When you need a brand-new way to solve old business problems, design thinking can flip the script by encouraging user-centered innovation. Your company can adopt this simple process when developing new products and services to improve your ability to attract and convert your target audience.
In this guide, we provide the basics about design thinking in a business setting so you can add this powerful perspective to your toolkit.
What Is Design Thinking in Business?
Design thinking describes a methodical five-stage problem-solving process that focuses on humans and their needs.
Although it's been around since as early as the 1950s, design thinking spread rapidly among managers and entrepreneurs after Tim Brown, chief executive officer of IDEO, published an article about the concept in a 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review.
Rather than building new products and services in a vacuum, Brown advocates for constant consideration of the context during the development process.
Stage 1: Empathizing
During the initial stage of the design thinking process, you'll focus on empathizing with the audience and their needs, wants, and problems. In fact, you might even uncover issues your market hasn't yet expressed, articulated, or identified.
As you begin to explore your target market in a non-judgmental way, you'll conduct research through interviews, observation, and inquiry to try to understand how your products and services fit into their lives – instead of trying to sell something designed without the consumer in mind.
Combining quantitative and qualitative data gives you a holistic perspective you might not otherwise achieve, providing a new view of potential solutions. Whenever possible, you should involve actual users in the process of product development.
Stage 2: Clarifying
Now that you've gathered the data about your audience, you can begin to connect the dots about how your offerings can assist with specific pain points. This stage requires you to develop detailed buyer personas, establish your market's priority objectives, learn more about their challenges, and look at how they make buying decisions.
By the end of Stage 2, you should have a clear problem statement that you'll use for the remaining stages. The statement synthesizes the findings you've gathered during the first two stages into an actionable expression of the issue your business will solve.
Stage 3: Ideating
In this phase, it's time to start brainstorming about potential solutions to the problem you clarified in Stage 2. When your group shares ideas, you'll treat all their suggestions as equally worthy of attention. Many design thinking proponents advocate for the "yes, and" approach to build on one another's innovations. During this part of the session, your team will "diverge," or create a group of ideas for evaluation.
At the end of the session, you'll work together to prioritize ideas based on how well they address the problem statement and meet the needs of your target audience. When evaluating each possible solution, it's important to find a balance of the three design thinking elements Brown defined as IDEO CEO:
- Is the idea viable? In other words, it should help you create or fit into a sustainable model for your business.
- Is it feasible? In this case, you'll look at whether you can technically pull off the idea in question.
- Is it desirable? This factor means that you ultimately want to create something people want, or they aren't going to buy it.
Eventually, you'll want to "converge," or come together on a short list of ideas that comes closest to fulfilling these three criteria.
Stage 4: Prototyping
This stage is all about developing the promising ideas your team came up with in Stage 4. You'll start at the top of the list and begin testing each potential solution with members of your target market.
Unlike the traditional "linear" brainstorming approach, design thinking requires you to circle back to your ideas and make them better based on collaboration and feedback.
By building basic prototypes, storyboards, mockups, and other simple but effective materials, you'll be able to gauge the response to the idea among its intended recipients. When an innovation gets a negative reaction, design thinking mandates a quick pivot to iterate something that addresses the problems and improves on the first prototype.
Stage 5: Testing
Often overlapping at least in part with Stage 4, Stage 5 involves deeper testing of the most well-received prototypes. You'll continue to iterate quickly and build better solutions until you land on the product or service that aligns with consumer wants, needs, and expectations.
Role playing can be a helpful tool at this stage as you develop an understanding of the challenges that come with bringing your brand to the market.
How Can Design Thinking Benefit Your Business?
According to the Harvard Business Review, design thinking can dramatically improve your business operations while enhancing engagement, commitment, and creativity among your team.
Design thinking provides a competitive advantage if other businesses in your niche haven't shifted to this mindset. You may come up with ways to fill gaps in the market with new strategies and imaginative innovations.
In addition to these benefits, a design thinking approach:
- Helps your business solve real problems for real people
- Increases the level of innovation, an essential component of sustainable business growth
- Gives you a way to address complex or ambiguous problems that your audience may be unable to define or verbalize
- Improves organizational efficiency, reducing costs while enhancing productivity
- Prevents your business from stagnating when you become stuck with the way you've always done things
- Shields against waste by allocating development funds to products and services your customers really want and need
- Fosters collaboration among your teams, which in turn encourages innovation and growth
- Encourages your employees to embrace change rather than experiencing fear and anxiety as the business grows
Examples of Design Thinking
These stories show how design thinking spans new innovations across business size and sector.
The Child-Friendly MRI
GE Healthcare offers one of the most vibrant examples of corporate design thinking, addressing an unmet client need and generating an enthusiastic response. As reported by Harvard Business School Online, the medical device company kept its smallest users in mind when it revolutionized its MRI machines to provide a child-friendly experience.
GE added fun beach and pirate scenes so kids could imagine adventures under the ocean while undergoing long imaging procedures requiring a completely dark atmosphere.
The Mobile Airline Check-in
Forbes cites an example from IBM's attempts to improve airline gate check-ins using its kiosks. The design members of the team asked women workers why the existing kiosks often went unused.
The airline employees responded that their uniforms made it difficult to reach the machine's plugs, so the kiosks often went uncharged. Using this intelligence, IBM successfully sped up the project by switching from the kiosk to a user-friendly mobile app.
The Neighborhood Walkabout Initiative
UberEats also exemplifies design thinking with its Walkabout program, which involves integrating team members into the cities they serve. These individuals experience the food culture and get to know their local customers, the transportation systems, and their partner restaurants in the area.
The immersion process creates a deep understanding of how the delivery service can best serve each of its dozens of major metro markets.
The Solar Panel Program
Mobisol brought solar energy to parts of Africa where more than a billion residents live "off the grid." The start-up used design thinking to launch and expand its solar panel program, which grew from a three-person startup to have hundreds of employees and operations in three nations in just a few years.
They succeeded by paying close attention to customer needs and matching those pain points with available and affordable market technology.
How Can You Implement Design Thinking in Your Business?
Your business can cultivate a culture of design thinking by developing strong buyer personas for your intended audience. This exercise supports the creation of products and services that truly fulfill the needs and address the pain points of your target market.
To be effective, your buyer personas should include research and observations about the demographics, beliefs, motivations, behavior, habits, needs, and preferences of your intended audience.
Next, you want to observe your potential and current customers as they interact with their real-world and virtual environments. Gathering data about how, when, and why your market purchases products and services, engages with brands, and seeks solutions to specific problems allows you to apply this information within a design thinking framework.
Design thinking requires an iterative approach, which means you continuously test products and services among audience members and gather feedback. Their responses inform updates and improvements to your offerings so you can truly align with your market's preferences and needs. Setting up a methodical evaluation process will support the adoption of a design methodology.
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The Bottom Line
Design thinking draws inspiration from the human-centered approach used in the software design world. By implementing these ideas, you'll be able to tackle tough problems by aligning your available resources with the needs of your actual audience. In the process, you'll save time and money while improving your brand's ability to speak to and attract your target market.
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