Listen to your customers: how design thinking stimulates innovation.

Three Business Blog Team
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On: 21 Mar 2019
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Design Thinking Three Business Blog

In this blog Three’s User Experience (UX) expert Cliona Browne discusses how companies can innovate and make improvements to products and services by taking a customer-centric approach.

“Let me tell you what you want” is the traditional ‘top-down’ approach to developing new products, processes and ideas. Design thinking is the alternative ‘bottom-up’ approach, which first finds out what people want, then develops it with input from throughout the organisation, and isn’t afraid of failure.

Despite the name, this not a designer-led approach, nor is it only about product design. From products to processes to services, design thinking simply uses the designer’s toolkit of empathy and experimentation to create innovative and effective solutions. As a way of deriving deep insights into needs and wants, it enables you to create solutions which disrupt competitors and delight “customers” — whether those customers are employees who will use the new processes, or purchasers who will buy the new products.

A perfect example of design thinking methods is what happened when residents of an apartment block complained about the building’s lifts travelling too slowly between floors.

This sounded like a mechanical issue, so engineers were called in. However, even with the lift speed increased to the maximum that the mechanism — and safety — would allow, users still complained it was too slow.

So a different, design thinking, approach was tried instead.

Observers spent time in the lifts and discovered the issue wasn’t the actual speed of the lifts but their perceived speed. Shut in a small metal box with nothing to look at or do, lift passengers felt the lifts were travelling too slowly. The innovative design thinking solution was to install mirrors in the lifts.

With something to look at to pass the time, passengers no longer felt the lifts were travelling too slowly (even though their speed hadn’t changed) and the complaints stopped.

Taking the customer-centric approach.

That first stage of design thinking — observing and listening to the product- or process-user — demonstrates the customer-centric approach which lies at its heart.

In the past, there was a tendency to create products or introduce processes, and then to explain to end-users how they solved their problems. Design thinking, on the other hand, uncovers real (not perceived) problems, then develops user-friendly solutions.

After observation to frame the problem, the next important stage in developing a solution is empathy: discovering and understanding what all the stakeholders involved want to do or achieve. What is preventing them? What effect are the obstacles in the way having on the business?

By identifying not only business opportunities but also business threats, then turning them all into business strategies, obstacles can be overcome and progress made. However, this requires an openness to ideas wherever they come from within the organisation, an organisational structure which allows input from all areas of the business, and a tolerance of failure.

Failing better.

In design thinking, failure is seen not as the opposite of success but as an important stage on the road to success.

Failures which don’t instantly lead to improved results are not a waste of time, and failure should never be perceived as a negative. It is just another part of the process. Even so, increased and earlier collaboration with end users and stakeholders, plus the use of storytelling, visual aids and prototyping, should help to minimise the number of failures.

Although it is sometimes possible to visualise how a product will work before it is manufactured, or how a process will operate before it is put into practice, in some cases only a prototype will provide that information. Prototyping has the additional benefit of helping to build a product’s or project’s momentum with employees, and of allowing stakeholders to assess it against their expectations, needs and wants. This is what makes the ideas testing stage – in whatever form it takes – so essential.

Numerous small failures will naturally occur on the way to turning a minimally viable product or process into a fully-functioning and successful one. In fact it’s often the case that more can be learnt from failure than from success. Or as Samuel Beckett put it: “Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Even once you have achieved success, design thinking requires another stage.

That is: to return to the problem and check whether you are still truly addressing the original goals, and whether there are still further enhancements possible. This final stage should be an ongoing process of continual improvement, which reiterates the very first stage: observing and listening to the end-user.  

Only when the problem to be resolved is truly understood first-hand, will you have the information you need to make the leap that produces unique, innovative, design thinking solutions.

For more information, call our Business Advice team on 1800 200 017 or