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How can design thinking help you reach your users

Sam Osys

‘When you understand the people, you’re trying to reach – and design from their perspective – not only will you arrive at unexpected answers, but you will produce answers they’ll embrace.’ (1)

Design thinking is a human-centred approach to innovation and problem-solving that focuses on user needs and expectations through intuitive experiences. Companies increasingly recognise the value of design to help navigate their evolving businesses. There is a clear link between design thinking and better return on your investment (2) and increasing design capabilities leads to improved customer satisfaction and product adoption. Companies are facing unprecedented social, technological, and economic issues, leading to dramatic shifts in customer and employee expectations.

‘Now more than ever, there is a heightened understanding that building empathy with customers and employees - while delivering customised experiences - is critical to driving loyalty.’ (3) 

There are many companies who have built dominant market positions by successfully recognising that human-centred design principles can help to meet the needs of their clients. Here are some examples:

  • Apple has built a $3trillion business based on designing products that provide an outstanding customer experience. 
  • Leading brands like J.P. Morgan Chase and Walmart have fully embraced the importance of design to improve their products and services, reinvent their talent strategy, and modernise their technology infrastructure. J P Morgan Chase use human-centred design to improve the use of data for client benefit: taking product concepts and designing solutions that meet client needs – for example, a cash flow predictor where large clients can view their global cash position. Walmart has started to offer design thinking courses for employees ‘that will help their learners adapt to the new world of work and any challenges they’ve faced as a result of the current state of the economy.’
  • IBM has trained over 20,000 employees in human-centred design, leading to empowered teams, enhanced KPIs and brand energy, and better internal processes (4)

Each of these companies has taken a comprehensive approach to design - leveraging large, diverse, and distributed teams and equipping them with training, tools, and a shared purpose to sustain initiatives. In practice, they use a combination of design thinking and human-centred design to drive results. (5)

But what's the difference between human-centred design and design thinking?

Human-centred design and design thinking are used interchangeably in the design community, causing confusion. Human-centred design is the broader term for the mindset required to run projects and solve problems. Design Thinking is the framework you CAN use to focus on innovation and creating products or services that solve problems. 

The two design approaches are often used together to provide both the toolkit (design thinking) and the mindset (human-centred design) for creating products and services that solve peoples’ real problems. In both cases, users and stakeholders are involved throughout. (6)

Other companies have tried to use these approaches - tackling problems ranging from improving processes in a specific department to developing new, improved products and services. Success rates have been variable – primarily because organisations don’t appoint a creative thinker to lead the approach to ensure success.

Embracing human-centred design means believing that all problems are solvable. Moreover, it means believing that the people who face those problems every day are the ones who hold the key to their answer. It offers problem solvers a chance to deeply understand the people they’re looking to serve, to dream up scores of ideas, and to create innovative solutions rooted in people’s needs.’ (7)

Design thinking has five key phases:

Phase 1: Empathise – Understanding consumer needs, barriers, attitudes, and aspirations to unlock innovative solutions that uncover opportunities for improvement 

Phase 2: Define – Establishing clarity, focus and definition through gathering all the available insights to make sense of the landscape of workable solutions. 

Phase 3: Ideate and Collaborate – Creating an environment where different options are embraced and assessed - with the eventual goal of converging on a few robust solutions to pursue. 

Phase 4: Prototype – Experimenting and transforming ideas into tangible 'artefacts’. Proposed solutions may be improved, redesigned, or rejected through a series of reviews and critiques from the broader team. 

Phase 5: Test – Evaluating preferred solutions with consumers. A qualitative sharing session with consumers can go deeper than a quantitative approach. (8)

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Some companies forget that the process is only part of the framework, which is where design thinking falls flat. Design Thinking is a codified process, made up of three layers:

1.     The outer layer (and most accessible) is the frameworks/tools layer (like personas, user journey maps, or empathy maps).

2.     The middle layer is skills and behaviours (questioning, interviewing, facilitating, visual thinking, problem-solving). This layer takes more time to build because skills need to be developed.

3.     The creative mindset is the innermost layer and the most essential, the heart and soul of any creative process. 

A creative mindset allows you to approach the problem with a more holistic view and with a lens that focusses on the end user. Most of the time, this is the missing link in corporations. Organisations usually have the tools and the skills to apply an efficiency-driven mindset. This is not Design Thinking. Their goal is to get certainty and control, which in a volatile world is next to impossible. But, if you do have a creative mindset, you are able to use any tool and make it into an innovative tool and thrive in an ever-changing environment.

As more organisations begin to adopt Design Thinking, there is a risk that institutionalising design thinking may lead to disappointment. Theoretically companies have the tools and skills to utilise design thinking as they have designers, but they lack the creative mindset to incorporate design thinking into what they do.

Design is a tick-boxing exercise

When a UX designer is brought in at the end of a product design process to ‘UX it up’, it is usually too late to add any real value, so unless companies embrace the creative mindset (hopefully by getting people in to train and help with adoption), this will not be a creative process, and they will not achieve the sought-after results.

There are two main areas in the process, that tend to be overlooked when resources are scarce:

1.     The empathise phase – where we engage with potential users

2.     The testing phase – where we evaluate any assumptions, we've made through the process.

These are the most important stages, without them it would be difficult to determine if the product or service we are taking to market is viable and something that users want / need. If companies don't start to prioritise ALL of the design thinking phases, the products and services they develop will not be successful.

When dealing with the ‘known’, we can work with attributes like efficiency and control. But increasingly, we're faced with unknown problems and trying to future-proof solutions in a new and constantly changing world. Design thinking can help to solve those problems.

Organisations want their people to be resourceful and collaborative, agile and responsive, creative, and focused on change - but these are by-products of a creative mindset. You may choose to reward delivery-based business-as-usual approaches, and that’s okay if you are working in a known environment that you can control and understand.

However, the problems start when you want to use this approach to a new situation or to implement a new solution. But this is where a creative mindset becomes an advantage. And this doesn't mean you need a small team of individuals you call upon when there's some spare time on a project. Design thinking is something you should focus on to enable your whole organisation to have and use in their everyday work. (9)

At Sysdoc, our teams are equipped with the tools and frameworks to deliver the right approach to problem-solving. We create a safe space for you to learn about your internal challenges and work collaboratively to test assumptions, solve tricky problems and listen to the most important people – your employees and customers. If you'd like to hear more about human-centred design and how we incorporate it into everything we do, please reach out to [email protected]

Watch out for our next Human-Centred Design article where we’ll delve into more detail about what a creative mindset is and how everyone can tap into their creativity.

1.     The field guide to human – centred design, IDEO

2.     A Forrester Total Economic Impact Study Commissioned By IBM February 2018

3.     Unlocking the value of business design, Fortune magazine, 11 June 2022

4.     See Building a Human Cantered Organization, IBM.com

5.     Unlocking the value of business design, Fortune magazine, 11 June 2022

6.     Design thinking v human centred design. What’s the difference? www.medium.com 2 January 2020

7.     The field guide to human – centred design, IDEO

8.     The 5 phases of design thinking, American Marketing Association, 14 July 2021

9.     Creative Mindset Part 1, Mo Fox, 2021

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