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Organizations that allow designers to act as business leaders and not just the people who make products embrace design thinking and likely operate with the customer at the center of their universe, according to Cisco Guzman, group product manager of Adobe XD for Adobe. Guzman and others helped us explore the principles of design thinking in interviews this week. 

CMSWire reported earlier this year the definition of user experience (UX) Design and its core tenets, one of which was design thinking. “The core of the design thinking process is that empathy, a deep desire to understand problems and the ability to quickly iterate is the fastest way to create a product that can change peoples’ lives,” Guzman said. “But you should think of them less as steps and more as a series of modalities that you inhabit in order to make experiences and products that matter.”

What is User Experience (UX) Design?

As a refresher, we’re talking about becoming an organization that embraces design thinking as it relates to UX design. According to our last report, UX design is the process of building relationships between products and prospects or customers through a digital or physical experience that involves engineering, marketing, graphical, industrial and interface designs. UEGroup CEO Tony Fernandes in an interview with CMSWire called UX design an “interactive brand experience that takes the place of establishing credibility and connection in the way that logos and taglines did in the past.”

What is Design Thinking?

According to Accenture’s Jen Sheahan, design thinking is a mindset, a way of approaching problems that is human-centered, based on “empathy and understanding of users through research,” Sheahan blogged earlier this year. Design thinking is creative, playful, iterative, prototype-driven and collaborative. 

The Interaction Design Foundation this year posted its own definition: Design thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, design thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It is a way of thinking and working as well as a collection of hands-on methods. 

And it's not just for designers, according to Michael Kanazawa, EY Americas Advisory Leader for Innovation. “Design is not a department, it is a fundamental way of thinking, understanding the world around us, problem solving and innovating. Too often, organizations look at design like a creative services group to be used to design marketing materials, user interfaces for websites and apps or employee communications,” he said. 

It should be, Kanazawa said, a discipline built into all operations in order to bring customer and human insights into anything from products to manufacturing operations, sales engagement approaches and onboarding and developing employees.

Related Article: What Is User Experience (UX) Design?

Design Thinking is a ‘Lightweight’ Start

Design thinking is a “lightweight” approach because it’s done before any functional code is written, according to Aurimas Adomavicius, president and co-founder of Devbridge Group. “So, it's a really low-cost, fast-to-market, iterative approach to validate different ideas that originate with potential end-users, and not necessarily an internal stakeholder,” he said.

Design thinking looks both at the needs of the business, and the customer. It's an iterative process. “So, even though it's very lightweight, inexpensive and quick to be tested,” Adomavicius said, “there may be multiple iterations to arrive at ultimately, a much better design, at a much better workflow, at a much better product both for the customer and internal stakeholders.”

Knowing When You’re Ready for a Design Thinking Process

So why should you invest in design thinking? Adobe’s Guzman, asked when an organization should know it’s ready to take design thinking steps, told CMSWire that if you’re organization finds itself trying to understand why some solutions or projects are more successful than others, it’s probably ready. “Maybe you’ve started noticing the projects that have a meaningful research phase, fast and frequent iterations and constant collaboration seem to fare better with customers and clients,” Guzman said. “Perhaps you are trying to replicate successful practices in your organization to scale innovation and get people working together toward solving customer problems in ways that are deeply impactful.”

Organizations that spend precious time getting people on the same page about a problem and what the best solution is can’t get into dangerous, time-killing ruts. Design thinking is about how you understand and define a problem and then move toward a solution through rapid iteration, Guzman said. “But it’s also about bringing other people along with you in that journey,” he added. Designers need tools, he said, that can handle the downstream changes that often balloon into a ton of work when a prototype or idea reaches the outer rings of stakeholder or client approval.

Designer turnover and lower customer satisfaction can also serve as triggers to seek design thinking, Guzman added. Organizations with poor customer satisfaction are “poised to study customers with an empathic eye to their motivations as people rather than just customers making purchases,” said Mikal Hallstrup, president and founder of Designit

Design Thinking Needs Executive Buy-in

When your CEO is invested in analyzing and potentially upending the default way of working, and is open to change, it’s a good sign that design thinking will work, Hallstrup said. “The motivation,” he added, “must come from the top-down before a truly customer-centric approach can spread through the organization from the bottom up.”

Related ArticleHow to Design an Effective Digital Innovation Campaign

How Design Thinking Applies in Practice

So you’re not Amazon or Uber. But you do design products with the customers in mind. Adomavicius, shared an example of where design thinking leads to better customer experience outcomes. He cited a bank application creation process. Historically, organizations would build applications and software like this by completing a lengthy requirements process. A business analyst then drafts probably a 100-page document that defines the market opportunity, the requirements, the functional needs and so on. Next, someone draws out the different fields necessary for the application and then someone designs the interface, builds the interface, integrates it, tests it and then brings it to market. 

And herein lies the problem, according to Adomavicius: only then would an actual user get to see the finished product, which in this case is an online banking experience that the bank was looking to launch. “In design thinking, you would start by having a team emphasize with the end customer/end-users, and actually design and define the solution based on the customer needs versus a business analyst that is talking to stakeholders and internal stakeholders at the bank at the company,” Adomavicius said. 

“So, if you look at the different stages of design thinking, they go from emphasizing with the end-user, defined requirements, ideate over those requirements of how to actually do the execution of the requirements, prototype those and then test.”

Related Article: Why We All Need Design Thinking

Design Thinking Innovators: Learn from the Best

So how are organizations putting this “thinking” into practice? Design thinking, Guzman said, is nothing more than the “radical” notion that by rooting our inquiry in empathy, we are able to develop solutions that improve customers’ experiences and lives. “So,” he said, “all you need to do is pick one of many experiences that the world has fallen in love with, from folks like Apple, Uber, Lyft and Airbnb to name a few, and ask those teams what they do.” Guzman suspects you’ll find a few things in common with those game-changing organizations: they all put customers at the center of what they do. They know how to ask good questions. They all know how to listen. “And,” Guzman said, “they let designers act as business leaders, not just people who make ‘the thing’ being talked about.”

Hallstrup said General Electric used to manufacture jet engines and major appliances. Today they are IoT developers and sell data services. Starbucks used to just sell coffee. Now they offer financial services through mobile payments and credit cards. Netflix used to deliver movie DVDs. Now they are the largest content creator and provider in the West. Amazon was an online bookseller but now it’s a superstore, a lender to small businesses, and a content creator. Uber, once just a black car service, is now inventing the future of mobility and selling data to service municipalities. 

Avoid These Common Mistakes with Design Thinking

So if you’re ready to start molding design thinking strategies into your organizations, avoid these common pitfalls:

Don’t go by the book - You can’t look at the fundamental ways of applying design thinking while still operating in a very much linear, or waterfall fashion, Adomavicius said. For instance, we oftentimes run into executives, or even teams, in departments who say, “We have $5 million dollars, so we have one attempt to get this right and if all else fails, everyone's heads will roll.” According to Adomavicius, this is akin to "anti-design thinking." "Because to make it the premise that you have a single attempt to get something right implies a linear fashion of design and requirements gathering.”

Don’t insert design thinking as a formulaic process that embeds itself in current processes and in individual departments rather than looking at the whole picture structurally. Ideally, Hallstrup said, an organization collaborates with designers to see which touchpoints are missing a customer-centric approach, assess the company’s culture and capabilities and start implementing internal change to support external products and services in a way that’s sustainable and scalable in a time frame that spans years, not months.

Don’t feel you need to create a level of “certainty” at one stage before proceeding to the next - It’s important to recognize, Guzman said, that most progress happens by fluidly moving and continuously collaborating between the steps. “By over-investing in building fidelity vs. just quickly prototyping an idea so it can fail quickly,” Guzman said, “brands run the risk of perceiving collaboration as a drawback rather than a strength, and ultimately, not making enough time for the whole process to actually play out.”

Don’t look at design like a creative services group and have them designing marketing materials, user interfaces for websites and apps or employee communications. According to Kanazawa, design thinking should be a discipline built into all operations in order to bring customer and human insights into anything from products to manufacturing operations, sales engagement approaches and onboarding and developing employees.