Designers, in my experience, dislike the term ‘Design Thinking.’ It describes what we do day in, day out. Empathize; define; ideate; prototype; test — nothing new about that, right? But the Design Management Institute’s conference in Boston last month seemed to justify the sometimes annoying packaging and dispersal of the term.
One by one, speakers from large companies such as Hyatt, Fidelity, Microsoft, NPR, Nordstrom, and Zipcar dropped Design Thinking into their presentations as if it were an everyday part of growing a business. (I admit to having a vision of Tim Brown and Roger Martin sitting somewhere, stroking their white kitties Blofeld-style, and congratulating themselves on the success of their grand ‘Design Thinking’ scheme.)
What Design Thinking Does for Big Business
Design Thinking has caught on because it provides a common language for senior design professionals and their business counterpoints. The DMI conference emphasized the transition currently in progress from the “information age” to the “age of the consumer” — a consumer who’s more connected than ever. Nordstrom exhibited its commitment to this notion with a flipped organizational chart topped by customers, followed by sales associates in the middle, and managers and executives on the bottom.
To designers, this user-centered paradigm is a given, but the construct of Design Thinking is less eye roll-inducing when we see how it helps the C-Suite grasp and exercise the concept. Companies who are user-centered — who understand their customers’ decision-making emotions and deliver true meaningful value — will thrive.
Design Thinking for Small Business
How about smaller companies who don’t have the budget for an innovation lab or the leeway to afford failed experiments? How can they get in on Design Thinking? The conference had me thinking in these terms and I came up with three suggestions for small ways to integrate DT into more modest operations:
Think In Touchpoints
“Omni-channel” seems to be the new buzzword to describe how forward-thinking companies seek to design a continuous customer experience across multi-faceted touchpoints. In service design it can be especially challenging to create a positive and unifying experience for a customer who may interact with a brand’s many touch points. For example, a customer looking to select a new financial product may experience person to person interactions (e.g. personal consultation), person to machine interactions (e.g. online pension calculator), and machine to machine interactions (e.g. background data checks).
A small company may not have the breadth of touchpoints that an Apple or a Coca-Cola does, but thinking beyond your purely physical product interactions can shape overall customer brand perception. Shelley Evenson of Fjord put it into a realistic perspective: “We don’t design experiences, because we can’t control experiences. We design the right resources for the right people at the right time to have a positive experience.”
With some strategizing, small businesses can identify their touch points and one by one, design the right resources for those right times. It may be as simple as rethinking how the user removes the product packaging and first experiences directions for use.
Fail Fast, Fail Small
Large companies such as Zipcar give their employees the latitude to test local solutions for improving car rental (e.g. creative ways to communicate vehicle locations, reward customer loyalty, or even respond to a company mistake). Successful launches are dependent on the ability to test quickly and inexpensively with users. Small companies are often in direct contact with their customers and better able to leverage this type of early testing to their advantage. Engineers may find themselves fielding customer support calls and in doing so, have the opportunity to probe unmet needs for new product innovation.
Perhaps this fail-fast and fail-small approach combined with a practice of setting modest expectations could have helped mitigate the current Obamacare rollout fiasco. Before all the lawyers spent weeks finetuning the small print, the developers could have launched Beta sites to test core functionality and deliver manageable amounts of user feedback.
Fall in Love with the Problem
If you focus on the problem and not the solution, you’re more likely to develop breakthrough ideas. With research it’s easy to get fixated on the data and kill immature concepts. Steve Mulder from NPR highlighted the dangers of becoming optimizers rather than designers if we blindly follow data. What users report to do with a product versus what true user observation reveals can deliver totally different conclusions. Using research data to ask better questions, shape user personas, and storyboard experience journey maps can provide the creative leap that uncovers the brilliant solutions.
The DMI is a conscious effort to bridge the gap between design and business. Don Norman opened day one of the conference, and it was interesting to hear the father of ‘user experience’ acknowledge that a designer is often required to be most empathetic to the user who’s signing his paycheck: i.e., his client’s or boss’s boss. He reminded us of the saying: ‘Your job as a consultant is to get your client promoted.’
But Norman didn’t seek to undermine how an understanding of the end user is critical to successful design. He simply made a plea for designers to be able to quantify why their designs are better in the same way that sales or marketing departments do (even to the extent of creating ‘reasonable lies’). In doing so, designers are able to build credibility and champion their user-centric approach. It was a good reminder to designers who’re feeling self-satisfied about their mastery of Design Thinking to consider merging it with Business Thinking every once in a while.