Design Thinking as a Strategy for Business Innovation

Design Thinking as a Strategy for Business Innovation

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The business world of today is fast and relentless. Blink, and you’ll miss the latest wave of technology. Rest, and you’ll fall behind your competitors from all over the world.

The line between the physical and digital experience has blurred and customers now demand the most convenient touch points across all channels.

For businesses to succeed, innovation is key. And when people think of innovation, they think of design. As Nigel Cross from the Design Research Society says, “Everything we have around us has been designed. Design ability is, in fact, one of the three fundamental dimensions of human intelligence”.

When people think of design, they usually think of the end product or result. But design has evolved to become an organisational ideology.

The importance of design thinking for businesses has never been greater. By adopting design thinking, leaders are able to gain a much deeper understanding of industry trends and consumer behaviours and create solutions that lead to a competitive edge and more business growth.

We sat down and spoke to three leaders who have fully embraced design thinking in driving business innovation: Agnes Misiurny, Digital Strategist, and Steve Lennon, Digital partner at Cognizant, and Aaron Moodie, Lead Product Designer at A Cloud Guru.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is an ideology and a process used to solve complex problems that puts people at its core.

Rather than focusing solely on building new products and services, the emphasis is on carefully considering people’s needs in finding desirable solutions.

Design as a ‘way of thinking’ in the sciences traces back to the world of architecture and urban planning from the likes of Herbert A. Simon (1969) and Robert McKim (1973) where it eventually made its way into the business world in 1991 when David M.Kelley founded IDEO, a name that has become synonymous with design thinking.

As Tim Brown of IDEO says, “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success”.

It’s easy to mistake design thinking for innovation but as Misiurny from Cognizant points out, “Design thinking is a framework and approach to innovation. Whereas innovation is creating new value, design thinking applies a set of processes and principles to do innovation in a human centric, insight driven, and rapid way.”

Lennon from Cognizant sees design thinking as a vital tool to help us adapt to the digital age. He uses a supermarket analogy to explain: “Imagine your mind is a supermarket, where everything you believe, everything you know, and all the things you know how to do, are neatly stored. There are ordered aisles and rows of shelving crammed with ideas, neatly arranged for the world that you have grown up in, and which has served you well up to now”.

He likens the digital world as a bulldozer through this supermarket – a complete overhaul of everything you’ve known. “The need for such a drastic measure can be overcome by opening your mind to a fresh approach called design thinking”.

What are the basic principles of design thinking?

The four principles of design thinking as established by Meinel and Leifer of the Hasso-Plattner-Institute of Design at Stanford University are:

  • The human rule – All design activity is inherently social. Projects are becoming increasingly collaborative which has seen the rise of the designer’s development mentality.
  • The ambiguity rule – Problems are inevitably ambiguous. Designers should resist removing ambiguity through oversimplification as it limits creativity.
  • The redesign rule – All design is redesign. We are always looking for new variations to solve old problems.
  • The tangibility rule – Making ideas tangible through prototyping helps designers to communicate their ideas more effectively.

Beyond these four principles, our experts revealed other key ingredients for successful design thinking in areas like UX customer design.

According to Moodie at A Cloud Guru, good design is all about simplicity. “Don’t make me think – Steve Krug said web design should be obvious and self-explanatory. If people can’t work out what you’re trying to say or what they need to do, they’re not going to stick around long. Good web design lets people accomplish their intended tasks as easily and directly as possible.”

As content grows and becomes more complex, it becomes harder to keep things organised and easy to navigate. “We’ve recently found ourselves in such a position at A Cloud Guru and are in the process of addressing this” says Moodie.

“Understanding your site and how customers are using it is an important part of content organisation. If you know how people are using your site you can identify opportunities to structure the navigation in a way that helps customers to use your site more efficiently.”

In the face of a volatile, uncertain and time-strained world, Lennon believes that design thinking demands “the courage and determination necessary to adopt an adventurer’s mindset.”

He outlines the principles adopted at Cognizant: “We use our human-centred design thinking approach to help clients step out of the ‘complacent rationality’ we are normally so comfortable with.”

“Anchored in a deep understanding of the customer’s rational, emotional and physical needs and wants, we move through a strategic/creative process, combining logic and dialogue, and shifting gear from divergent to convergent thinking.”

Applying design thinking principles in business

When it comes to applying design thinking principles, Misiurny says, “The number one thing about design thinking is the aspect of always balancing human centred approaches with business viability and feasibility.”

“Many people think it’s about the ideas.. but it’s about making ideas happen. An idea is not good if it doesn’t actually meet the needs of customers. An idea is not good if it doesn’t fit your business strategy. An idea is not good if it will take you 10 years to implement.”

For Lennon, design thinking principles has done wonders for opening up new breakthroughs and opportunities. One example he gives is how a government transport agency was able to re-imagine the customer experience by providing a more personalised experience.

“Sharing information on delays with customers would be a good start, but what if customers could share their own personal information with the agency, including whether, for example, the passenger had specific needs or travels in a wheelchair?”

Design thinking ultimately helped the transport agency recognise that they didn’t have to be the provider of all services “in-house” but could be a curator of experiences instead.

How do you measure the success of design thinking processes?

One way to evaluate the success of design thinking is through KPIs.

“Design thinking should be directly tied to your organisation’s strategic KPIs” says Misiurny.

“The process is successful if the solution you propose is proven to affect the KPI tied to the problem you were trying to solve. And if it’s invalidated, then you count the learnings and try again.”

Lennon expands on the design thinking process with specific KPIs that he uses on his projects:

  • Customer – includes Customer Satisfaction, Net Promoter Score, Customer Loyalty, Share of Wallet
  • Product – includes Time to Market, Rate of Adoption, Average products per Customer
  • Employees – includes Employee Engagement, Team Collaboration
  • Innovation – includes Number of Qualified Innovation Ideas, Employee Participation Rate, Rate of Success in Product Realisation

He adds: “Ultimately, bottom line profitability should be boosted also. However, it is important for everyone to recognise this is a consequence of successful implementation of design thinking disciplines, not the primary purpose of doing so.”

The American artist/designer Kelli Anderson captures the attitude of design thinking by calling for us to “reject the normal order of things, mess them up and rearrange the pieces”.

In order to gain a competitive advantage and flourish in this brave new digital world, businesses must be ready to answer this call.

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