In 2015, design thinking made the front page of Harvard Business Review. Forbes refers to it as your next competitive advantage and Fortune thinks design thinking matters now more than ever. Simply defined by Wikipedia:
Design thinking refers to creative strategies designers use during the process of designing.¹ It is also an approach to resolve issues outside of professional design practice, such as in business and social contexts.² Design thinking in business uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.³
Design Process as Business Process
Design thinking gathers, evaluates and assesses information using a process typically reserved for designers. Designers visualize ideas in ways that can bring a unifying view to concepts. The process can open people’s mind to allow new thoughts in that solve “wicked problems”⁴ in surprisingly unique and effective ways. Design is a creative process that, unlike the self-explorative nature of art, is inherently directed toward serving the needs and values of people; “human-centered” is a phrase which is often associated with design thinking methods. Because human decision-making originates from the limbic system (our brain's emotional structures), empathy plays a vital role in design thinking. Understanding emotional perspectives of your audience is essential in creating a connection with them – identifying the difference between what they want and need, what type of experiences are motivating, what stories are relatable, what "good" feels like ... Those are rather ubiquitous motivators and should be incorporated into any program you design or problem you solve.
Design thinking is vertically and horizontally agnostic. We often work directly with both Brand Marketing and Human Resources professionals, because from our point of view, these specialties have a chicken and egg relationship:
- In order for brands to stay and remain relevant and stand out in a digital ecosystem, it’s imperative to create meaningful experiences and messages that touch people emotionally.
- People are the engine that propels a company forward, and there’s a lot of power in culture. People must express the authentic values of the company within the organization before any degree of authenticity can be expressed to the outside world.
So, if the values of the organization are outlined and chartered by the brand tenets, the culture may not be authentically aligned with those values – or to the contrary, the values don’t align to the reality of the culture. In either case, metaphorically speaking you are hopping around on one leg! It’s tiring, tedious and under-functioning. If you are not thinking about what the entire human ecosystem needs, desires and should directly or indirectly experience, you’re missing out on an essential competitive variable.
Starbucks adopts this belief which is one reason why they are so successful. On the surface, standing in line for a $5 coffee makes no sense. But it’s the quality, emotion, and complete experience that makes it work. That is a competitive advantage – understanding where the values of the company connect with the values of both their employees and their customers. Design thinking can close that loop. It’s Human Resources and Brand Marketing connecting at their best.
Brand and Human Capital Converge
Lately, offensive behavior in the workplace has reached elevated proportions – a challenge for Human Resources to address and contain.
“Women have had it with bosses and co-workers who not only cross boundaries but don’t even seem to know that boundaries exist. They’ve had it with the fear of retaliation, of being blackballed, of being fired from a job they can’t afford to lose. They’ve had it with the code of going along to get along. They’ve had it with men who use their power to take what they want from women. These silence breakers have started a revolution of refusal, gathering strength by the day, and in the past two months alone, their collective anger has spurred immediate and shocking results⁵ ...”
TIME Person of the Year 2017
And with digital assets at people’s fingertips, brands can sour over an $800 airplane ticket.
United Airlines in the midst of a major reputational crisis after it decided to forcefully “re-accommodate” a passenger from a sold-out flight.⁶
Humans are emotional beings, and with digital tools have power and influence at any time and place. Implementing human-centered problem solving methods help create durability in a complex, digital ecosystem.
Digital Data is Human Data
Companies with robust digital strategies often lean heavily on powerful algorithms and big data to inform decision-making. But to reap the most benefits out of cognitive technologies, it’s important to understand those that engage in, respond to and make emotional decisions are, at the end of the day, human beings.
There’s a lot of artificial intelligence and robotics coming into products now, so it is imperative that we keep focus of the human element. So we take that true customer behaviour and how they engage with us and build it into the product to make it more conducive and intuitive for them to use.
ROY SHILADITYA, Head of IT at ING DIRECT Australia
Design thinking takes inspiration from real people who make the real decisions about whatever it is that you make or do and however you do it. Though it’s creative, it is not a careless or reckless process. It considers market and technological constraints and every product touch-point as an opportunity to deliver benefits to people.
How Design Thinkers Think Differently
A critical design thinking principle is to humble your understanding of the current situation as you know it, to suspend solving the problem and not allow jaded thoughts to influence ideas. This is not easy. Our role as facilitators is to provide tempered optimism during the process, which can be a challenge in some environments where solving an issue has failed several times. With objective help, you can stop thinking so “hard” and start doing and reacting to avoid going down the proverbial rabbit hole.
Our “Listen. Seek. Realize.” model tailored to the design thinking process is based on the Peer Insight model:
Listen to what is: Analysis typically starts with outlining the current situation – a reality check per se. The idea here is to stop talking, start listening and explore the present using both traditional and nontraditional tools. Listen to what people say, feel and how ethics and paradigms are being expressed inside as well as outside traditional purview. Observe if necessary. What people say and what they do are often contradictory.
“What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.”
Seek for what if: This is exactly as it sounds – think of possibilities – brainstorm. Don’t dive into “solving mode” too quickly. It’s important to cast a wide net of ideas, in the beginning, only to be narrowed down after.
At the end of the day, it’s about human interaction – understanding that people make decisions, people are the actors in work scenarios, people are the key to adoption and the success of making anything productive. Interviewing or observing people are key to this part of our process. If we hear, see or experience something from a situation that relates to what we are trying to directly affect, then it’s worthy of further investigation.
Seek for what wows: There eventually comes a time to identify and narrow down successful concept(s) or strategy(s) to move forward with. Checking with what is feasible and viable will help clear a likely path as to what makes the most sense to pursue, but don’t throw out any of what may seem out of scope. Over time, your successes will make those “far out” concepts more doable than you think.
Realize what works: Even though it seems that this was all genuinely justified by a fully engaged process, you will learn even more about what truly resonates with people by validating an idea through prototyping. “Set it and forget it” is not a recipe for success. If testing is not possible, consider the launch of your concept as the prototype - continue to gather qualitative and quantitative data on how the solution is performing and make incremental refinements.
Shaking Up the Status Quo
Design thinking is often linked to “disruptive innovation,” and many clients are quick to criticize it as inappropriate for that reason or they argue that not all cultures are ripe for innovation. It’s important to take note that innovation is not always disruptive. Rather, innovation can be incremental and not intended to be game-changing and disruptive. Many times, incremental changes can produce a desired positive outcome thought only to be obtained by disruptive gestures. In fact, I rarely use the term “innovation,” because it has the potential to provoke an immediate objection, while in fact design thinking can be used daily in the most ordinary situations. I also steer clear of using word “innovation” because it’s way overused, so much so that I can argue it has lost its meaning.
Design Thinking is a Contact Sport
Design thinking methods may push people out of their comfort zone. Incorporating this practice it into your organizational process will take some patience, and you may experience a few growing pains. We understand that there will be skeptics, so we often suggest starting small and letting the outcomes from the process speak for itself. Talk about design thinking in plain business language. The methods of design can be wrangled by many managers of many different backgrounds. Give it a try. Find a small but meaningful opportunity, find a collaborator and immerse yourself in what is, what if, what wows and what works. You’ll be surprised how much of a designer you really are.
1. Visser, W. 2006, “The cognitive artifacts of designing,” Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
2. Dorst, Kees (2012). “Frame Innovation: Create new thinking by design.” Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-32431-1.
3. Tim Brown. “Design Thinking.” Harvard Business Review, June 2008.
4. Horst Willhelm Jakob Rittel (14 July 1930 – 9 July 1990) was a design theorist and university professor. He is best known for coining the term wicked problem.
5. http://time.com/time-person-of-the-year-2017-silence-breakers, Stephanie Zacharek, Eliana Dockterman and Haley Sweetland Edwards “The Silence Breakers,” TIME
6. https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-04-13/lessons-from-the-united-airlines-debacle, Mohamed A. El-Erian, “Lessons From the United Airlines Debaucle” Boomberg View, April 13, 2017, 1:30 AM CDT Corrected April 13, 2017, 10:58 AM CDT
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Chris Cacci is Chief Creative Officer at CACCICO, LLC, a design thinking consultancy that works with leaders to align human-centered strategies with business values to overcome challenges in corporate cultures, climates and experiences. A designer turned strategist, Chris has over 30 years of experience in off- and online marketing for B2B and B2C agencies and corporations. Her interests include systems thinking, convergent technologies and corporate culture. She offers a unique combination of experience, creativity and critical thinking that enables CACCICO to envision practical and effective solutions for complex human problems. Chris has served on the board of the American Institute of Graphic Arts Chicago and is currently serving on the board of the American Marketing Association Chicago.