In the article below, we attempt to demystify Design Thinking and explain why it is different, why everyone is talking about it and why you should take it seriously.

Observations to Opportunities: Innovation guided by the Voice of the Customer

It is rare these days to have an innovation conversation without hearing the words Design Thinking, ethnography or human centred design (HCD). It appears to have become the new holy grail of innovation success.

Design Thinking has been popularised by the likes of IDEO, who consolidated the thinking around the approach, although many aspects of it were being practiced before. It has resulted in a flurry of activity about this being the next best thing and “MUST DO” approach to product development and innovation success.

Traditional product development processes tend to create new products that fit into their standard understanding of risk, pricing, delivery mechanisms and ability to scale. They are informed by research with a strong bias to understanding HOW clients behave and WHAT informs their behaviour. The Design Thinking approach adds a further behavioural dimension by ascertaining WHY people do what they do, in order to better understand the real motivations behind customer behaviour.

Design Thinking differs in that it begins with a completely blank slate to try and understand the real needs, wants and resultant behaviours of a particular audience. It then builds solutions from the bottom up, by finding ways to incorporate new product ideas within the existing constraints of the service providers. In some cases the very existence of these constraints may be challenged, resulting in previously unforeseen product breakthroughs.

Many consulting firms around the world evangelise the benefits of Design Thinking by using fancy graphics and sexy terminology (hear create deliver, desirability feasibility viability etc.) to describe what is essentially an obvious flow of innovative logic:

Define a perceived problem – find out who your customers are and what they really want – brainstorm a solution – validate it with customers – find out if you can make it – work out if it makes business sense – if some of these don’t stack up, then re-look at them and try again.

In our experience, knowing WHAT to do in terms of the Design Thinking process is only half the battle won. It is HOW you actually run a real, live client engagement that is more important. True HCD or Design Thinking success happens in turning seemingly disparate conversations and activities into insights which can be translated from the field into a relevant and valuable board room conversation to inform product and service design choices.

This is the art on which successful Design Thinking immersions rely. It is an experiential art form which is freely available to anyone, and which requires a base of academic Design Thinking knowledge, yet is only truly effective with lots and lots of in-field practice. The only way to get good at Design Thinking is to have the right team around you and to do it many times over.

Design thinking is not only applicable to solving for product or service challenges, it has the ability to change mind-sets and whole systems.

Over time, as the hype fades, it may morph into something else; there will be new terms to describe this customer-centric approach, as purveyors of this approach try to differentiate themselves.

Whatever it may eventually called, Design Thinking has paved the way for people to question the way things are, and the way things have always been done, and find innovative ways of doing them better, cheaper faster by creating more appropriate solutions to peoples individual challenges, and providing much more satisfying user experiences along the way.