Design Thinking: A User-Centered Framework for Driving Innovation

Design Thinking: A User-Centered Framework for Driving Innovation

Innovation has been called the “lifeblood of successful organisations”. On a strategic level, it is considered an important catalyst for business growth, because new products and services can lead to differentiation and a competitive advantage. On a more practical level however, developing or improving these can be challenging for many companies. A newly released product might sometimes fail due to a series of external factors, such as a highly competitive business environment or rapidly changing technologies. Other times, the product simply fails to meet the real needs and expectations of end users.

In recent years, leading global companies have understood the necessity to drive innovation from inside out and think about new products from the customer perspective. This concept is known as design thinking and occurs in the early stages of product development.

Tim Brown, President of IDEO, a design and consulting firm, defines design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

The Design Thinking Process: Five Steps to Innovation

According to Hasso Plattner Institute, the design thinking process comprises five distinct stages. It starts with empathising with product users, followed by a process of clearly defining the design challenge, ideating possible solutions, prototyping and testing. Every design thinking project benefits from in-person workshops which bring together members of different departments. Workshops enable multi-disciplinary teams to communicate and shape the product development process in an active and creative way (“innovate collaboratively” approach). The sequence that design thinking teams proceed through these five stages is iterative – new variations of the product are proposed, refined or rejected. Each stage is accompanied by a specific set of methods and tools, as described below.

  1. Empathise – In this initial stage, one must recognise and understand the customers’ pain points and identify their needs. This can be achieved through a mix of primary and secondary research techniques, such as ethnographic research , focus groups, in-depth interviews, document or Big Data analysis (e.g. web analytics).

  2. Define – Next, “design thinkers” summarise the findings into a clear and concise statement. Projective techniques such as sentence completion or the development of fictional customer profiles (i.e. buyer personas) have proved to be useful techniques for synthesising research findings and defining the design challenge.

  3. Ideate – The goal is to generate a wide range of ideas in order to develop solutions. Lateral thinking techniques through which workshop participants are encouraged to think of worst possible ideas or come up with 100 ideas in 10 minutes are particularly appropriate in this phase.

  4. Prototype – Next, the design thinking teams build real, tactile representations of the most promising ideas. Paper-pencil sketches or 3D prints are frequently used at this stage.

  5. Test – Finally, the prototypes undergo a live test by the target groups. Online communities, ethnographic research or a variety of usability techniques such as thinking aloud or cognitive walkthrough are appropriate tools to get rapid insights on how real users interact with the product. At the end of this stage, results are re-discussed within the team and the product concept is revised accordingly.

Delivering Customer-Centric Business Solutions through Design Thinking

Although design thinking has been first used to create or improve physical objects, its principles are transferable into the business context. The five-stage framework can be applied successfully to almost any challenging and complex issue a company might face in the innovation process: from developing new services, to enriching the customer experience, optimising customer journeys or defining value propositions.

The Role of Market Research in Design thinking

Designers put human needs at the centre of their approach to problem solving. Market researchers also strive to understand consumers by closely investigating their behaviours and underlying motivations. Market research can therefore support design thinking at all stages and ensure the process runs efficiently. For example, it can significantly improve the quality of interviews, surveys, observations and data collection. Experienced market researchers can also advise “design thinkers” in selecting the right methods needed to solve the challenges and identifying suitable target groups.

To find out how we can help you with design thinking and other B2B research needs, get in touch with one of our research specialists.

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