OPINION: Design thinking is the secret to digital success

Design thinking is a major ingredient for digital transformation success (image: angkritth/iStockPhoto)

Design thinking is emerging as a major ingredient for digital transformation success. But what exactly is design thinking, and how are leading CIOs harnessing its power to bolster business value?

“Design thinking is a method for deriving deep insights into customer needs and wants, making it possible to create customer experiences that disrupt incumbents or competitors,” Gartner analyst Lars Van Dam said in a research note. Relying on significant observation of user behaviors, design thinking uses empathy to understand expectations and emotional experiences and to derive insights into what delights customers, Van Dam added.

This innovation philosophy, popularized by software vendors, is gaining sway among traditional businesses building digital products and services. CIOs are leveraging design thinking, along with a human-centered design ethos, as a key part of their corporate IT strategies.

The design thinking approach                                                                                                                                        

Design thinking represents a departure from the more traditional approach in which design is driven top-down. In this scenario, management facilitates the creation of digital products, brings them to market and explains how they solve problems, said John Morley, a business design strategist at Hitachi Vantara, who worked on design thinking in prior roles at AppDynamics, Symantec and EMC.

Design thinking, on the other hand, is a bottoms-up approach, with employees throughout all layers of an organization influencing and refining product development. Morley said it’s common for junior-level employees to ferry feedback to those in power as they tend to be closer to customers. An outcome-based mindset is essential.

“An organization has to commit to opening up and having a feedback loop around ideation,” Morley said. “People have to not be focused on their role in the org chart but how their skills can support a desired outcome.”

There’s a trick to effective design thinking: If it doesn’t become embedded throughout the organization’s culture, it will fail, Morley said. “The perspective of the organization should be customer-centric,” he added.

Design thinking principles     

Perhaps you’ve heard the expression “starting with the customer and working backwards.” This is the ethos from which design thinking springs. And while it may seem like common sense, enterprises have long taken the build-it-and-they-will-come tack.

Prior to design thinking, user-friendliness was an afterthought. IT departments would take specifications and then spend months building technology solutions. But in the consumerization era, in which employees and consumers became empowered to use their preferred devices and applications, user-friendliness became a requirement not a perk, putting increased pressure on IT to design its solutions with users in mind, said Shelley Evenson, managing director at Fjord, a design consultancy acquired by Accenture Interactive in 2013.

Evenson, who also worked in design roles at Facebook and Microsoft before joining Fjord, said design thinking represents a cultural shift in peoples’ “liquid expectations,” a phrase that emphasizes the fluidity of expectations around technical solutions. Consider the revolution Apple ignited with its iPhone and subsequent App Store launch a decade ago, which drove people to expect great mobile applications from their favorite brands. Since then, many quick-service chains have added ordering and payment capabilities to their mobile apps. Such moves have been propelled by liquid expectations.

But as technology is increasingly woven into the matrix of a business, even traditional companies are considering user experience as a key factor in solutions both for employees and customers. Today a big part of Evenson’s job involves speaking with CIOs and other business leaders about how to build software and services akin to Airbnb, Facebook and other services that consumers feel were designed for them personally. “You can’t have a corporate service that isn’t considering usability, desirability and putting people first rather than what we can do technically or what makes sense to get what they need,” Evenson said.

The shift to design thinking typically involves ditching the classic cubicle farm for open, collaborative workspaces where product managers, designers and software engineers sit and huddle over new solutions. In such environments, it’s not uncommon for CIOs to walk into the workspace and not know exactly who reports to them.

Design thinking best practices                                                                                                                                          

Design thinking requires a culture change. But for many firms undertaking digital initiatives to transform their businesses, design thinking is increasingly becoming part of corporate strategic agendas, said Chris Pacione, co-founder and CEO of LUMA Institute, which teaches people how to do human-centered design. Design thinking, Pacione said, can help foster innovation as companies seek to “renew” themselves frequently to keep up with the pace of change.

Pacione’s approach to design thinking blends product design and systems engineering with anthropology and ethnographic approaches. Design thinking, Pacione said, can help organizations avoid common pitfalls that keep projects from succeeding. Those include:

Problem framing: All too often well-intentioned teams will rush to fix a problem without fixing its root cause. They don’t capture the scope of the issue plaguing their organization. Pacione recommends firms “question the question” by exploring new ways of framing the problem accurately and ensuring teams are on the same page. “Teams that understand the real opportunity in the first place have a chance of success,” he said. 

Empathy: Another big reason projects fail is the lack of understanding and empathy for myriad stakeholders the initiatives are intended to serve. Capturing empathy isn’t an easy task as end users don’t share a hive mind. Moreover, enterprises need to design solutions keeping in mind those who must install, repair or maintain them. This is where contextual inquiry and other ethnographic and participatory design techniques come in handy for IT teams.

Iteration: Corporate governance, which is linear-minded, tends to crimp innovation, which requires iterative approaches to product development. Organizations need to allow for the multiple, natural small failures associated with great or novel ideas, Pacone said. This requires sketching, storyboarding and prototyping solutions based on stakeholder feedback. “Really innovative solutions that have impact are the result of numerous innovations and a continuous flow of assumption testing and improvement. The faster time to market maxim is irrelevant in this day and age. Organizations that iterate the fastest and do it well will win.”

Project failure points: Identify areas that aren’t working and fix them. That’s one of the advantages of iteration; designers and engineers can fix bugs and user design quirks on a rolling basis, from inception of minimally viable products to fully-baked commercial solutions.

Collaboration: Organizations living under threat of disruption have to come up with good ideas and collaborate with other departments and with clients to get them implemented. They must also help to impart ways of working that are more visually imaginative and creative.

Pacione said the impetus for driving design-thinking into an organization tends to come from organizations looking to improve customer experiences. “The impetus is on the outside because it’s affecting bottom and top-lines sooner,” Pacione said

Design thinking in practice                                                                                                                                            

Design thinking has become a critical tool in TD Ameritrade’s development of roboadvisers, chatbots and other customer-facing technologies that drive revenue growth, CIO Vijay Sankaran told CIO.com. He said that design thinking has helped his team visualize the client experience for applications they are building as part of the company’s push toward agile software development practices.

Sankaran has tapped coaches and consultants, such as Pivotal Labs, to help teach both IT and business line product managers how to build software with the end user in mind.

“They ask open ended questions, such as, ‘Okay, what would a client want to do with this and how would they interact with it?” Sankaran said. “Design thinking is huge.”

The question of whether your company adopts design thinking may be of when rather than if. Millennial employees, which already comprise more than half the workforce, will pass on employers whose technologies and practices they view as part of the digital Dark Ages, Evenson said.

One way corporations can avoid the “digital Dark Ages” is to create a “design culture” that involves hiring more designers and prototyping new solutions they wish to launch early and often. Setting up innovation labs and digital accelerators also helps. “They see the pressure of the liquid expectations both in delivering their services and in keeping their organization growing and thriving,” Evenson said.

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