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8 tips to make design thinking work for your business

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As head of design at DLG, I work across our portfolio of brands, products and services. I’m an advocate of design thinking and strongly believe it should be at the heart of all that we do.

I’m always learning, both from others and my own successes and failures. I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned and hopefully help make design thinking a success for you.

1. Design thinking isn’t a magic bullet

It’s far too easy to attend a design thinking workshop, tick that specific box, and then get on with things as they were before. Such workshops can be a great introduction, but design thinking isn’t an event limited to a single workshop; it’s a way of thinking, communicating and doing every day.

There's a belief that only agencies or marketing departments are capable of creative thinking. The truth is, design thinking helps everyone get clarity about the tasks they’ll need to perform in their role, and what type of support they'll need.

2. Yes, thinking is important – but it’s actually design doing

It’s vital to shift from design thinking to design doing, otherwise a workshop is just a nice team-building exercise.

The aim should be to produce a working prototype of whatever the product or service is that you’re creating. Also, be sure to include a validation phase where you build and test concepts with customers.

Always aim to show how design thinking leads through to a validated prototype and a well-defined project plan.

Showing not telling, through the use of prototypes, is a great way to sell an idea internally. People really see the value in experiencing what the end user of a product sees, as it helps to strip away ambiguity and presents an idea in a (hopefully) simple way.

To quote global design company IDEO: “If a picture paints a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand meetings.”

3. Focus on the challenge

It’s important to have a 360° view of the challenge and focus relentlessly on that.

A design challenge should be:

            1          Relevant and tied to commercial goals

            2          Concise 

            3          Inspiring

            4          Focused on a target audience

It’s vital you focus on and fall in love with a problem, not a solution. The world is already full of solutions to problems that don’t exist.

4. Failure is OK - prototypes are meant to be disposable

By listening to customers you can get a strong idea of which areas of a product are likely to give you the most benefits.

The best thing is that you don't have to wait until you ship the product to see if you were right. Usability tests and user groups can be used to measure how successful the product is likely to be while it's in development.

Early feedback will help you understand whether you’re on the right track, making it easier to adjust your course if required. Sometimes no amount of testing will save a product, but at least early failure will make cancelling a project much less costly.

And because you're working in a user-centric way, it's much less likely that you'll have to completely throw away your idea.

5. Embrace change

For design thinking to become established in an organisation, management should function as an enabler of change. 

Employees involved must also show a willingness to change and to recognise the benefits these changes will bring.

As such it’s important to select your design thinking teams carefully (not everyone wants to be involved).

It’s worth working hard to convince the sceptics, as they’ll often turn into some of your biggest advocates. 

6. It’s all about empathy

The customer is our most important stakeholder, and as such our prime focus should be on making products and services as useful, simple and easy-to-use as possible. 

Try to avoid bombarding people with loads of features and information they don’t need.

Yes, we also have commercial objectives, but it’s important to counterbalance those with solutions that make sense to customers.

Above all, a design-led mindset is a way of approaching everything you do through a customer lens.

7. There’s no quick fix

Design thinking (and doing) needs time to become established - it won’t happen overnight. You’ll have to be prepared to let it develop and grow.

It’s important to realise that design thinking can’t be introduced in isolation because it requires adjustments to existing organisational structures and processes.

In the same way you probably don’t talk about having an electricity department, the aim should be to make design-led thinking an integral part of the fabric of an organisation. It’s a lofty goal, but what’s wrong with aiming for the stars?

8. Be prepared to get messy

All the books, design gurus, thought leadership, methodologies, double diamonds, divergent thinking, convergent thinking, upstream thinking, card sorting, Post-its, whiteboards and Sharpies, won’t prepare you for the Pandora’s Box you might open when digging into a problem.

As the noted design philosopher Mike Tyson once said: “Everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth”.

And always remember…

“Design is the silent ambassador of your brand”.

- Paul Rand