Design thinking: How a human-centered culture drives transformation success

Design thinking principles put customer and stakeholder needs at the center of the conversation. Here's why it should be part of your digital transformation approach
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Once upon a time, technology was driven by technologists. Led by brilliant software engineers, companies would announce their latest technology breakthroughs and tell us, the end users, which new features and capabilities we needed.

These days, technologists and engineers are no longer in the driver’s seat. Instead, end users are in control, and they see technology as a means to an end.

For this reason, companies today must take a human-centric approach to how they innovate, collaborate, and meet customers’ needs – and it all begins with a culture of empathy. Empathetic employees respect each other’s opinions and feel valued and understood, and they act the same way toward customers.

Empathy also helps tech companies build better solutions, such as AI that is trained to better understand human emotions and respond appropriately. Organizations that leverage this human perspective to deliver useful technology solutions will be well-positioned for future success. The first step is to develop the right culture.

Building a culture of humanity

In a culture of humanity and empathy, people bring their whole selves – professional and personal – to work. This fosters trust among multidisciplinary teams comprised of people with different skills and perspectives, such as data scientists, developers, architects, UX designers, and product managers, and allows them to embrace their differences and share ownership for the work.

A human-centered work culture encourages risk-taking. People should know that their team will support them even if they fail.

A human-centered work culture encourages risk-taking. People should know that their team will support them even if they fail. Team members also need to be willing to listen to each other and work collaboratively rather than imposing their ideas on the team.

Leading by design

A design thinking approach to digital transformation almost always begins with a human-centered culture.

[ Want to learn more? Read also: Design thinking: 5 must-watch TED Talks. ]

Design thinking as a set of principles puts end users’ and stakeholders’ needs at the center of the conversation. Using empathy-based research and discovery methods, we can dig deep into what frustrates users, what employees need, and the underlying drivers of all stakeholders.

The design thinking approach to problem-solving enables companies to balance business viability and digital solutions with real end-user attributes: desirability and usability. To fully understand these factors, we need to ask customers:

  • Who is this is for?
  • What do you need it to accomplish?
  • What is the experience you expect, and why is this important now?

When we define success from the stakeholders’ perspective rather than from the requirements and KPIs created in silos, we deliver real-world value. Often, by seeking out the hard questions, we can help companies get to the heart of their business problems and offer potential solutions.

Identifying and solving business problems can be accomplished through guided sessions attended by all company stakeholders, including employees, end users, and partners. Often, stakeholders clearly know what their frustrations and pain points are but have no idea how to solve them.

That’s where design thinking comes in. By listening attentively and playing the role of both technologist and psychiatrist in many cases, design experience experts can uncover the technology solution that can address the problem. Many times, attendees uncover problems that they didn’t even realize they had – and sometimes technology isn’t even the solution.

For example, a team at a telecommunication company may believe it needs to create a new chatbot to better serve customers with instant information. When you ask the company’s customers, however, you learn that what they really need is for basic information to be more readily accessible – the last thing they want to do, they tell you, is to have to go online or make a call to find out a new channel lineup. Maybe all they really need is a refrigerator magnet. Who knew it could be so simple?

Keep end users in the loop

Today’s technology solutions must begin and end with the end user. Companies should continuously monitor the pulse of their stakeholders through surveys, focus groups, and shared user feedback, and be ready to pivot and adapt as needed. By developing a culture of empathy, companies can create loyal customers for the long haul.

[ Will your organization thrive in 2021? Learn the four priorities top CIOs are focusing on now. Download the HBR Analytic Services report: IT Leadership in the Next Normal. ]

Carlos M. Meléndez is the COO and Co-Founder of Wovenware, a Puerto Rico-based design-driven company that delivers customized AI and other digital transformation solutions that create measurable value for customers across the U.S.