Five ways to implement design thinking in your business

Now more than ever, the power of design thinking is being recognised. From Airbnb and Netflix to Tesla and Samsung, companies are looking to this ideology to change the way they view business problems, using it as a catalyst to introduce customer-focused design that works.

This business mindset is not just for the big players. In a previous post, we explored the firm possibility that design thinking can induce growth for startups during the current pandemic (and beyond) by cultivating innovative, customer-centric solutions. Now that you know why you should adopt design thinking, your next question might be ‘but how?’.

With any new process, getting to grips with what it could mean to your organisation — and knowing where to start — can be overwhelming. It’s a feeling that might be compounded by the knowledge that there are a lot of different frameworks that you could use to put design thinking into practice.

Below are the phases of the design thinking process which you can explore. You’ll also see some useful examples of frameworks in motion to help you discover more about what each phase means in practice. This will help you to weave the framework into your own business practices, bridging the gap between the creative and the strategic.

Phase 1: Empathise

During step one of the design thinking process, it’s key that your team spends time getting to know your customers — their unique needs, wants and frustrations — on a psychological and emotional level. Your team must empathise from multiple perspectives, which invariably leads to an understanding of the situation that is complex, fluid and ambiguous. This thorough and well-planned research stage could take a variety of different formats, including immersion and observation techniques, but above all, it’s crucial that there is a move away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach to design research.

Example: For the UK Government Digital Service, empathy has a physical home in a dedicated accessibility empathy lab.

The UK Government’s Dedicated Accessibility Empathy Lab (Source)​​​

Phase 2: Define

The goal in this stage is to synthesise the findings you’ve unearthed to create a detailed overall picture that provides powerful insight into your target customer. The ability to navigate and synthesise information is critical to be able to define framing factors within which a process of ideation can take place.

You’ll then be ready to create a meaningful, actionable problem statement, or point of view statement, which outlines what your project is trying to achieve.

A good problem statement provides a clear description of the issue that the end design is looking to address. It maintains focus on the customer at all times, rather than any potential desired commercial outcomes. It’s narrowly focused too, framing the problem you’re looking to solve and empowering your team to come up with potential answers.

Example: DesignBetter’s Eli Woolery explores how Netflix, and a host of other businesses, have reframed their problem statements to disrupt their business model in this fascinating handbook.

Phase 3: Ideate

The third phase of the design thinking process is dedicated to generating a set of ideas that could solve your problem statement. Mastery of stages one and two will frame a space where real opportunities lie. You’ll bring together deep knowledge of your customer (gathered during stage one, the empathise stage) and an in-depth understanding of the problem you have chosen to explore (fostered during stage two, the define stage) with your imagination.

Although the ideate phase is focused on freedom of thought, it’s important that the process is steered in the right direction. That’s why there are several techniques you can use to help ideation— from brainstorming to reverse thinking — many of which are explored in this blog by Innovation Management.

Example: Watch an expert from design thinking consultancy IDEO lead a brainstorming session about attracting more visitors to a zoo. You’ll see that in an ideation session, there’s no such thing as a silly idea.

Phase 4: Prototype

The aim of the prototyping phase is to create a scaled-down version of your product which will help you to test your design or innovations before investing money into its development.

Once you’ve chosen which ideas are going forward, it’s time to get building! Depending on the proposal, the prototype could take the form of a paper model, a wall of post-it-notes, a storyboard, a website wireframe and more.

The key is not to spend too long on a single prototype. Instead, you should build quickly with your user in mind, working together to continually optimise design and to ask at every step - ‘what is it that we’re looking to test?’.

Example: Interested in learning more about how to prototype a service, rather than a product? This insightful blog explores the journey IDEO went on with American healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente.

Phase 5: Test

Prototyping and testing go hand in hand. Without testing your prototypes, there’s no way to understand whether they work in the way you intended for your target user.  Ideally, it’s best to ask a user to test your prototype in the context of their everyday life. You should constantly be looking to understand more about the user - empathising with how they think, behave, and feel. Because of this, the testing phase might reveal unexpected insights, which in turn bring about more ideas for innovation.

The results of your tests will allow you to refine your prototype, so it’s important to test early and often, analyse your results, then take your learnings to prototype again and retest.

The Only Constant is Change

Remember, design thinking is a complex, non-linear, iterative solution, where the only constant is change. Organisations tend to build themselves around the needs of the time. As the situation moves on, design thinking can reimagine the assets of an organisation in relation to the evolving social and economic environment. In turn, this helps you to iterate and reiterate your product and service offering to make sure it continues to meet the needs of your users.  It helps ideas to be evaluated from multiple perspectives prior to committing to major investment: increasing opportunities and reducing risk.