Design Thinking: What, Why & How
Design has, for most of history, been somewhat of an afterthought. First comes function, then comes form – there’s no point in making something pretty if it doesn’t work, or so the thinking went.
But as we embark on that most futuristic-sounding of decades, the 2020s, the lines between function and form are becoming particularly blurry. In lives that are ever more influenced by screens, clever, minimalist and beautiful design is no longer the cherry on top of a product, but rather a key ingredient in the cake.
Design not only deserves to be more than an afterthought, it demands it – a fact of which Australia’s leading tech business are well aware.
So we took the time to speak with some of the design professionals within these top companies, including Cognizant, Flight Centre, Objective, Optus and A Cloud Guru, to understand the role that design thinking plays within their businesses.
What is design thinking?
A term born of the information age, design thinking refers to the practical, strategic and cognitive processes that designers use to develop concepts and products.
Satish Irudaya, Digital Portfolio Manager at Optus Business, describes it thus: “Design thinking is a practical, human-centred approach that seeks to accelerate innovation and solve complex customer problems. Design thinking humanises business and technology.
“I prefer to describe design thinking as design doing or pain-storming. It is an iterative approach that begins with gaining an understanding of customer pain points, and ends with a customer-centric solution.”
Looking at solutions through a human lens is a cornerstone of design thinking. “Ultimately, good web design principles are born from having empathy for users,” instructs Rob Mondolo, UX/UI designer at Flight Centre Travel Group, who speaks of the approach from a web design point of view.
“Good web design is about incorporating previously learned behaviours and mental models. A very common example is the use of affordances on any good website. Affordances are clues about how an object should be used, typically provided by the object itself or its context. For example, even if you’ve never seen a door handle before, its use is fairly natural. The handle is shaped for easy grasping and made to interact with its function.
“For web design, cues in a call-to-action button’s shadow tell people that it can be pushed in, the way a button on an actual device can be pushed in.” These things, says Mondolo, bring a human element to all the zeros and ones that all tech products are built on.
Why is design thinking important?
Designing products for the people that use them and doing so in a structured and methodical way may not seem like a ground-breaking idea, but having spent so long focusing on building things faster and cheaper, the importance of design was in some ways lost on a lot of organisations. It’s only now, with the rise of digital tech, that the importance of a silky smooth user experience are becoming apparent.
“Airbnb and Uber are two brands that do this well,” says Aaron Moodie, Lead Product Designer at A Cloud Guru. “Both products do a great job at facilitating bookings through an excellent UI, but in combination with great visual design, these experiences become more than just utility.”
The importance of the user experience is so great, says Andrew Miralles, Objective’s Senior Product Designer, that “the users of today will sometimes prioritise the experience of buying and using a product over the performance of the product itself.”
Having an efficient, effective or otherwise great product is no longer enough – the delivery of that product needs to be equally efficient, effective and great for it to succeed.
And far from beginning and ending with the customer, according to Irudaya, the benefits of design thinking extend to the teams within the business too.
“Design thinking is enabling us to move away from working in silos with waterfall methodologies, towards a more cross-functional team approach. This has allowed us to design and develop products and services which are more in-line with our customers’ requirements. This new way of working is a collaborative approach; we are able to bring in new ideas, iterate faster, improve upon many of our existing processes, introduce new and improved processes, and bring an agile framework to the product development cycle.”
In short, design thinking facilitates a better understanding of the user, drives innovation, creates a better work environment for team members, and, when properly implemented, ensures design principles tie back to business objectives.
Implementing design thinking
Speaking of proper implementation, how do you see to it that you’ll enjoy the wealth of benefits that design thinking can bring? Happily our experts have some answers.
“I believe a design thinking culture has to come from both the top and the bottom” instructs Agnes Misiurny, Digital Strategy Consultant at Cognizant. “Business leaders must understand the value and implications of the approach and to allow room for experimentation and potential learnings from failures. However, design thinking also can’t be enforced and must be organically practised to become the norm.
“Design thinking should be directly tied to your organisation’s strategic KPIs. 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.”
Misiurny’s colleague Tung Truong, a Senior UX Designer at Cognizant, suggests that once the decision has been made to commit to design thinking, a systematic approach should be taken.
“Take the time to define the problems that your customer has, and try to fall in love with the problems. Then make sure that there is a consensus or shared understanding amongst your teams on which problem you should focus on first; usually the one that delivers the most value for your customers, but this decision should be tempered against the need for the business to enjoy sustainable revenue.”
Miralles expands on this point, describing product design as a four step process:
- Define the challenge: “Capture as much information as possible that will help to tailor a solution for the user.”
- Ideate all possibilities: “Even the crazy ones! Capture a testable hypothesis for each.”
- Validate: “A good old sanity check. Test your ideas, and turn them into working prototypes that you can validate with users.”
- Build: “And even after the feature or product is released, closely monitor how successful it is. Design is never finished.”
And what of the process of designing within the design thinking approach? As a Product Design Lead who takes design thinking seriously, Moodie is perfectly placed to offer up some advice.
“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.
“Web design is 95% type. Understanding the basic principles of typography is essential for good web design. Hierarchy, leading, kerning and tracking all play an important role in giving a web page its pace and rhythm. Not enough hierarchy and a page feels like running a race with no end. Too much and things become visually complicated and hard to navigate.”
These days, in terms of tech products at least, form is function and function is form – the two are inextricably linked. No longer can design be left as an afterthought. If it is, your users will soon be treating your products as an afterthought too.
Design thinking isn’t a quick nor a simple solution. It requires systematic implementation, as well as buy-in from both leaders and team members. It needs to be part of your organisation’s DNA if you’re to reap the rewards.
But if you do manage to apply the approach, those rewards are almost endless.
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