by Clint Boulton

Design thinking: The secret to digital success

Aug 26, 2020
Digital TransformationIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Design thinking has become a key practice for enterprises crafting digital products with the end user in mind. spoke to design thinking practitioners to understand why and how organizations are leveraging it.

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Credit: Jolygon / Getty Images

Design thinking is fast becoming a key ingredient for successful digital transformation. But what exactly is design thinking, and how are leading CIOs harnessing its power to enhance business value?

Design thinking practitioners observe and analyze user behaviors to gain insights into their needs and wants, according to Gartner. They then use those insights to create digital products and services tailored to customers’ needs.

Designing with the customer in mind should be a top priority for today’s organizations, says Jona Moore, global vice president of technology at Frog Design. Enterprises must deeply consider the context in which they are building digital services to better ensure their chances of success. “The ability to move and set customers’ expectations” is critical, Moore says.

Here is a deeper look at why and how firms are leveraging design thinking as part of corporate strategic agendas.

Design thinking vs. human-centered design

Design thinking is closely related to human-centered design, and the terms are often used interchangeably. It helps to think of human-centered design as an umbrella term under which design thinking sits, according to Gartner analyst Marcus Blosch.

If human-centered design is the philosophy that puts people at the center of digital solutions and services that are being designed, design thinking includes the best practices used to build those solutions. Design thinking and human-centered design tap anthropology, sociology and psychology to meet consumer desires, and may include social network analysis and narrative analysis.

“It’s about finding out peoples’ behavior, motivations and needs and coming up with solutions and services to match,” Blosch tells “The toolbox is wide and varied.”

Design thinking principles

You’ve likely heard the expression “starting with the customer and working backwards.” This is the ethos from which design thinking springs. And while it may seem like common sense, enterprises have long taken the build-it-and-they-will-come tack.

Prior to design thinking, user-friendliness was an afterthought. IT departments would take specifications from the business and then spend months building technology solutions.

Design thinking represents a cultural shift in peoples’ “liquid expectations,” which emphasizes the fluidity of expectations, says Shelley Evenson, managing director of Accenture’s Fjord design consultancy. Consider the revolution Apple ignited with its iPhone and subsequent App Store launch a decade ago, which drove people to expect great mobile applications from their favorite brands. Today most businesses offer mobile apps that facilitate transactions, including payments.

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. 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 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.

Design thinking in action

One emerging design thinking approach marries customer-centric design with DevOps, a software engineering practice that emphasizes fast iteration using continuous integration and continuous deployment (CICD) constructs.

Frog design, which helps clients such as BNY Mellon, Audi and British Telecom operationalize design, recommends creating customer experience operations teams that build digital services iteratively. This method has proved effective during the pandemic, when so many brands are feeling the pressure to distinguish themselves with top-flight digital products, Moore says.

Though not for every company, one approach entails carving off product teams from IT to solve the business challenge. For instance, one financial services company, which became weary of IT constantly saying no, launched a crack team that was able to create products quickly, unencumbered by procurement timelines and legacy platforms.

Pitney Bowes is one such company that has leveraged design thinking to stellar results. The 100-year-old office shipping firm had acquired so many companies over the years that creating a seamless, unified experienced posed a great challenge. It hired design firm LUMA Institute to scale design thinking across the company, says James Fairweather, chief innovation officer at Pitney Bowes.

LUMA helped train 160 employees as design thinking practitioners. They redesigned Pitney Bowe’s digital channels in the Angular programming language, created user “personas” and helped map customer journeys for more than 60 products, including its mail stations and post-purchase services. These staffers worked with clients to ensure the onboarding process was smooth by engaging in interactive feedback sessions to refine products.

Over time, Pitney Bowes boosted time to market for new digital products by 50 percent and increased client interactions 85 percent year-over-year from 2018 to 2019, Fairweather says.

Design thinking best practices

Design thinking can help foster innovation as companies seek to “renew” themselves to keep up with the pace of change, says Chris Pacione, co-founder and CEO of LUMA Institute, which in addition to Pitney Bowes works with McDonald’s, Google and Deloitte. But the switch to design thinking requires culture change. Pacione and Moore offer the following tips for implementing design thinking.

Empathy: A lack of understanding and empathy for stakeholders is a big reason why digital initiatives fail. Capturing empathy isn’t easy, as end users don’t share a hive mind. Moreover, enterprises must also consider those who install, repair or maintain the solutions they design. This is where contextual inquiry and other ethnographic and participatory design techniques come in handy.

Iteration: Corporate governance tends to crimp innovation. Organizations must allow for the multiple failures associated with great or novel ideas, Pacione says. Here, iteration is key, and teams should be continually sketching, storyboarding and prototyping solutions based on stakeholder feedback. Product designers must ideate solutions with the business, adds Frog’s Moore. Often this means using cloud-based tools to help visualize and regularly revise the solution.

Project failure points: It’s vital to 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, Pacione says.

Collaboration: Organizations must conjure good ideas and collaborate with clients and other departments to get them implemented. Moore says workshops tend to work best here, allowing multi-disciplinary teams to introduce concepts based on customers’ pain points and gather feedback on ideas and, eventually, prototypes.

Pacione says a need to improve customer experiences is what ultimately drives most organizations to embrace design thinking. “The impetus is on the outside because it’s affecting bottom and top lines sooner,” Pacione says.

Design thinking pitfalls

While it’s true that culture change is among CIOs’ chief challenges in driving transformation, organizations can also build the wrong technology at the wrong time, Moore says.

For example, some organizations err by building for the desktop web experience when digital traffic is increasingly generated via smartphones. Or they ignore voice interactions at a time when many customers have come to expect Siri- or Alexa-like virtual assistant features. Others may fail to incorporate accessibility into their designs, a big no-no in a society hungry for more inclusivity. In short, context matters.

“Our most successful clients take a multi-disciplinary approach,” Moore says.

Other organizations trip over their own feet by being too hung up on practices that require rigorous documentation and testing, which can make it difficult to build anything iterative, says Evenson.

While requirements provide the illusion of safety, most organizations lack the muscle memory or competencies required to adopt more iterative development. “What’s lacking in most organizations is imagination and creativity — the ability to do things differently,” Evenson says. “It can make it challenging to create.”