- Solving problems for customers. Design thinking is a customer-centric, iterative problem-solving approach that consists of five phases.
- The good ole days. The origins of design thinking can be traced back to the 1950s and 1960s, with significant contributions from Herbert A. Simon, Horst Rittel, Melvin Webber, Richard Buchanan, David Kelley, and Larry Leifer.
- No easy CX design road. Challenges in applying design thinking to customer experience include limited understanding of customer needs.
Design thinking is an iterative process that begins with empathy and culminates in testing and implementation, only to be followed by further cycles of design thinking, ensuring continual improvement. The uses of design thinking are diverse and include the development of products, services, user interfaces, websites, apps and the enhancement of employee and customer experience, among others.
This article will look at design thinking, and how it can be applied to improving the customer experience.
What Are the Origins of Design Thinking?
Design thinking has its origins in the 1950s and 1960s, when scientific processes were used to gain a deeper understanding of the science of design. Fast forward to 1973, when design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber coined the term "wicked problem" in their paper Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning to describe complex problems that have no simple, applicable solution. In the paper, the two theorists were discussing the types of problems associated with social issues, stating that “The kinds of problems that planners deal with — societal problems — are inherently different from the problems that scientists and perhaps some classes of engineers deal with. Planning problems are inherently wicked.”
An example of a wicked problem today would be that of artificial intelligence (AI), because although it holds great promise for society in general, it poses complex social and scientific challenges. Design thinking is one possible solution to wicked problems because it is a collaborative, empathetic process that enables people to gain a holistic understanding of the motivations, needs and behaviors that are associated with such a problem.
Another pioneer in the history of design thinking is the cognitive scientist, Herbert A. Simon, who in 1969 wrote a book titled The Sciences of the Artificial, which introduced the idea of design as a way of thinking. In the 1970s, he wrote what is largely regarded today as the principles of design thinking and went on to win the Turing Award in computer science in 1975 and the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1978.
In 1992, the head of design at Carnegie Mellon University, Richard Buchanan, wrote an article about the origins of design thinking, titled Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Then, in 2004, David Kelley founded the d.school, formally known as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, where design thinking is used to solve some of the world’s most urgent problems. Finally, Larry Leifer, the founding director of the Stanford Center for Design Research, contributed a great deal to the concept and practice of design thinking and played a significant role in its popularity today.
Related Article: Design Thinking in 2022: Centering the Customer Journey, Embracing the Metaverse
The Iterative Process of Design Thinking
Design thinking is a customer-centric problem-solving approach. Regardless of what practice it is being used for — be it product design, website design or customer experience — the process is very similar, and generally consists of five phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test.
Anthony Yell, chief creative officer at Razorfish, an interactive media company, told CMSWire that in the past 10-plus years, design thinking has garnered broader use for creating product, service and business opportunities, as well as solving business challenges by teams that don’t consider themselves creative. “It does this by providing them with a framework for thinking along with the associated tools to enable them to: understand the problem, quickly create compelling ideas and solutions, and to prototype, test and iterate.” Each phase of design thinking is necessary in order to come up with solutions:
- Empathize: This phase is about understanding the needs and perspectives of the customers that the brand is designing for. This step involves observation, research and interviews with customers to gather actionable insights.
- Define: This phase is about determining the insights that have been gathered in the empathize stage to define the problem. This step involves framing the problem in a way that is actionable and user-focused.
- Ideate: This phase is about brainstorming a range of creative solutions for the problem that was just defined and involves sketching and prototyping to explore different possibilities.
- Prototype: This is the phase where low-fidelity prototypes of the most promising solutions are built and involves creating mockups or simple models to test and refine ideas.
- Test: In this phase, the prototypes are tested by users to gather feedback and refine the design, and involves evaluating the prototype and refining the design based on the feedback.
Brad Anderson, executive director of Fruition, a digital marketing and web development company, told CMSWire that as a business owner dedicated to elevating consumer experience, integrating design thinking into his business strategies is crucial for delivering exceptional value to his customers. "By adopting an empathetic approach, we can gain a deep understanding of our customers' needs, desires and pain points, enabling us to develop tailored solutions that surpass their expectations," said Anderson. “Through the iterative process of design thinking, we can prototype, test and refine our products, services and customer touchpoints to ensure that we consistently provide delightful experiences.”
Anderson explained that by embracing a culture of continual improvement, his team remains agile and adaptable to evolving customer preferences and market trends, ensuring that his business stays ahead of the curve and maintains its position as a customer-centric leader in the industry.
The process of design thinking is especially useful for law students seeking to solve judicial access problems. Eric Vogeler, co-director of LawX at Brigham Young University Law, described the process he uses to apply design thinking to such problems. “We start by identifying a problem scope — specifically, a legal problem with regard to access-to-justice issues facing some of our more vulnerable communities and individuals who may need legal help but can't easily obtain it.”
Vogeler said they then begin to identify the more narrow target or problem they want to address and discuss the scope and target with experts in the field — lawyers, social workers, judges, affected parties, etc.
Next, Vogeler said they start to ideate on potential users and solutions. “We will spend a class period mapping out the problem, target and solutions. All along the way, we will vote on the scope, target and solution.”
Then comes storyboarding the proposed solution and creating a step-by-step plan for the anticipated prototype that can help them build the solution. “From there — and time permitting — we try to build out a simple prototype or proof of concept that we can then present to potential customers or users in an interview process to further refine the prototype.”
Finally, Vogeler said that they try to have a final presentation of their prototyped solution to a panel comprised of some of the experts they interviewed.
Vogeler said that having his students go through the design thinking process is a tremendous exercise regardless of outcomes. “They learn effective tools and thinking strategies that will help them in their own practices — interviewing and empathy skills with their clients, systemic analysis and improvement for their professional practices (and when they're our future legislators and governors), and even creativity with branding, marketing and user experience learnings.”
Related Article: Design Thinking From the Start: Planning CX With Strategy
How Is Design Thinking Used for CX?
Empathy and understanding are vital when it comes to orchestrating an exceptional customer experience. By using the process of design thinking when crafting the touchpoints in the customer journey, brands can more effectively delight, engage and satisfy their customers.
“Simply put, design thinking is an approach, a framework, a process that can help to generate insightful and innovative ideas,” said Yell. “It has been successfully applied to all forms of the customer experience because it starts with a deep exploration into people, and their needs and behaviors. This is always at the center of any great CX.”
When design thinking is applied to customer experience, it begins by empathizing with customers to understand their needs, desires and pain points. Brands then define the problem(s) and ideate solutions before creating prototypes and testing them with customers to refine and improve the solution based on feedback. The process is never really finished, as continual iteration and improvement will always follow implementation.
Alex Milligan, co-founder and CMO of NuggMD, a leading cannabis-focused telemedicine platform, told CMSWire that design thinking pushes marketers and developers to focus on the customer’s perspective of their product or service. "Empathy lies at the core of design thinking. Design thinking is essential in industries like Healthcare where patients are quick to switch providers if they don’t feel valued or acknowledged by your service,” said Milligan, who suggested that the deeper a brand dives into addressing its customers’ needs and making them feel comfortable, the more likely they are to become long-term clients. “Your business depends on the customer experience. The purpose of design thinking is to use the feedback from your customers to continuously improve your offer.”
The Challenges of Design Thinking
When design thinking is used to improve the customer experience, brands may encounter several challenges. One such challenge is a limited understanding of customer needs, as design thinking requires a thorough comprehension of customers' needs and wants. Brands may not possess a deep understanding of their customers or their pain points, making it challenging to create solutions that address these needs.
Another challenge is resistance to change, which often accompanies design thinking's requirement for businesses to change their operating procedures. People and teams often find it challenging to embrace new approaches, leading to resistance to the design thinking process.
Additionally, design thinking requires collaboration across various teams and departments, yet silos within a business may prevent effective teamwork, limiting perspectives and resulting in solutions that do not fully meet customer needs.
Time and resource constraints are yet another challenge when it comes to applying design thinking to customer experience. Conducting research, prototyping solutions, and testing them with customers requires time and resources, and brands may struggle to allocate these resources if they are focused on short-term outcomes.
Finally, measuring the impact of design thinking solutions can be challenging. Since design thinking prioritizes creating meaningful experiences for customers, traditional metrics like revenue and profit may not adequately measure impact, which can lead to difficulties in determining the success of design thinking efforts. Voice of Customer initiatives are a likely solution for this challenge, as they help brands determine if their customer experience campaigns have been effective.
Curt Schreiber, chief creative officer at VSA Partners, a strategy and design agency, told CMSWire that although design thinking works well for many types of constituents, their needs are often different or even in opposition. “Shareholders seek profits or future potential. Employees are eager for progressive policies,” explained Schreiber. “Customers expect a combination of quality and value for products and services.”
Fortunately, design thinking enables brands to take each type of constituent’s needs and desires and turn them into actionable insights. “When design thinking takes them all into account — at the same time — new outcomes emerge,” said Schreiber. “If you can identify the conjoined needs of the multistakeholder set, you can drive innovation and competitive advantage.” Schreiber observed that while this often requires the rewiring of many different processes, organizational structures, materials and partnerships, it creates value that would otherwise be unimaginable.
Final Thoughts on Design Thinking
Design thinking offers a customer-centric, agile approach that encourages creativity and collaboration, resulting in innovative solutions that can be quickly refined based on customer feedback.
By focusing on the customer and creating tailored solutions, brands can improve customer satisfaction, enhance customer loyalty and increase ROI.