Design thinking has been around for years, but the methodology has picked up traction in recent years in the realms of customer and employee experience. Definitions vary, but at its root, design thinking addresses the critical areas of who, what, how and why when developing new products, services and solutions. There's a lot of variety in how the method is depicted, but the common framework is the empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test sequence.

Deep Empathy Essential

“If we agree that customer centricity involves deeply understanding customer needs and fulfilling on those needs better than anyone else, you can see how design thinking is a critical mechanism to making customer centricity happen,” said Greg Heist, Gongos, Inc. chief innovation officer.

The integration of human understanding is central to the empathy phase of any design thinking initiative, Heist added. If stakeholders truly enter into the mind, heart and lives of their customers, they’ll be able to transition from “customer understanding” to meaningful empathy.

“As a result, empathy becomes the ‘True North’ of the remaining phases of the design thinking process, and a rallying point for the team to act as advocates on behalf of customers,” Heist added. “Empathic advocacy will be reflected in the ideas they generate, the manner in which they assess their potential and the care with which they ultimately integrate them into the customer experience. Deep human empathy is the heartbeat of design thinking and one of the core dimensions of its transformative power.”

Related Article: Use Design Thinking to Put Yourself in Your Customers' Shoes

Design Thinking Is Iterative: Start Small

Iteration is a key element of the design thinking we use at SquareFoot, said Kent Yeung, director of design. The iterative design process is a constant loop of prototyping, testing and refinement.

“Instead of building the full product experience, we start with the smallest possible solution that will still solve the underlying need of the user,” Yeung explained. “From there, we can take a step back and acquire feedback from the customers about the solution. With this feedback, we are able to quickly change gears if our initial assumptions are incorrect or to continue with the plan, but with some user insights along the way.”

By collecting actionable feedback at every launch, the company can see if more investment is needed, or if the product is good enough as is, and then move on to new products for its customers, said Yeung. In the end, the product might be very similar to what the team initially envisioned, but usually as a better product thanks to the insights the team gained from the earlier iteration loops.

Related Article: Design Thinking Isn't User Experience

Design Thinking Can Improve Your Understanding of Customers

“Qualitative design research methods associated with design thinking help us deeply understand people’s needs and the context for design," said Shelley Evenson, managing director, organizational evolution and strategy at Fjord, part of Accenture Interactive. “We use them to understand people’s mindsets. We document how and why people behave the way they do, and how different settings might influence their behavior. Quite simply, we watch how people interact with other people, products, services, systems and their environment to derive insights to shape the design for a customer’s experience.”

Learning Opportunities

Evenson said her company collaborates in multidisciplinary teams to co-create ways they might address observed needs. For example, a consultant might see the need to change the color of something to make it more accessible for people who are color blind, or small changes in an environment in lighting or acoustics might make a medical patient’s experience less frightening.

Related Article: 4 Tips to Apply Design Thinking to the Digital Workplace

Improve Chances for Positive ROI

It's tempting to hear about a new technology offering and to assume it will improve the customer experience, even if there's no actual analysis proving it will really bring a significant ROI, said Steve Pike, vice president of professional services and sales at CompuCom.

“The empathy stage of design thinking swaps that completely around,” Pike said. “Instead of starting with a solution and trying to convince customers they should use it, you begin with focus groups to really listen to customers about problems they have and hear what change they want from their perspective — not yours.”

The clearly defined customer needs and problems you get from the empathy stage then steer how you brainstorm and evaluate possible solutions so you know the required boxes are being checked, Pike added. In the prototyping and testing phases, going back to your research groups to let them try out solution ideations gives you invaluable real-world feedback long before the finished solution rolls out widely.

“Doing it that way, you have much more confidence that you have a robust solution which customers will appreciate and use because it improves their experience,” Pike said. “The design thinking process from start to finish gives you a much higher chance of success and higher ROI.”