When design agency IDEO was tasked by bicycle components manufacturer Shimano to find out why 90 percent of Americans don’t ride bikes, the team set out to talk to consumers from all walks of life. They discovered that most people were intimidated by cycling—everything from the retail experience to the cost and complexity of bikes and accessories to the danger of cycling on roads was daunting.
Based on this, Shimano designed a simpler bicycle targeted at people who cycle for leisure, changed its retail strategy in stores, and launched a campaign to identify safe cycling routes, IDEO CEO Tim Brown told the Harvard Business Review 1.
This problem-solving strategy, known as design thinking, places the end-user at the front and centre of the innovation and product development process. First popularised in product design circles, design thinking is now widely used in many other sectors, including government, healthcare, finance and IT.
The importance of empathy
As with physical consumer products, design thinking in IT is about adopting a human-centric focus when designing solutions. It is an approach that begins with a discovery phase of the customers to understand their needs, and where problems are identified. Solutions are then shaped and prototyped to test for user desirability, business viability and technical feasibility, and then realised through agile development.
At the heart of design thinking is empathy. Design-driven organisations, whether they are in technology, advertising or the public service, make it their mission to walk a mile in the shoes of their stakeholders, so as to discover and address their needs and the challenges they face.
At NCS, leaders from all units undergo design thinking training, during which they put themselves in the shoes of both their customers and employees to innovate, design and prototype solutions. For example, an NCS project team developing an IT system for a customer service centre paid the centre a visit, posing as a customer. This experience helped them to better understand how the client and its customers interact with the IT system, and to experience firsthand how the system’s performance affects the user experience. In another instance, the corporate team put themselves in the position of the management team, and gained a much better understanding of the types of reports they needed.
While nearly all companies will assure their customers that they are the main focus, reality is often quite different — business decisions made at the upper echelons of management sometimes give short shrift to the needs and concerns of end-users.
Companies that are serious about design thinking, however, go above and beyond finding out what customers want to finding out why they want it, write McKinsey experts Jennifer Kilian, Hugo Sarrazin and Hyo Yeon2. This is why tech companies like Google, Intel and Microsoft are hiring anthropologists and ethnographers, and why many have armies of designers on their payroll.
Design thinking from the ground up
While ease of use, simplicity and intuitiveness are now de rigueur when it comes to user interface and user experience, these are not the only parts of the tech stack that would benefit from good design. Design thinking should start at the very bottom of the stack, encompassing all layers from
foundational architecture to hardware, networking, software and data management. Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, a poorly designed underlying layer could throw off even the most elegantly designed user interface.
In the past, designers were often only called upon near the end of the development process, and tasked with making the end product look more aesthetically pleasing and attractive to consumers. Today, however, many organisations recognise that design thinking should play a substantive role from the very beginning of the development process.
The need for a coherent, holistic design necessitates a multidisciplinary and collaborative working environment — programmers, data scientists, developers, engineers, designers and marketing personnel can no longer afford to stay in their own departmental bubbles during the product development process.
Restructuring organisational processes around design thinking is hard work, and may require some persuasion to change mindsets. Ultimately, however, the payoffs are well worth the trouble: more satisfied customers, new opportunities to grow the business, enhanced collaboration and a strong culture of innovation.
When combined with our other core capabilities, design thinking will let us differentiate our products and solutions at every stage of our operations. It enables us to collaborate more closely with our customers as we contribute our expertise and implement new ideas to solve their problems.