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Design Thinking 101

By: Bonnie Coté

Group of people sitting indoors

Imagine yourself designing a new E-commerce website for a global retailer that simplifies the customer’s checkout process. You want a scrolling product list that displays all the items your target market might be looking for. You want big, vibrant images with a color scheme that accents the company’s branding. You envision customers adding complementary items to their basket, strategically placed on the checkout page thanks to cookies and cross-selling marketing data. You’ve documented all the business requirements and assembled the development “dream team” to implement your vision and achieve the website experience you want.  All feels aligned and ready for execution, but…  

…is this what the customer wants? 

With every product or service comes an experience that was intentionally, or inadvertently, created by someone. “Design Thinking” allows that experience to be defined by the most important aspect of the business – the customer.  

You have probably heard of Design Thinking at some point in your career, and for a good reason – Design Thinking is a scalable, iterative, non-linear process that seeks a deep understanding of customers, challenges assumptions, and drives new solutions to prototype and test in a fast-paced environment. It’s where desirability, viability, and feasibility intersect to create innovation within any customer-facing product or service. In this first Design Thinking blog post, we break down a process that’s been successfully implemented across various industries – retail, healthcare, hospitality and medical devices to name a few.

Keep in mind that many organizations have their own Design Thinking practices or naming conventions that vary slightly. This doesn’t mean that any particular version is wrong, as they are all trying to achieve the same end goals. So, where do you begin? Maybe you’re a consultant who has heard of Design Thinking’s success and you feel it could be valuable for your client and their customers.  Perhaps you are a client and are wondering if your time and resources are worthy of this investment. No matter what your experience (or lack of experience) is with the process, this Design Thinking overview will help you build better products and services for your customers. 

5 Stages of Design Thinking

Image Source: Medium

Step 1. Empathize

This is where you really learn about your customer by leaving your assumptions at the door. Conduct interviews with them, read their survey feedback and study the market research to learn who they are and what their problems and goals might be. This information will help you develop customer personas which should capture their personality, motivations, frustrations, favorite brands, skills, and potentially many other identifiers based on the product or service you are looking to create. Give the persona a name and a job; define their age and location. Get personal with your personas!  

Example Customer Persona

Image Source: Xtensio

Once sufficient personas have been created to capture the “average” customer group, an empathy map should be created for each persona. Use Post-It notes to capture everything you believe that customer is saying, doing, feeling and thinking based on what we know from their persona.  

Example Empathy Map

Image Source: IBM

Step 2. Define

Once we understand and can empathize with our customer, document all the customer’s pain points on Post-It notes and stick them on the wall for everyone to see. What are the customer’s frustrations, roadblocks, and negative experiences? Our personas and empathy maps come in handy here as we think through their true challenges. In some cases, we will see a pattern of related pain points, while other times they are vastly different across participants.  

As pain points are generated, you will likely start to see themes emerge. Perhaps the customer is frustrated with the search functionality of the website, or maybe they can’t get from login to checkout fast enough. “Inadequate search capability” and “inefficient checkout process” may become two of your themes here.  

Once the walls have been covered in pain points and organized into about 4-8 themes, we are ready to create problem statements. There should be one problem statement for each theme. Good problem statements are customer-focused, broad enough for creative thought, and narrow enough to remain within the scope of the single theme. A great template for this is: 

“[Customer] needs a way to [action], so that they can [goal].”  

The right problem statement won’t suggest a particular solution, but it will frame the problem to encourage creative thinking. For example, if a theme is “inefficient website checkout”, a problem statement could be:  

“[Sam] needs a way to [order products efficiently] so that she [can maintain adequate inventory in her wholesale distribution center].” 

Step 3. Ideate

This is the fun part where we use rapid ideation to disrupt conventional approaches and think creatively about the problem at hand, not prescribe solutions. Participants should be divided into groups and have an assigned problem statement to focus on. Everyone gets a marker and stack of Post-Its with 10-20 minutes to write or draw every possible solution that comes to mind. These can be crazy, off-the-wall ideas, something more conventional, or maybe a solution that has been successful elsewhere. It’s typically best for participants to work by themselves in order to prevent groupthink or judgment which can hinder innovation. 

Once the allotted time is up, participants will prioritize their ideas and solutions by the level of effort/feasibility and value to the customer in a prioritization matrix. Those that are most feasible and valuable are the “low hanging fruit” which should be easiest to implement with the greatest return on investment.   

Example Prioritization Matrix  

Image Source: Nielsen Norman Group

Note: It’s important to validate these priorities with the right people to ensure the solutions being considered are within the scope and the organization has adequate resources for execution. Once validated, select the best one to move forward with Step 4. 

Step 4. Prototype

Let’s say the best solution was to leave the website as-is and create an app for customers so they can purchase products anytime, anywhere with a quick 3-step ordering process. Participants then build various representations through low-fidelity prototyping, utilizing whatever materials are necessarily based on the need and proposed solution. In this example, you could create a prototype through whiteboarding or a rapid prototyping software tool. With each iteration of the prototype, revisit what was created in Steps 1-3 to ensure the solution remains aligned with the problem statement and resonates with the personas. The prototyping step is unique because it is done concurrently with Step 5.  

Step 5. Test

Before investing heavily in the final product or service design, it is extremely important to test your ideas and gather feedback from the customer with each iteration of the prototype. This entire process is about them, right? Conduct user testing with a diverse set of customers in their normal environment and allow them to experience the solution on their own. You may have a list of actions they need to accomplish without guidance, or perhaps you provide no direction and observe how they interact with the solution. Always remember that Design Thinking is a non-linear process; the feedback received during testing could reveal that we need to go back to the “Define” step and reframe our problem statement in a completely different way.  

Once you’ve made it through the testing phase with rave reviews from end-users, you are equipped to make a compelling business case with a solution that was made for the customer, by the customer.   Ready to conduct your own Design Thinking workshop? Here are a few recommended steps to ensure your participants and workspace are equipped for success:

Stay tuned for the next installment of our multi-part blog series on Design Thinking!

Bonnie Cote

Bonnie Coté

Managing Director

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