When you think of a successful company, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Is it Netflix’s streaming app domination? Oral B’s toothbrush empire? Perhaps Airbnb’s billion-dollar industry takeover?
While all three of these examples are from different companies in different industries, they have one thing in common: they all used design thinking processes to help establish their key differentiators.
It was 2008 when design thinking started making its rounds around the world. Since then, it has become a fundamental process and problem-solving technique that’s used in many industries—from law (yes legal design thinking exists!), to services and wayfinding (think of airports and grocery stores), to digital and physical products (like Netflix or Oral B). And the reason it’s used by so many people is because design thinking gets results. It’s a revolutionary problem-solving process for innovation that forces business strategists and product designers to identify real problems for real users.
What Is Design Thinking?
“We fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we get the wrong solution to the right problem.”
RUSSELL L. ACKOFF, THEORIST
When it comes to innovation, three different criteria should be addressed:
- Is the idea possible? Can it reasonably be done? (Feasibility)
- Does the revenue stream justify the cost structure? (Viability)
- Is it something customers need and want? (Desirability)
Design thinking is the framework against which all of those questions are answered. It’s a process for solving complex problems that puts users at the center of all thinking and decision-making. It drives innovation, but it also roots that innovation in the real world—creating constraints to ensure your product addresses user pain points and is based on an understanding of how they actually want to use the product. It also takes into consideration business demands, technological feasibility, and what’s actually viable given the budget and timeframe allowed.
While there are many different design-thinking processes, they all follow a workflow that involves a series of phases, and have overarching goals that can be broken down into four areas:
- Understanding through researching the context, users, market, and technology
- Defining the real problem
- Exploring solutions, testing, and failing (and then repeating!)
- Designing and building the final, proven-to-work product
This process can include a number of different tasks, including research, brainstorming exercises, sketching, imagining possibilities, prototyping, and more. It’s an iterative approach that’s about identifying the “right problem” as much as finding the right solution. Forcing companies to think like a designer in this way, has the power to revolutionize businesses and innovation—which is why so many have embraced it.
A New Seat at the Table: Design Leadership
Even though design thinking was first introduced into the world by Tim Brown in the late 1970s, it wasn’t until the late 2000s that it became a common notion. In the decades between, design thinking was brushed aside by tech enthusiasts and business strategists, seen as a process specifically meant for visual design.
Today, the design-thinking process is changing fundamental business practices. It has revolutionized the way people strategize their businesses and create innovative products. “The need for thoughtful design—how something works—that’s how a company interacts with their customers,” Eliel Johnson, Vice President and Head of User Experience Design and Research for Charles Schwab, said during a 2020 panel “Design is business theory for the 21st century.”
“Design thinking is business theory for the 21st century.”
ELIEL JOHNSON, VICE PRESIDENT AND HEAD OF USER EXPERIENCE DESIGN AND RESEARCH, CHARLES SCHWAB
More than that, design thinking has been shown to have significant impact on businesses’ bottom lines. Design-driven companies show a significant stock-market advantage, outperforming the S&P 500 by 219% over the last decade. Despite that, most companies don’t involve design leaders in strategic development on a regular basis.
But some forward-looking companies have taken notice—moving design into the C-suite. The result has been a strong design-centered voice in the top executive levels and a rise in Chief Design Officer (CDO) jobs in companies such as Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo, Philips Electronics, and others. CDOs have a unique combination of skills that other executives, for the most part, lack, understanding both customers and their foundational needs, as well as the ins and outs of operating a sustainable and feasible business.
It’s a constant balancing act. The needs of customers are ever-changing, and products that were successful at one point don’t always stay successful. Just think about Kodak. Or Blockbuster. As times change, so do people and their desires. Blockbuster used the same strategies for 35 years, but failed to innovate when new generations with new habits entered, innovative technology like streaming rose in popularity, and new pain points surfaced. Reed Hastings, founder of Netflix, identified a crucial pain point in Blockbuster’s business model—he hated paying late fees. After empathizing with users and understanding them, he got to work building an empire that didn’t rely on late fees to succeed.
Three Models of Design Thinking
For companies that understand the benefits, design is woven into every part of business strategy and drives each step of product and service development. All of which are facilitated by design thinking.
But what does that actually look like? It depends. There are different models that cater to different goals and products—from 4Ds (which breaks design thinking into Discover, Design, Develop, and Deploy stages), to Stage-Gate (which focuses largely on the economic aspects of design delivery). But while these all incorporate a variety of terms and steps, the main stages are similar across all models.
Let’s break down three of the most common design-thinking frameworks:
“A human-centered designer knows that as long as you stay focused on the people you’re designing for—and listen to them directly—you can arrive at optimal solutions that meet their needs,” design company IDEO has written. Their model of design thinking focuses on three core activities:
- Inspiration: Identify the problem or opportunity, focusing on how the end-user will be using the product
- Ideation: Generate ideas, then tweak and test them to determine the best one
- Implementation: Go to market
While this is a good high-level overview of the phases we go through while design thinking, in reality there are many critical steps between inspiration, ideation, and implementation that the IDEO approach doesn’t take into consideration—like problem definition and prototyping, for example. On top of that, the ideation phase, in reality, has a lot of iterating and testing, and the diverging phase should be a lot bigger than what the illustration below shows.
On the other hand, the d.school approach—named for the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford where it first originated—has five steps. It follows these in non-sequential order:
- Empathize: Look through the eyes of your users to better understand them
- Define: Determine your users’ needs and specify the problem
- Ideate: Start to create ideas for new solutions
- Prototype: Build out those solutions into rough prototypes
- Test: Test the prototypes to ensure they do what they were meant to do
Since this is a non-linear process, the d.school approach oftentimes repeats phases or iterates to refine solutions. The idea is to work through the steps you’re in and not to focus on where you’re supposed to be headed, repeating steps and going backwards however much you need.
The d.school method is meant to rethink traditional industries like social entrepreneurship, healthcare, law, engineering, and education—and result in newer, more innovative products.
The Design Council’s Double Diamond framework was launched in 2004 as a methodology for exploring an issue and taking focused action. It has four components, which again aren’t meant to be approached linearly:
- Discover: This is the first “diamond” of the name and involves talking to and spending time with the people affected by the issues under review, to truly understand the underlying problem
- Define: The principle challenge is defined
- Develop: The second “diamond” looks for different answers to the problem that’s been defined, sourcing solutions from a range of people and roles
- Deliver: Different solutions are tested, rejected, and improved upon
The two diamonds in this model represent a process of exploring and defining—more specifically called diverging (exploring an issue or solution more widely) and converging (narrowing in on one). The arrows in the image below show how iterative this process can be, and where we often repeat processes to refine solutions.
This approach is often used for environmental issues, economic problems in the public sector and government, for social innovation (including charities and foundations), and for business innovation.
The specific process you follow doesn’t matter. At Architech, we move beyond buzzwords and keep it simple—understand the problem and who you’re solving it for, actually talk to them, take the time to creatively explore solutions, including those that may be outside of the scope or requirements, get feedback and iterate.
Tips for Successful Outcomes
“Fixing an error after development is up to 100 times as expensive as it would have been before development.”
SUSAN WEINSHENK, BEHAVIORAL PSYCHOLOGIST, ROI OF UX
From Nike to Nordstrom, Starbucks to Starwood, it’s clear that companies that embrace design thinking at every stage of development are able to create more innovative products and services, and find new ways to set themselves apart. Design thinking also helps companies save money by not investing in products that don’t meet users’ needs, and to iterate existing ideas to stay on top of new needs that pop up.
After all, to truly be effective, design thinking should be a continuous component of business. It should be ever evolving and always keep the customer in mind. But how do you accomplish that?
To help you get started, I’ve pulled together some of my own secrets for achieving the best design-thinking outcomes:
- Separate defining the problem from coming up with a solution
The first phase of “understanding” is about asking questions—not answering them. Open your mind, ask “why” often, listen to your users and other stakeholders, and fully define your problem before you move on to solving it.
- Empathy is your best friend
Sometimes the biggest struggle can be putting yourself in your users’ shoes and going against your own pre-determined thoughts and biases. But to be effective, you must separate yourself from your users and empathize with their POV. Do not assume you know or truly understand the problem your users are having.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment with ideas
During the converging phases, open your mind to every idea that you come across. Don’t be afraid of uncertainty—in fact, welcome it. Use all of the tools and resources available to you: sketch ideas on sticky notes, brainstorm and run workshops on collaborative whiteboarding tools, prototype in cutting-edge programs, user test on efficient platforms that do all the heavy lifting for you. Take the time to explore and be creative.
- Be agile
Don’t shy away from an agile approach. Sometimes it’s beneficial to launch something that isn’t 100% and get feedback early. Compare it to a soft launch, where the ability to address any issues without wasting time and money is a gift, not a mistake. Test your ideas out—oftentimes users end up loving a solution you didn’t think was best, or hate one you love.
- Do the hard work
The reality is that creating a fantastic product is not easy. The thing that your users would jump for joy for may require you to do hard things that you may not have thought of. You may have to rethink a back-end technology or change a business process to enable that great differentiator to shine through. Thinking big, taking a multi-faceted approach and collaborating across your entire business will help you get there.
By constantly questioning your results and putting the user at the center of your design process, design thinking can add to your ROI and save you money creating products that won’t work in the long run. That’s why it’s so critical to business today.
Design thinking is the future of business strategy. So don’t be the stuck in the past.
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