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How Design Thinking Can Boost Digital Transformation

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Disruptive technologies, changing customer behavior and shifting economic and political winds have led to complex challenges requiring innovative, nimble solutions that are not business-as-usual. To discover these new opportunities and reshape towards digital transformation, many companies have turned away from traditional analytical thinking towards design thinking, a method that does not immediately consider a solution upfront, but examines both present and future conditions and parameters of the problem, ultimately exploring alternative solutions.

For the past century, analytical thinking has helped solve the complicated problems that arose from the Industrial Revolution. These challenges were predictable, linear and well defined, typically arising over a long period of time. On the other hand, today’s quick-shifting world of digital is rife with complexities that are unpredictable, non-linear, chaotic, ill-defined and with short timeframes. This requires a vastly different approach.

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Often associated with David Kelly, a Stanford professor and founder of leading design firm IDEO, the concept of design thinking began as a problem-solving approach in the early ‘90s, where designers were encouraged to seek better understanding of the situation, reasons why, core drivers and business goals. Since then, many top global businesses across multiple industries have applied design principles successfully to strategy and innovation. 

These days, market leaders across sectors use design thinking — also known as human-centric design — to explore how customers and employees interact with the organization; what their pain points are; as well as their motivations and desires. Understanding this requires intensive quantitative and qualitative research that focuses on the “why”, rather than the “how.” By discovering what people actually do, rather than what they say, organizations can understand and anticipate future, unarticulated needs and align these to their business. This helps employees identify real issues they never knew existed and leads to innovative digital and non-digital solutions never imagined.                                      

Design Thinking is Not a Magic Wand

Design thinking may be powerful, but even businesses that implement it still fail at transformation. That’s because, as many businesses have discovered, design thinking isn’t a magic wand that makes enterprise-wide transformation succeed, says David Glenn, Director at KPMG’s Digital and Mobile Solutions. “When businesses are confronted by diverse challenges with multiple possible solutions, design thinking can be immensely helpful. It can define the right problem to solve, and offer a wider range of potential solutions that meet user needs and encourage adoption.”

However, he explains, design thinking needs to be deployed by experienced hands to ensure that the user perspective is considered from the very beginning. That’s where the right framework comes in, with a methodology to help solve complex problems across the enterprise. The design thinking framework encourages a fully human-centered approach in which users – who might be consumers or employees – are the subjects of observation and intensive questioning. Key contributors to the team, they provide inspiration and insights for meaningful change, helping to define the problem and ultimately solve it. A cross-functional approach is welcomed, as true design thinking values diverse approaches, nurtures a range of possible solutions and is always alert to new opportunities.

“The good news is, you don’t have to be a designer to think like one,” adds Glenn. “Design thinking is not about visual design; rather it’s about user experience design. It starts with identifying areas for innovation and generating fresh ideas.”

Fundamentally, design thinking means designing an experience that ensures effective human interaction with a product or service -- a good user experience will meet or exceed the expressed needs of the user. “It’s vital to create a seamless merging between digital and physical processes, as well as cohesive follow-through and support,” he says.

Viewing Problems Through the Right Lens

But if transformation is as simple as implementing a design thinking approach, why aren’t more businesses reporting success? One thorny challenge is that businesses fail in design thinking when they view problems through the wrong lens. This might be organizational, technological or data driven, says Glenn.

“Instead, they need to adapt to a more unfamiliar mindset that starts with empathy for the user and combines those insights with what’s technologically feasible and economically viable,” he says. “It’s people and their experiences that drive business change.” 

All too often, however, businesses rely on data as the key input, believing that a problem lies with a piece of equipment, system or process, without thinking about who is operating, managing and using those systems. With a human-centered approach, businesses can minimize the uncertainty and risk that innovation often brings, Glenn explains: “Design thinking is just a buzzword unless it’s used as a way of focusing on the right problem first and delivering meaningful, highly-functional solutions supported by traditional business metrics.”

Another reason business transformation can fail is because different parts of an organization don’t work together cohesively. It takes strong collaboration to identify the cause of a problem and develop a successful solution. With contradictory motivations and agendas at play, this can sometimes prove to be impossible. Design thinking, says Glenn, eradicates this problem by providing everyone involved with a shared framework through which to communicate: “With a common language and business goal, design and technology requirements can be aligned much more easily.”

Finally, successful transformation -- with design thinking or any other framework -- will only work when businesses have company-wide buy-in. That means considering different perspectives on the same user and business issues. “When everyone can think, and talk in the same terms – and keep their focus on the end user – problems are more easily addressed and meaningful change is achieved,” says Glenn. “In this kind of context, design thinking is doing its job.”                                                         

The Need for Innovation Requires Radical Organizational Change                            Today’s business environment is rapidly changing, with a variety of new competitive forces coming from all sides. Even business models themselves are being upended. The digital world that customers, employees and companies inhabit today requires radical changes in the world of business, so that innovation can thrive.

That is where design thinking comes in: It has become a fundamental tool that, if implemented within the right framework, with the right hands on deck, through the right lens, can offer powerful transformational opportunities for the entire corporate culture to leverage. In the ever-evolving age of the powerful customer, these efforts must be a top priority.

For more on Design Thinking, check out KPMG’s recent article, If Design Thinking is so powerful, why do businesses still fail at transformation? This article explores why a user centric approach across the organization is necessary to successfully transform an enterprise to thrive in the digital world.

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