Design thinking: 9 ways to get started

Design thinking: 9 ways to get started

Design thinking can help you get closer to your customers' wants and needs. These expert tips will help you begin using this methodology in your organization

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Giving the customer what they want is easier said than done. Customers are people, after all, and there isn't always a logical connection between what we say and what we mean – or between what we want and what we need.

Companies win when they can meet customers' unarticulated needs while also delighting them with features they didn't even know they wanted.

To do this, you need to begin to see customers as more than collections of data and stats, says Andres Angelani, CEO of Cognizant Softvision. Design thinking is a great place to start.

“From our perspective, a design-led business openly embraces the idea of continuous change, which is part of today’s digital marketplace demands,” says Angelani in his book Transforming While Performing, How To Create A Culture of Innovation With Partners. “Additionally, design-driven companies do more than just deliver goods and services for what customers want: they understand and uncover the rationale. It’s just as important to them to understand why they want it."

Design-driven companies invest a great deal of time observing, listening, and learning the motivation behind why and how people experience and use their products.

“Getting to the why is not always easy, and data alone is not the answer, because it does not often reveal sentiment. Design-driven companies invest a great deal of time observing, listening, and learning the motivation behind why and how people experience and use their products. Motivation could be based on being disruptive, or surprising and delighting with a unique experience. There are opportunities for creating moments that will help a person experience a product differently on their decision journey,” he says.

9 tips to get started with design thinking

If you are exploring design thinking in 2020, consider these ideas for getting the ball rolling from experts and IT leaders.

1. Make sure you are asking the right questions

“The first hurdle for any organization with well ingrained ways of working is to ask if the challenge or question they are looking to solve is the right one, or a by-product of a deeper root cause? To begin understanding and scoping the question, assemble a small multifunctional team. Avoid a room full of team members who are ‘yes men’ or susceptible to ‘group think.’ Choose an objective facilitator, perhaps outside of IT. Create an environment where everyone feels empowered to voice an opinion. Only then can you begin to align and frame the challenge for further research.” – Kris Pennella, director, Red Hat Open Innovation Labs

2. Stay flexible

“For IT leaders looking to jumpstart their design thinking process, knowing and understanding your customers’ digital friction points is key. Let the design process reveal challenges and opportunities throughout the business. Look at process, operations, and your resources as adaptable elements. Know your customer and the market, and design new business models. This will help you become indispensable to your customers. Develop and embrace design systems that are scalable and build consensus. Focus on interactivity that contributes to the broader experience. Ensure these elements work together toward a reduction in time to market.” – Andres Angelani, CEO, Cognizant Softvision

3. Up your empathy

“The problems you are trying to solve are rarely your own. These problems are for a particular group of people who have a few unique needs, so in order to design for them, you must step in their shoes and develop empathy for who they are and what is important to them. You must observe what they do, how they interact with their environment – these observations serve as vital clues for what your customers really want, what they really think, and what they really feel.” – Masood Pathan, VP, software engineering & digital transformation, Brierley Partners

[ Read our related article to find out how you and your team stack up: Emotional intelligence test: Do your empathy skills need work? ]

4. Get help from domain experts

“Design decisions shouldn’t be the sole domain of the CTO or CEO but should be influenced by the people who will be using the solution. The most critical part of design thinking is to step back and focus on the end user. Another best practice is to lean into domain expertise. IT and business teams should collaborate early on with subject-matter experts (internal or external) who can weigh in about how an application will fit into the context of a specific vertical. How an application is designed could vary depending on the industry, be it financial services, healthcare, manufacturing or other.” – Quang Le, director of enterprise design solutions, Prism Studios at Clairvoyant

5. Build co-creation spaces

“Thinking outside the box also implies thinking outside your everyday space. Studios enable collaboration that fosters deep integration, alignment, and rapid outcomes. Consider setting up a dedicated design studio, either yourself or through your partners.” – Andres Angelani, CEO, Cognizant Softvision

6. Work design thinking into your agile process

“You have to be mindful and intentional about fitting design thinking into your agile practice. For example, build time into ‘Sprint 0’ activities to truly understand customer journeys and pain points. Also use that time to visualize a concept that can set the team in the right direction. Quick prototyping and early customer feedback before really launching into an agile build process can help bring to life a vision that the team can use to anticipate challenges. Such a ‘Sprint 0’ may take a bit longer than a traditional two-week sprint, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be a lengthy process. The key is taking enough time to build empathy, discuss a number of ideas, and get quick feedback without over-designing up front.”

“There is also room to involve design thinking during a project, when agile teams are up and running and detail is emerging. Design thinking approaches ensure that detail decisions made through the development process are based on customer experience. Within an agile environment, consider ‘dual track agile’ or ‘staggered sprints’ that allow for empathy, ideation, and feedback loops as an adjacent part to the project process. These modifications to traditional agile approaches allow design-minded team members to continually apply customer-centered approaches without necessarily slowing the entire agile process.” – Michael Hawley, chief design officer, Mad*Pow

7. Invite both designers and engineers

“Ensure designers and engineers are at the table together when making strategic decisions, and that both are focused on driving business value. Both sides will have opposing views to solve the same problem. At times, either side’s voice may be louder and/or more apt to make the decision, but merely including the other side in the room will cause others to be more mindful and empathetic.” – Alex Levin, founding partner, L+R | Strategy + Aesthetics

Do you know the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict? Read: How to use conflict to build stronger IT teams ]

8. Practice addition by subtraction

“One of the greatest challenges of traditional product development is that things become incrementally more complex until the original underserved customer needs are buried under a bunch of features that the customer doesn’t particularly care about. Create a better customer experience by constantly practicing addition by subtraction. Remove features for a minimalist and simplistic product design and work toward an MVP – the smallest possible product increment that is valuable, usable, and feasible.” – Masood Pathan, VP, software engineering & digital transformation, Brierley Partners

9. Dive in

“The best way to get started is to act. Learn by doing. It’s an experiment. People need to talk to other people. Get immersive, interactive training from experts that can help you develop your own understanding. Use real business problems. The team needs to be motivated to achieve the outcome, and management must give employees the time and resources to get there. Be comfortable learning that your assumptions were wrong, and act quickly. Making changes slowly burns your resources. – Ben Ross, director, Ross Management

Ross offers the following steps to help teams dive in with design thinking:

  • Step 1: Define a challenge for your business or an outcome you want to achieve using a “how might we…” statement. For example, “How might we increase the number of customers sharing their experience after using our product?”
  • Step 2: Define the customer segment(s) involved and create a customer journey map for each of them. List your assumptions from this process.
  • Step 3: Create some interview questions to test those assumptions and determine customer behavior. Then go out and interview 10 potential customers face-to-face.

[ Learn why core skills, like empathy, are critical for 2020 and beyond. Download the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: IT Talent Strategy: New Tactics for a New Era. ]

Carla Rudder is a writer and editor for The Enterprisers Project. As content manager, she enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.  

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