How human-centric design thinking can power creative problem-solving and drive change

By Theo Forbath, Vice President, Digital Transformation, Cognizant Digital Works and Kipp Lynch, AVP, UX Research and Design, Cognizant Digital Works

The lone scientist working in a lab discovers a breakthrough and changes everything; a sudden inspiration comes in a dream; a brainstorming session among the company’s best and brightest leads to the next killer app―all these scenarios might make a good movie, but they seldom reflect reality.

Creativity and problem-solving are not individual endeavours, nor do they occur in isolation. Fortunately, companies are beginning to embrace new ways of fostering innovation. Instead of approaching a new product or service creation by defining a set of requirements, many companies are seeking first to understand the human needs behind the product or service, to develop an overall experience.

This approach―often called ‘design thinking’―is based on developing a thorough understanding of what the user goals are from multiple viewpoints―emotional, psychological and behavioural. Through an iterative process of observation, ideation, rapid prototyping and testing, design thinking can help to craft an experience that is meaningful to the person engaged with it, one that seamlessly meshes the physical and digital interactions of people, processes and things. Design thinking is a mindset that draws on the interaction of all these components.

Successful design thinking incorporates the following principles that work best when used iteratively and in combination with one another.
  1. Users interact with the mock-ups, simulations and sketches and provide feedback. This is an iterative and continuous process rather than a formal event that occurs when a prototype or design is complete.
  2. Rather than develop a full robust prototype, the team creates mock-ups, simulations and process sketches as a quick way to convey the overall concept to users―the look, feel and functionality of the experience.
  3. The team translates the insights gleaned through direct customer research, and uses visual ideation techniques, such as sticky notes, to promote creativity, solve problems and generate new ideas.
  4. The team interacts directly with and observes how users behave, with the goal of deeply understanding what they want or need on multiple levels, including emotionally, psychologically and functionally.

As the world gets increasingly digitised, design thinking will be critical to defining the user experience, and it is that experience―rather than slogans, logos and marketing messages―that defines the brand. Today, user experience design delves much more deeply into creating an entire experience that meets users’ unacknowledged―and often unarticulated―needs, and mirrors how we straddle both the digital and physical worlds.

Avoiding mistakes

It is far too easy to focus on one component of design thinking and downplay the rest. We often see project teams begin by sketching concepts and developing prototypes and then exclaiming that they have incorporated design thinking into their process. Recently, a company that was working to develop a new concept for its stores showed us a list of cutting-edge technologies and several interesting concepts for prototypes to take back to its senior managers. While some of the ideas were interesting, the company had skipped the customer research step and spent no time with actual users. The experiences were not built around an in-depth understanding of the needs and goals of customers, resulting in wasted time and money.

Conversely, we also encounter companies that directly listen to and observe their customers, but rather than spending time ideating and sketching, they quickly jump to a list of requirements. In this case, the project begins well, as team members jot down observations on sticky notes and group them on a wall. But instead of exploring the ideas in a visual manner, the team ends up translating the notes into a spreadsheet.

Performing any one of these activities in isolation―observation, ideation, prototyping and testing―misses the critical point of design thinking, which is both a journey and a mindset. By picking and choosing certain elements, the project team is likely to miss critical insights that could change the product or service from barely acceptable to delightful.

Design thinking = design doing

Design thinking is really a new way of acting and behaving. It becomes real when embodied in the team and is expressed as a new way of ‘doing’. Even though many people say they can’t draw and are reluctant to create a simple sketch, the very act of ‘doing’ dramatically changes not only team members’ understanding, but also individuals’ understanding. This ‘thinking aloud on paper’ can help crystallise thoughts. The act of sketching―even stick figures―alters our thinking.

Testing and validating concepts or prototypes doesn’t always have to be approached as formal usability tests. With design thinking, testing and validation are often more informal and participatory. The testing should not be held off until the prototype is complete; rather, user feedback should come at all stages of ideation―process sketches, simple mock-ups, simulations, etc. A prototype or experience simulation can be taken into the field, where potential users (customers, business partners or employees) can interact playfully with it and provide genuine feedback.

At this point, many teams focus on a minimal viable product to generate quick user feedback on product features and usefulness. Unfortunately, this shifts thinking towards “what can be obtained from customers,” rather than “what can be created to delight them”―something we call a minimal delightful product.

Extending the experience

Design thinking doesn’t end when the product or service is launched; it can and should be incorporated into the experience itself, and used continuously to refine and enhance the experience. While the human element is critical to design thinking, intelligent devices and sensors can provide additional eyes and ears to what happens when the individual engages with the product or service, in a way that would otherwise be impractical, intrusive and unwelcome. With the Internet of Things (IoT), increasingly sophisticated and real-time analytics and other emerging digital technologies, companies can virtually observe the consumer, uncover unmet needs and incorporate those insights as part of their experience, further blurring the borders between the physical and digital worlds.

The IoT will be an increasingly powerful aid to organisations looking to design a better experience. Devices and objects instrumented to collect and share intelligence on product usage and user behaviour, both online and offline, will yield a treasure trove of real-time insights that can help organisations anticipate customer needs, inform continuous product improvement and serve up contextually relevant content and experiences.

Future of experience design

While there is a long road to travel between today’s capabilities and the emerging vision of the future, businesses should get started now on the journey to embrace and integrate design thinking throughout their organisation.

Organisations must:

  • Simultaneously apply all elements of design thinking, such as observation, iterative ideation, rapid prototyping and frequent testing. Understand every aspect of the user experience (from the user’s perspective) before selecting which technologies will be used to enable the new product or service.
  • Establish interdisciplinary teams and processes that put customer needs, desires, emotions and motivations at the centre of the product and service design. Finally, never lose sight that underlying all of these activities is the unwavering focus on, and empathy for, the person for whom the experience is being created in the first place.
  • The experiences that result from a design thinking process are not superficial; they necessitate changes to be made in supporting business processes, technologies and organisational structures. The new customer experiences that arise will require an integration and re-orchestration of how the company relates to customers on all channels.