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Design Thinking to Integrated Thinking: Prioritizing Business Needs in Innovation

This might sound counterintuitive, but the most important design decisions are not made in the design department.

That can be a hard thing for designers to admit, but design must ultimately serve the needs of the business as well as the user, and business considerations often trump creative briefs. This means, among other things, that a successful solution must:

  • Be relevant to the business model.
  • Align with existing brand strategy, or evolve it in a direction appropriate to the organization.
  • Launch quickly enough to avoid irrelevance.
  • Earn enough revenue to sustain further production.
  • Scale up as it grows in popularity.
  • And ultimately, provide positive returns to the shareholders.

Any one of these is a tall order, but satisfying all of them, while creating a product that fulfills user needs in a meaningful way can feel almost impossible.

Yet today’s design-savvy marketplace demands a product that checks all these boxes if it wants to succeed. The Juicero and the Amazon Fire Phone are two examples of products failed miserably, not because they didn’t get sufficient design attention, but because they fundamentally misunderstood consumer expectations and the competitive landscape.

Design Thinking’s Fatal Flaw

Conversely, many uninspired products make it to market while beautiful ones are killed off, simply because they’ve got a solid business plan behind them. It’s why the website you used to book your last flight was a frustrating mess, and the devices in your doctor’s office look like they were designed in the 1970s. If the numbers don’t add up, great design isn’t sustainable — no matter how thoughtful it is.

The rise of Design Thinking has been an attempt to alter this, by bringing powerful concepts like user research and iterative prototyping out of the studio and into the boardroom, and it’s had a real, positive effect in many categories. Never before have so many innovations and next-gen products actually delivered a better experience than what came before.

If the numbers don’t add up, great design isn’t sustainable — no matter how thoughtful it is. Design must ultimately serve the needs of the business as well as the user.

But it’s not enough. For all its benefits, Design Thinking is largely reactive and assumes that anything well-designed enough will automatically be a commercial success. As someone who’s worked on both sides of this equation, progressing from industrial design to business school to e-commerce to design consulting, I’ve seen this assumption fail again and again. It’s Design Thinking’s fatal flaw, but it can be repaired.

Make Business Needs As Omnipresent as User Needs

The current problem is that most product organizations — designers and executives alike — typically impose business considerations at only two points in a design project:

  • At the outset, as part of the creative brief.
  • At the end, to filter out design solutions that don’t align with business needs.

I suspect this stems from a belief that design teams need to be “protected” from business concerns — which makes about as much sense as protecting them from user needs, or manufacturing limitations. Business requirements are a design constraint, and good design teams are experts at working within constraints.

Business requirements are a design constraint, and good design teams are experts at working within constraints.

The alternative is an approach that I call, “Integrated Thinking”: It’s something I’ve championed for several years as a consultant in Singapore, and more recently here at Bresslergroup. It essentially takes the filtering technique mentioned above, and applies it regularly throughout the design process, making business needs as omnipresent as user needs for the design team.

Qualitative Research Augmented by Quantitative Research

In a typical Design Thinking approach, there’s a clear progression from research to insights, then to concepts, prototypes, and ultimately to a design solution. This approach is still valid, but rather than just evaluate the end solution on its business merits, Integrated Thinking applies these criteria at each step:

  • Which research insights are relevant to the market we’re actually serving?
  • How can each concept help build sustainable competitive advantages for the client?
  • As we iterate prototypes, are we evaluating their ability to be marketed, produced, and scaled, as well as their resonance with the target user?
  • Which solutions offer the largest addressable market size, and allow a pricing strategy that makes them sustainable?
  • And so on…

For larger companies, an Integrated Thinking approach adds predictability, rigor, and speed to the unnerving process of innovation. For smaller ones, it adds structure, and often improves design success rates by pre-empting the business obstacles that can stymie implementation.

Obviously, this requires bringing some new tools to bear. For one thing, qualitative research techniques like contextual inquiry should be augmented by quantitative research, to verify insights and better understand their scope and relevance. Combining quantitative and qualitative research is something we do often at Bresslergroup, and it’s proven effective at reducing risk and uncertainty in new product development.

A Winning Formula: Integrating Creativity, Strategy, and Rigor

Integrated Thinking also combines two mindsets that are often seen as mutually exclusive. Design Thinking asks us to generate concepts fast, and fail early; business analysis requires quantifiable evidence.

In an integrated approach, hypotheses are formed with user and business insight, and they’re evaluated at every stage with both user and business validation. This demands exceptional collaboration and a good degree of mutual respect between design and business interests.

With the right team, each stakeholder is given room to do what they do best: uncover user insights, set potential design directions, create selection criteria, manage risk, and match current efforts to long-term strategy. Creative insight is valued, but data points the way.

In this scenario, business needs act as a catalyst — rather than being treated as a constraint — for successful innovation.

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