Design Thinking: Crucial for Business (And Not Just For Designers)

11 December 2017 By Alastair Cleland

1609 Original

Applying design principles to business strategy has been gaining in popularity, as the need to create simple, human focused solutions becomes ever-greater in our complex, technology driven world. And it seems to be working: design-led companies including Apple, Coca-Cola, IBM, Nike, and Whirlpool have outperformed the S&P 500 over the past 10 years by an impressive 219%, according to an assessment by the Design Management Institute. But what exactly is design thinking? And how can we use it to get better results in our professional lives?

What is ‘design thinking’?

Something that design isn’t is ‘lipstick on a pig’ – a veneer to cover flaws, or a means of making an average product seem shiny and appealing. Instead, it cuts to the fundamental purpose of a product– in the words of Steve Jobs, “Design is not just what it looks like. Design is how it works.”

Design thinking is essentially a process used to help solve complex problems; finding solutions for customers through understanding their emotional context. It can be applied to many business scenarios, although it’s not confined merely to the business world. The process runs broadly as follows: observe and empathise with users, define their pain points, needs and desires, ideate many possible solutions, prototype a solution (one that falls within the realm of what is technologically feasible and makes business sense) and then refine through a cycle of testing and improvement to hone in on the best solution with the user at the core. It is a solution-focused approach rather than a problem-focused approach, and one that values continuous learning and a ‘fail fast’ mentality. Design thinking has the best of both worlds by fusing analytical, quantitative decision making with instinctive, qualitative, creative reasoning.

How it works in practice

Although simple in theory, applying design thinking in practice can be difficult. Sometimes company culture can be resistant to this methodology and ‘design thinking’ can induce groans about excessive time spent brainstorming, or the difficulties of applying qualitative user research. However, applied in the right way, design thinking can be a competitive advantage.  Here are some simple ways to best incorporate it into business:

  1. Keep the customer at the core of what you do
    Observe your customers. Focus on them. Empathise with them (more detail on how to do that here). You might be surprised by what you can achieve by walking through the user journey, or simply asking users. In 2009, Airbnb founders turned around their business simply by spending time using their own product. They realised that poor quality photos made listings lack appeal; by focusing on uploading high resolution images, the business doubled its revenue virtually overnight.

  2. Collaborate
    Departments that operate in silos often lack perspective, and can fall into the trap of acting more in their needs than the customer. By encouraging regular cross-departmental meetups or workshops, employees will share insights, gain new perspectives and work better together.

  3. Hire designers, and learn from them 
    As part of a strategy to make design thinking a core part of company culture, IBM increased the number of designers from one to every 33 coders, to one to every 8. Training other employees in design thinking will also help to create a user-focused rather than features-focused approach.

  4. Combine thinking with doing
    Agile methodologies and design thinking share many similar principles, including people over process, and iterating to find the best solution. However, design thinking usually involves more upfront creative thinking than agile method of sprints and iterations. Don’t shy away from the ideation phase to maximise your creative potential.

  5. Encourage new ideas
    Create new ways to generate and act on ideas from across the organisation. For example, Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson developed an platform called Innova to encourage entrepreneurialism amongst its employees, where ideas could be submitted for funding in a similar model that VC firms use in Silicon Valley. Innova generated 4000 ideas in three years, out of which 5 qualified to be developed into real products.