After first making the rounds in Silicon Valley, design thinking and is now making waves in the business world. While at first glance the idea may seem synonymous with product and industrial design, design thinking has since the 1960s gained credence as a way to creatively tackle any number of problems from changing customer demand to corporate strategy. It’s also now taught at top universities from Stanford’s d.school to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and received praise by the likes of the Harvard Business Review and McKinsey.
A key reason behind design thinking’s runaway popularity is its applications far beyond aesthetic problem solving by offering a human-centered and solutions-based approach to strategy, according to the Denmark-based Interaction Design Foundation (IDF). Design thinking allows companies to innovate by focusing first on the customer or employee to better meet real-world needs and expectations, rather than assumptions based on data and market research alone.
Design thinking offers a clearly defined pathway to help companies “think outside the box”—often a major challenge in a corporate environment—with an established process that can be repeated in various sequences to surface and refine new ideas, according to IDF. Steps include: empathize with the customer or employee, define the problem, ideate, prototype, and test.
The empathize step, according to Jeff Warren, president of the New York-based design thinking consultancy Barkley Consulting Group, is by far the most important and time-consuming as it requires companies to deeply ponder the feelings and perspectives of their customers or employees beyond market research and statistics.
“Finding out what is in the head and the hearts of the people you are designing for is by far the most important step,” says Mr. Warren, recalling the Henry Ford quote: “If I asked people what they wanted, they would’ve said a faster horse.”
“Most companies do market research but few take the time to truly understand the needs, wants, feelings, and emotions of the people they are designing for,” says Mr. Warren. “Companies need to look at things from the perspective of the people being served by their product or service.”
In its experimental approach to prototyping and trial-and-error testing, design thinking offers a critical difference to companies from other forms of problem-solving, says Mr. Warren. While prototypes are often thought of as the last testing phase before a product or service is brought to market, design thinking calls for multiple rounds of low-investment testing with a prospective audience before settling on a final design or strategy.
The prototyping phase might involve showing a sketch or rough model to demonstrate the solution to a potential audience or even developing a tentative strategy presented as a rough draft to solicit feedback. While it may sound time-consuming, when done correctly it allows companies to quickly and inexpensively switch gears and take a new direction to improve upon an idea or to scrap one that users don’t like, says Mr. Warren.
“Design thinking—because of its iterative format—allows you to try many different things in search of the optimal solution, and more importantly, allows you to receive buy-in from your potential audience before investing a lot of time, money, and resources in something your customers ultimately may not want,” says Mr. Warren. The result, more often than not, is more a responsive solution that more accurately reflects the demands and needs of end-users.
While much of the vocabulary of design thinking might lend itself to product or user-experience design, the process offers a wide range of applications. Design thinking can be used to tackle a range of problems that may initially seem “ill-defined or unknown” in the beginning—such as how to draft a long-term digital strategy, improve the customer service experience or become more competitive in a crowded marketplace, according to IDF.
“There are a lot of reasons why companies use design thinking,” says Mr. Warren. “They may use it because they need to create new products or services, or design new business models and develop a plan to enter new markets.” The process lends itself well to any scenario in which breaking away from traditional thinking is needed. “It’s human-centered design that’s connected to the wants, needs, and perspectives of its customers and employees,” says Mr. Warren, again invoking Henry Ford, who once said: “If you always do what you did, you will always get what you got.” But in a world that’s constantly changing,” says Mr. Warren, “we need to do better than that.”