Design thinking is one of those ideas so good and so compelling that it has rapidly advanced to the status of fad. This is too bad because thinking like a designer can be an illuminating way of framing possibilities you never knew were out there.
Good designers try to think like a user. They start by building empathy for that user. By empathy we don't mean compassion. We mean manifesting close observation of a user or customer's life in your offering, without the confirmation bias that can filter our perspective on what a customer really wants. Such bias can make us believe the customer wants what we want her to want.
The essential difference between this kind of empathy and traditional approaches to product development is that the latter often proceed from a business goal derived from a financial objective or strategic plan. Traditional approaches then look for ways of hitting that goal using self-referential terms like "we need more accounts" or "our technology will offer an irresistible solution" or "we're all about mobile and social now".
This produces concepts that start at the end and work backward to how an organization can bring them about. What we end up with may look impressive on paper and still be disconnected from the user's real-world experience. We may fall into the trap of offering what we believe customers want rather than designing a solution for them. Think touch-screen navigation panels on new cars, for example, or the voice-recognition systems of automated customer service lines.
In contrast, the empathy manifest in design thinking is user-insight driven. User experience informs the business case. It is less linear and more iterative than traditional stage-gate product development. That can be a challenge to the processes of established organizations.
For consultants like IDEO and its rivals, design thinking has become a lucrative trade. It's a set of business skills ripe for democratization. Innovators at every level of every organization can improve their odds of success if they allow themselves to be led by empathy for the experience and the often unspoken needs of customers. Any innovator can apply empathy for users to prototyping, refining and going to market with new ideas.
New ideas become big businesses by getting at emotions, motivation, behavior and context. Here's how.
Ask questions, mostly listen. Observe. Don't go to customers with an idea and ask if they like it. Go in pursuit of understanding. Why do they do something? How do they do it? What are they experiencing? You'll hear and observe things customers may not even realize they're saying or doing, things neither of you ever thought about. Notice not just what customers do but why they do it. Digitally record what you observe. That frees you up to fully listen. Compare notes with a partner. Be alert to the unexpected.
Consciously challenge the obvious. Design thinking tempers the impulse to go straight to the answer. Diversity on product development teams really pays off when cross-functional team members come to the table as full thought partners, not simply as representatives of their function. They can push one another to go beyond good enough, beyond incremental improvement. The engineer on a team is often the one who can make a valuable contribution to pricing or branding. Listen to everyone with open ears.
Prototype. Cultivate a bias toward action, not toward the production of PowerPoints and a prematurely detailed business case. This does not mean an absence of rigor. It means building physical prototypes with materials you have on hand and sharing your prototypes with potential users to collect feedback.
Mess around with your prototype. Early-stage testing is never about stage gates. It's always about validating observations of customer experience and refining them. It's about what's working, what's not working, and what new lessons can be applied. It needs to be iterative and fast-paced.
Build your business case. Design thinking is pragmatic and market focused. And it can be cheaper to apply than many assume. Share the customer feedback on your prototype throughout the internal "sell-in" process. Apply it to directionally calculate the strength of market potential and to identify possible revenue drivers. Projections will be improved by incorporating user response to the prototype. Downstream the business case can be refined as the prototype becomes a market-ready product or experience. As you seek internal support--and funding--the visual reality a prototype offers will strengthen your pitch (and be a lot more appealing than readouts from traditional research surveys). The adage "a picture is worth a thousand words" is true.
The empathy characteristic of design thinking can be applied beyond attracting new customers or deepening existing relationships. It can create compelling experiences for any audience whose engagement with your brand influences your business model. It can improve the experience of distributors, say, or service reps. The Institute of Design at Stanford has even offered a course using design thinking to restore bipartisanship to the American political system. Wouldn't that be a breakthrough idea?
Increase your readiness to apply design thinking with these online tools:
Design Thinking for Business Innovation. A four-week online course from the University of Virginia.
Design Gym. Offers a wide variety of courses and downloads on design thinking, many of them free. It offers innovators a community of fellow practitioners.
Stanford's Crash Course in Design Thinking. A 90-minute video that takes you through the process of hosting or participating in a design challenge. Created by the university's d.school.