Design Thinking: It’s Not Just Empathic Design

October 3, 2018

Design thinking

Design thinking methodology has recently gained considerable popularity, partly because of its foundation in empathic design and ability to uncover the unarticulated needs of clients through a process of observation and interviews.

Empathic design is founded on the idea that people design products and services and don’t know what the client really wants or needs. Therefore, an organization can use empathic design methods, such as observation, interviews, immersion, and guiding concepts, to link unknown or intangible needs with the company’s capabilities and provide optimal customer value.

Although customer value and empathic design are top priorities, they do not stand alone. Accelerated changes brought on by demands for agility and the adoption of advanced technologies also mean that organizations and their teams need to make fundamental changes in their problem solving, ideation, and execution practices or risk losing relevancy.

Here is where design thinking stands out from other empathic design methodologies. Design thinking is a human-centric, solutions-based approach to problem solving. It is particularly useful for addressing complex or ill-defined problems and leveraging brainstorming and iterative prototype and test cycles. Although empathic design is at its heart, it also addresses the need for experimentation, speed, and testing of the viability of ideas to make them less risky.

The adoption of design thinking

In April, APQC conducted a short poll to better understand design thinking—in particular, how ubiquitous its adoption is, what functions are using it, and what pressing challenges organizations experience during adoption. We found that most organizations struggle with the foundational components of adopting any methodology: where to use it, who needs training, how it works with other tools, and what the ROI is.

Where does it provide value? The first reason organizations derive value from design thinking is rather explicit: By its very nature, it is customer-focused. The first phase of design thinking establishes the needs, applications, and challenges of the customer—internal or external. This means everything that follows is scoped and developed in the context of the customer. The second reason is that design thinking helps organizations expand their solution thinking from a singular tool to a fully stocked toolbox. The third reason lies in the last two phases of the methodology—prototype and test—and their ability to help teams “fail fast” while assessing a wide array of potential solutions.

What are the common applications? Companies tend to apply design thinking in functions that are customer-facing and focused on organizational improvement. In our poll, the top five functions using design thinking were: product development/innovation (73.7%), customer service (57.9%), process management (52.6%), marketing (47.4%), and strategic planning (42.1%). Although these functions are the most common applications of design thinking, organizations should consider its applicability anywhere there are complex problems that would benefit from an in-depth understanding of the internal customers as well.

How does it fit with other methodologies? Not all problems require the deep dive into customer needs and the iterative process of ideation and rapid testing that design thinking provides. In some places, customer needs are already well documented and organizations have established tools to execute on those insights.

Design thinking is best fit for nebulous problems that do not fit neatly with current methodologies or situations where the organization wants to stretch its thinking about how to address problems—such as the case for assessing new technology applications or developing innovative product and service ideas. The key is to look for complex, ill-defined problems that depend on a clear understanding of customer needs that are difficult to clearly quantify.

Organizations struggling to adopt design thinking should keep these considerations in mind:

  • Empathic design and customer insights are only part of the value of design thinking. Organizations can invest in and apply other methods to also yield these customer insights. By using rapid prototyping and testing, companies can fail quickly and increase their problem-solving agility while providing enough evidence to alleviate concerns around the risk of a potential solution.
  • Organizations should start their adoption incrementally and pinpoint one or two functional groups for initial training and use. This allows the company to develop internal expertise and address adoption challenges prior to widespread adoption.
  • You can extend your thinking about applicability beyond customer-focused functions like product development and marketing. Support functions such as process management and knowledge management can use the same techniques to understand the needs and best-fit solutions for their internal clients.
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About The Author

Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland is principal research lead, process and performance management, at APQC. She conducts and publishes APQC research on process management and improvement, quality, project management, measurement, and benchmarking for APQC’s Process and Performance Management research team. Her research supports APQC members and clients across disciplines and centers on helping professionals and project managers solve business problems with strategy, process, and measurement.

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