Understanding the Design Thinking Process

Fashion designer drawing in a sketch book.
Design matters, no matter the product.

Who is your customer? Any business can answer this question, in many cases in detail and almost effortlessly. How often do you ask that question when developing your product? That’s what design thinking is all about, and it offers powerful new tools for innovation strategy.

Thinking With Design

Design thinking draws from user experience thought processes and has three pillars: empathy, ideation, and experimentation.

Ideation and experimentation are fairly direct; you work to come up with as many viable ideas as possible, and then you put those ideas into practice, via prototyping and pilot studies, to see what works and what doesn’t. However, it’s empathy that’s most important.

Empathy, in this case, means interrogating your assumptions about who your customer is and how they use their product. For example, if you’re designing a mobile website, you might ask yourself, “What does my customer most often click, and is that easy to do on a phone?” To ensure usability you might enlarge text, add buttons, and try the site out on a number of different phones in different positions. If you look closely at successful mobile sites, you’ll notice they all have one uniting feature; you can navigate them with one hand.

However, empathy goes beyond that. Understanding why your customer is on your site in the first place can drive the design. Say, for example, this mobile site is for a subscription service customers often renew while on the go; it might have a “Renew Your Subscription” button and tie that button to Google or Facebook services so customers can quickly log in, renew, and keep going.

Building any product requires thinking carefully about who’s using it.

Empathy In Design

Understanding the customer is a complex business, and applying it to your innovation process even more so. It begins with communication. Your customers engage with you in all sorts of ways: via social media, email, phone calls, interactions with employees they meet, and so on. Look closely at all these methods, and pay particular attention to edge cases and unexpected markets. If you have customers using your product for different purposes than you intend, look closely at how it meets those needs.

It also requires weighing customers as groups. Different segments of customers will have different needs, which may not entirely overlap, and you may need to make some hard decisions about the direction to follow.

That said, don’t forget about the other two pillars. Design thinking involves building it and trying it out, whatever “it” is. It’s particularly common in software, but it applies across the board. Physical products should be built and actually used to see if the ideas meet the needs. Ideally, they should be put into the hands of customers, who can offer feedback and thoughts.

Design thinking can be a tough process for some businesses, especially ones that are just starting out or that build complex products. Remember that the key is developing a better understanding of your customers and their needs. Even if you only use the empathy of design thinking in your innovation strategy, you’ll develop better products that work for the people that keep you in business. To learn more about innovation strategy, contact us! 

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