Design your thinking

A crowded meeting room. As soon as the consultants with their sharp suits and smartwatches finished their pitch, the innovation manager scratched his chin, adjusted his glasses and said:

“So, the solution you propose is a mix of artificial intelligence, solar panels and drones supported by IoT that will be paid in bitcoins?”Complete silence. The consultants swallowed hard.

“I like it! That’s innovation, for sure.”

The scene above, as exaggerated as it may seem, represents a relevant challenge. With newer tech and ever increasing buzzword glossaries, it is easy to see innovation as a means in itself; to focus on how to innovate and forget about for whom to innovate. Luckily, there are tools that help professionals, regardless of their field, to keep the customer in mind while navigating the technological landscape. To remind them that innovation is a means to create customer value. One of these tools is design thinking. According to Tim Burton, author of the book Change by Design, design thinking is a humancentric approach for innovation that uses designers’ tools to integrate peoples’ desirability (do customers want it?), technological possibilities (can I build it?) and business viability (can I scale it up?). The key benefit of this approach is that it offers concrete steps to tackle complex and abstract problems (i.e. “wicked problems”).

The importance of defining the right problem

design thinkingDesign thinking is divided into five phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. While you can infer a “wicked problem” by empathizing, I would recommend trying to define your challenge beforehand. Before using a framework, make sure it fits your challenge. Remember that design thinking is not an approach for pragmatic problems (e.g. how to optimize a mechanical process to maximize ROI) but complex and abstract ones (e.g. how do I empower my clients to lead a more sustainable life?). To guide the selection of such a problem, it is useful to take a step back and ask: what really is my company’s mission? Who is my client today? And tomorrow?

The answer to these questions can help define the core challenge that shapes your ambition as a company. For one of my clients, their wicked problem was to get in touch with all current and former cancer patients in the Netherlands. For another, it was to help their clients become more self-reliant and create a sense of community.

Empathizing and brainstorming

The first phase, empathize, involves (further) understanding your client. “But I already do!”, you might say. However, compiling age, gender and expenditure metrics, no matter how comprehensive or neat your spreadsheets are, is not the same as empathizing. Empathizing means having a more holistic view. It means understanding your clients’ hobbies and dreams. What makes them tick. Once you achieve that, the more likely you are to come across insights that inspire value-creating innovation.

To empathize, conducting qualitative research (interviews, reading blogs) and using design tools like personas and empathy maps is essential. These tools facilitate the visualization and externalization of what one knows (or assumes to know) about the client. Empathy maps, for example, as a rule, show what the client thinks and feels, sees, hears, says and does. The next step is to draw out the customer journey. How many steps must your customer take to use your product? Does it vary per persona? What are the key pain points?

Having empathized with the client and defined the pain points, ideation follows. At this point, you should have brainstorming sessions keeping in mind the learnings from the previous phase. To ideate you need a diverse team, a timer, and an environment open to creative ideas. This means avoiding judgement and striving for quantity. Afterall, maybe two of your fifty ideas end up striking gold. If you get stuck, add a condition. For example, what would the solution be if money were not the problem? Or if every client was 85 years old? Sometimes you need to add a rule just so you can break others.

Choosing the best solution, prototyping and testing

The Design CycleSelecting the best idea would demand a specific article and is very project specific. Having said that, it generally comes down to expected customer value created, investment, returns and learning. Learning and financial return are not mutually exclusive per say, but it can be difficult to convince short-term oriented management to consider innovation accounting. You should anchor the selection on the insights from the initial phase, strategic alignment and both learning and business potential. It is always useful to challenge stakeholders to quantify learning if they are overly risk averse.

Once the solution has been chosen, it is time to prototype. The way to do that may also vary extensively depending on the project. For example, to prototype an app, wireframing is used. In other words, you emulate the imagined experience through mock-ups (i.e., clickable images instead of coding). In the case of a physical product, a prototype would be the minimum necessary to test the value hypotheses. Along the last phase, you get to test the prototype. This should be done through user tests whose goal is to answer two questions: does your prototype solve a real problem? If it does, great, but is it intuitive? The answers will determine whether you pivot (adapt the protype) or try a whole different idea. As you might have noticed by now, design thinking is not a linear process. After testing, you get back to the drawing board and empathize again. People continuously change and so must your product.

To sum it up

I hope that by now you see the value in this methodology and have noticed how I borrowed some concepts from the Lean Startup (e.g. build, test, learn). To avoid the situation described at the beginning, you need to know your client and continuously test and learn. That means following the steps described but, equally important, starting small and not being afraid to adapt or stop initiatives.

In case your colleagues do not share your enthusiasm, I will leave you here with an elevator pitch for design thinking. The advantages of using it in your company are: alignment towards a strategic challenge, energy, new ideas and the potential to become more agile and client-centric. For you to apply design thinking, you should follow three steps:

  1. Hire a temporary mentor
  2. Create dynamic and diverse teams (e.g. gender, age, functional roles, personalities)
  3. Define your strategic challenge and the project deadline
Digital Transformation