Design Thinking didn’t really originate from a single industry or place. Following the Second World War – and the significant societal changes that resulted – many engineers, architects and industrial designers, as well as cognitive scientists, began to converge on the issues of collective problem solving.
The concept initially looked at formulating new ways of using existing (design-centric) problem-solving, innovation-focused activities and processes, to find solutions to broader problems. In the last 15 years, the core tenets of Design Thinking have made their way into the business world, where its fundamental premise is now about building empathy with your customer – knowing the why before tackling the what.
It provides a framework through which we continuously review, question and look to improve on our initial assumptions, understandings and ultimately results. You’ll notice the ‘we’ there, and that’s because it’s also a collaborative technique that welcomes different perspectives.
There are five steps to Design Thinking for solving challenges, which flow intuitively from one to the next:
Empathize– this phase involves finding out more about a challenge by observing, engaging and empathizing with people to understand their motivations and experiences.
Define – here you analyze your observations and synthesize them in order to define the core problem that needs to be solved.
Ideate – next, think ‘outside the box’, using brainstorming techniques, to identify potential solutions to the problem you have defined.
Prototype – produce inexpensive, scaled down versions of a product (or a specific feature within one) to share and test
Test – rigorously test the complete product, using the best version identified during the prototype phase
Although testing is the ‘final’ phase in the process, it’s also an iterative one – so findings can, and should be used to re-define the problem, inform understanding and refine the solution. For this reason, a cloud environment is particularly conducive to using the Design Thinking methodology; providing flexibility and agility that allows for rapid re-thinking and re-designing when parameters change.
The thinking in practice
A great example of the process being performed was a recent project Microsoft undertook for one of our customers, a major bank in Poland. The bank tasked us and our partners to help them build a new mobile banking application.
Developing, implementing and testing products like these can often take up to 18 months, by which time there’s every chance the initial customer base may have changed or something newer will have come along.
So, in the first instance, we built just the core 10 percent of the application, let’s call it ‘the engine’, to test market appetite. This equated to one product, with two customer communications channels.
Next, we created a business case for the engine, evaluating its functionality, comparing it to competitors, considering pricing models, and choosing appropriate communications channels. Once all this was done, we created a rough and ready version to launch and get feedback from customers on.
After just a few weeks, overall customer feedback was very positive, both in terms of the product itself but also about how the bank was reacting quickly and addressing their pain-points on almost a weekly basis.
The first round of testing, involving around 6,000 ‘customer developers’, proved to have huge promotional value for the broader launch – 70% of the subsequent customers who chose the solution said they did so because they trusted the model the bank had used.
What’s more, with steps such as segmenting and pricing built into the testing process, the bank was able to shorten the time it took to launch the finished product from an average of 90 days to just eight.
A framework for solving our customer’s challenges
In this instance, we undertook the Design Thinking process on behalf of a customer, but it’s increasingly a way in which I encourage my team to think about how we address our own approach to solving customer challenges.
At Microsoft, where millions of people are using our products every day it’s easy to make assumptions on what the recipe for success might look like. In some circumstances, those initial assumptions may prove right, but taking a Design Thinking approach ensures that we are constantly iterating, optimizing and enhancing our thinking, based on real-time customer feedback.
It also ensures we stay close to the needs of our customers, fostering a collaborative partnership with them rather than a simply transactional relationship.
While a very different concept now than when it originated, Design Thinking still has relevance and contemporary importance. Like the post-war years, we find ourselves in a period of rapid transformation where business needs to adapt, but most importantly, a period where empathy will be key to overcoming the challenges that lie ahead.