Summon the curiosity to try out unexplored ideas. Have the audacity to put your ideas into the world. You might be wrong––and there’s nothing wrong with that.

When you go to make, ask others to participate and build on your ideas together. Collaborating with your team members is often where your best ideas are born.

Explore possibilities

Don’t wait until an idea is perfect—it won’t happen. Think with your hands to uncover new ideas in real time. Find out what works and what doesn’t. Take advantage of happy accidents. When you’ve run out of ideas, invite others to respond, remix, and transform what you’ve made. You never know what you might learn from others.


Communicate ideas

Are we seeing the same thing? A picture is worth a thousand words, so don’t tell people your idea; show them. Get your ideas across by making something that expresses your intent. Come up with your story and show them why it matters.


Prototype concepts

Prototypes are experiments that help to validate or invalidate your hypotheses and assumptions. Although it’s helpful to think of everything you make as a prototype, low-fidelity prototypes can help simulate ideas and test hypotheses quickly and cheaply. No need to make it perfect––just make it appropriate for the feedback you need.


Drive outcomes

Once you’ve committed to an idea, turn your intent into an outcome. You don’t need to know everything to get moving. Listen, learn, and course-correct as you work out the details. Remember: everything is a prototype––even in-market solutions. Fail early and learn fast.



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