Design thinking has become a seemingly ubiquitous concept in product development. It’s a human-centered approach to innovation—anchored in understanding customer’s needs, rapid prototyping, and generating creative ideas—that will transform the way you develop products, services, processes, and organizations. Utilizing its five stages (empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test) puts design at the forefront during software or product development, when traditionally it’s brought in as a secondary task. I’d like to challenge the notion, though, that design thinking on its own is the end all/be all guide for those looking to innovate during the development process. Let’s take a look at why I think it’s a great starting point, and why you should go beyond it to be sure you’re fully exploring new opportunities.
Benefits of design thinking
What’s great about the process of design thinking is that the stages are not necessarily linear. You can prototype something that’s just an idea without doing any research at all. You can change your existing application on the fly, just to test something new. What’s important here is that each stage needs to be represented. By understanding and clearly defining your users’ needs, with actual user feedback and not just assumptions, your initiatives are immediately more effective because the user has been brought in at the beginning. User research can quickly change the assumption of “We need a new app” to “It turns out our app works great, it’s our communication we need to fix.”
Design thinking is only the beginning
Design thinking is an incredibly powerful tool and should absolutely be a part of the product development cycle. Only by understanding the user and their needs can you continue to deliver value, however, locking in to design thinking can also cause stagnation, and Stage 3 (which involves challenging assumptions and creating ideas) is often ignored. This should include the assumption that your users have a clear understanding of what is best. Particularly in the case of successful products, you may receive feedback like, “This is great, don’t change a thing,” or “I am very satisfied with the product.” This type of feedback is fun for the team to receive, but it doesn’t give you anywhere to go. There’s no springboard here to help you reach the next level of customer engagement. This doesn’t mean, “Go back to the old way where the leadership team tells the customer what’s best.” Design thinking came about as a reaction to that, allowing the customer voice to be heard all the way up to the decision makers. What it does mean is that you need to allow space in your flow for true innovation. All ideas and explorations should be welcome at the table, and we need to allow time (and as a result, budget) for your team to try new things. With this level of experimentation, we should also expect that not every attempt will be a victory.
More room to explore
When design thinking becomes prescriptive, it can lead to a series of small successes. “Customer satisfaction was at a 7, we listened, did what we were asked, and moved it to a 7.5.” This is a fantastic result and something we should all strive for, but good ideas can and should come from anywhere. Sometimes we need to look beyond our user base to move forward. The highest compliment a feature or product can receive is, “I didn’t know I needed it, and now I can’t live without it.” These ideas are rare, and usually only come from an environment of collaboration and exploration. If we only follow the “production line” version of design thinking, there’s no room to explore these ideas.
We are often encouraged to think outside the box to find new ideas and solutions, so we can’t let ourselves be restrained by the structured process that design thinking can become. It was born from prioritizing the users, making room for experimentation, and saying, “It’s okay to fail as long as you learn.” Only by remembering these principles can we move our products to the next level and harness the power of design thinking as it was intended – as a starting point to help us explore new possibilities.
About the Author
Joe Dallacqua is a Senior Principal Consultant in Sparq’s Albuquerque Development Center and has over 20 years of UX/design experience. He’s worked with Fortune 500 companies, startups and everything in between. Joe is passionate about using storytelling and UX design to solve complex problems.
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