Today's top stories

What is design thinking? The secret to digital success

Design thinking is fast becoming a key pillar in digital transformations, as forward-thinking companies tap the human-centered design philosophy to deliver robust, user-friendly products and services.

What is design thinking? The secret to digital success defined
Thinkstock

Design thinking is emerging as a major ingredient in for digital transformation success. But what exactly is design thinking, and how are leading CIOs harnessing its power to bolster business value?

Design thinking is an approach to building products that integrates business and technical needs together to deliver what people require, says Shelley Evenson, managing director at Fjord, a design consultancy acquired by Accenture Interactive in 2013. At its core, design thinking involves tapping into human experiences, including harvesting customer input with technology development practices, when creating new products and services.

This innovation philosophy, popularized in recent years by software vendors, is gaining sway among traditional businesses seeking to digitize their products and services. In fact, CIOs now say design thinking, also known as human-centered design, has become a key part of corporate IT strategies.

“Design thinking is huge,” Vijay Sankaran, CIO of TD Ameritrade, tells CIO.com. For the online broker design thinking has become a critical tool in its pursuit of roboadvisers, chatbots and other customer-facing technologies intended to drive revenue growth. Design thinking has helped Sankaran’s team visualize the client experience for applications they are building as part of the company’s push toward agile software development practices.

[ Get an inside look at 10 real-world digital transformations at today's leading organizations, and find out why companies struggle to cultivate digital strategies. | Get weekly insights by signing up for our CIO Leader newsletter. ]

IT’s design-thinking revolution

Traditionally, IT departments huddled with business partners on specifications and then spent months building technology solutions from the comfort of their cubicles, siloed away from the business. The solutions IT delivered had to work, of course, but user-friendliness was often an afterthought. In the era of consumerization, however, when employees and consumers alike became empowered to use their preferred devices and applications, user-friendliness became a requirement not a perk, putting increased pressure on IT to design its solutions with users in mind.

“People’s expectations are rising and it wasn’t very common a long time ago to think about what’s the research we need to do that makes these things human, useful and desirable,” says Evenson, who also worked in design roles at Facebook and Microsoft before joining Fjord.

Evenson says design thinking represents a cultural shift in peoples’ “liquid expectations,” a phrase that emphasizes the fluidity of expectations around technical solutions. Consider the revolution Apple ignited with its iPhone and subsequent App Store launch a decade ago. Armed with the planet’s leading mobile handset and digital market, people began to expect great mobile applications from their favorite brands. Over time functionality expectations have risen significantly. After Starbucks launched a mobile order and pay service for its food and beverages two years ago, many other quick-service chains built similar functionality into their mobile apps. Such moves have been propelled by liquid expectations.

The mindset is also forcing banks to become more digital as they see Apple Pay, Mint, PayPal and other services take more share of the digital wallet pie, Evenson says. And she says she’s seen design thinking seep into established software vendors such as Microsoft, where she worked as a user experience design manager from 2009 to 2011. When Evenson joined Microsoft the focus was developing and testing software before ceding it to product management. By the time she left, Microsoft had injected design into the software development process, Evenson says.

But as technology is increasingly woven into the matrix of a business, even traditional companies are considering user experience as a key factor in solutions both for employees and customers. Today a big part of Evenson’s job involves speaking with CIOs and other business leaders about how to build software and services akin to Airbnb, Facebook and other services that consumers feel were designed for them personally. “You can’t have a corporate service that isn’t considering usability, desirability and putting people first rather than what we can do technically or what makes sense to get what they need,” Evenson says.

The shift to design thinking typically involves ditching the classic cubicle farm for open, collaborative workspaces where product managers, designers and software engineers sit and huddle over new solutions. In such environments, it’s not uncommon for CIOs to walk into the workspace and not know exactly who reports to them.

Design thinking in practice

Design thinking requires a culture change. But for many firms undertaking digital initiatives to transform their businesses, design thinking is increasingly becoming part of corporate strategic agendas, says Chris Pacione, co-founder and CEO of LUMA Institute, which teaches people how to do human-centered design. Design thinking, Pacione says, can help foster innovation as companies seek to “renew” themselves frequently to keep up with the pace of change.

Pacione’s approach to design thinking blends product design and systems engineering with anthropology and ethnographic approaches. Design thinking, Pacione says, can help organizations avoid common pitfalls that keep projects from succeeding. Those include:

Problem framing: All too often well-intentioned teams will rush to fix a problem without fixing its root cause. In short, they don’t capture the scope of the issue plaguing their organization. Pacione recommends firms “question the question” by exploring new ways of framing the problem accurately and ensuring teams are on the same page. “Teams that understand the real opportunity in the first place have a chance of success,” he says.

Empathy: Another big reason projects fail is the lack of understanding and empathy for myriad stakeholders the initiatives are intended to serve. Capturing empathy isn’t an easy task as end users don’t share a hive mind. Moreover, enterprises need to design solutions keeping in mind those who must install, repair or maintain them. This is where contextual inquiry and other ethnographic and participatory design techniques come in handy for IT teams.

Iteration: Corporate governance, which is linear-minded, tends to crimp innovation, which requires iterative approaches to product development. Organizations need to allow for the multiple, natural small failures associated with great or novel ideas, Pacone says. This requires sketching, storyboarding and prototyping solutions based on stakeholder feedback. “Really innovative solutions that have impact are the result of numerous innovation and a continuous flow of assumption testing and improvement. The faster time to market maxim is irrelevant in this day and age. Organizations that iterate the fastest and do it well will win.”

Project failure points: Identify areas that aren’t working and fix them. That’s one of the advantages of iteration; designers and engineers can fix bugs and user design quirks on a rolling basis, from inception of minimally viable products to fully-baked commercial solutions.

Collaboration: Organizations living under threat of disruption have to come up with good ideas and collaborate with other departments and with clients to get them implemented. They must also help to impart ways of working that are more visually imaginative and creative.

Pacione says the impetus for driving design-thinking into an organization tends to come from organizations looking to improve customer experiences. “The impetus is on the outside because it’s affecting bottom and top-lines sooner,” Pacione says.

But you don’t have to have all the design thinking answers yourself. TD Ameritrade’s Sankaran, for example, has tapped coaches and consultants, such as Pivotal Labs, to help teach both IT and business line product managers how to build software with the end user in mind. “They ask open ended questions, such as, ‘Okay, what would a client want to do with this and how would they interact with it?”

When companies see the payoffs they tend to bring those philosophies to bear internally on corporate solutions. Increasingly, enterprise don’t have a choice in the matter. Millennial employees, which already comprise more than half the workforce, will pass on employers whose technologies and practices they view as part of the digital Dark Ages.

Avoiding the digital Dark Ages is crucial. One way corporations can do this is create a “design culture” that involves hiring more designers and prototyping new solutions they wish to launch early and often. Setting up innovation labs and digital accelerators also helps. “They see the pressure of the liquid expectations both in delivering their services and in keeping their organization growing and thriving,” Evenson says.

Related articles

NEW! Download the State of the CIO 2017 report