Design Thinking for Innovation

Design thinking has been a go-to innovation method for more than four decades. This cognitive design practice was originally brought to market by IDEO. It has since heralded design innovations such as the computer mouse, ergonomic keyboard and a plethora of innovative objects. Most of the breakthrough products created by Apple were born in a design thinking workshop.

Design Thinking for Innovation

Organizations such as the Stanford and IBM have applied innovation research and their experience to build upon design thinking principals. They and others have created repeatable frameworks for innovation, ideation and the creation of novel products or services. Each framework tends to advance through four successive questions, shown below.

Design Thinking Questions

Regardless of differing frameworks, this process is an iterative, human-centered design and problem solving method that applies deep empathy for consumers and collaboration among a cross-functional team. Instead of designers working alone, they team with other stakeholders which makes the process symbiotic with agile methods.

But how is this different from other innovation methods?

It's an alternative method of problem solving that focuses on how to achieve a human-focused goal that is often described in the form of a better future situation. This is different than the more traditional R&D driven approach which generally seeks products that solve discrete problems.

With product-focused solutioning, design tends to focus on objects and not people, aesthetics and not experiences, and be applied near the end of the development process. It also follows more of an analytical or scientific method whereby a problem, scope and parameters are defined and designers or problem solvers follow a fairly linear path to find an acceptable or optimal resolution in the shortest time frame.

Design thinking doesn't try to constrain scope and isn't so linear. In the normal course it can take frequent unplanned back steps or circular paths. Steps can occur simultaneously and be repeated. This lack of progressive progress can come as a shock to team members not in tune with this approach.

Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well the design is invisible. Dan Norman

Another big difference is that design thinkers use both divergent and convergent thinking to expand ideation. The process begins with divergent thinking in order to get more perspectives and options. This exercise creates an expansive solution set of ideas and alternatives to be explored. It then applies convergent thinking to systemically narrow the alternatives and get to the optimal solution.

A primary benefit of this approach is that it is encourages nonconformist thinking, defers judgment and elicits more creative ideas. It is more likely to uncover an "a-ha moment" that will identify a powerful advantage or benefit that would otherwise not have surfaced.

Divergent and Convergent Thinking

This is different than the more traditional approach that applies an engineering mindset first, and then turns to design near the end of the process when considering aesthetics or looks. Design thinking as part of an innovation methodology keeps design front and center from beginning to end and is much more focused on the consumer experience.

Here's the synergy with company strategy.

The balance of power in commerce is shifting from sellers to buyers as consumers are more connected, informed, empowered and demanding. To respond, business leaders are turning to new customer strategies such as customer experience management. Companies are incurring wholesale transitions from product-centric to customer-centric business models.

At the core of these shifts lies the customer. The challenge for business leaders is how to engage and solve for the customer. It's an ill-defined challenge and will require new thinking. It will require problem solving that is less quantitative and more focused on human behaviors and inventing a new future. Design thinking is uniquely suited for the challenge.

Design isn't just utility, usability or reliability. These things are important but table stakes. Good design solves a problem with a result that achieves an emotional reaction. This is powerful in business as we all know that people are emotional and buyers make buying decisions based on emotions.

The Point is This

When you build a house, you don't talk to the plumber first, you begin with the architect. When you build for the customer experience or a customer-centric business model, you begin with the customer.

More empowered customers are more demanding. The last best experience that anyone has anywhere becomes the expectation for the next experience they want everywhere.

To respond, businesses must be customer-centric and deliver consistent, rewarding and memorable customer experiences. Achieving these objectives requires an evolutionary, customer-centered design and problem solving method that applies broad collaboration and deep empathy for customers.

This is a change in focus from product science to people science. And a change in the result. Instead of being described in terms of utility we seek to describe the solution pursuant to customer emotional outcomes, such as products being described as pleasant, gratifying, delightful or a joy to use.

Every interaction leaves a customer experience. Whether you design for the optimal customer experience or leave the experience to chance will determine the likelihood of your success in satisfying customers who are more connected, informed, empowered and demanding.