Faced with a once-in-a-generation global catastrophe, businesses are being forced to pivot, innovate and adapt at the most fundamental level. Consumer behaviour has changed rapidly over the last several months, and business operations have faced unprecedented disruption. Whole industries have been displaced. Staff are working from home. Supply chains have been disrupted. Innovation isn’t a question of competitive advantage anymore – it’s a question of simple survival.
Presented with this bleak commercial landscape, many businesses are turning to Design Thinking, a business philosophy that’s been around, in one form or another, since the late 1960s. Could design thinking be your new life raft? What successes have other companies achieved? And how do you adopt a new methodology in the teeth of a global economic crisis?
"Design thinking simply asks: Is it working?”
What is design thinking?
Design thinking, at its core, is a solution-based approach to solving problems. Any problems. From optimising a product or service to improving your internal company culture. It revolves around a collection of principles that were first articulated by Nobel Prize-winning laureate Herbert Simon in 1969. These principles include empathy with the user or consumer, iterative improvement over time, questioning your assumptions and relentlessly testing hypotheses. It’s essentially a blueprint for creativity and innovation.
The phases of design thinking
There are several variants of design thinking methodology, but most of them boil down to five distinct phases: empathise with your users, define their needs or problems, ideate new solutions, create a prototype, and then test to see if it works. These phases don’t have to occur sequentially. They can happen all at the same time, in parallel with one another, or in iterative cycles. The important thing is to question everything you think you know about your customer, and come up with innovative solutions to meet their needs.
Design thinking in a crisis
Design thinking is a helpful methodology right now because it’s very good at turning difficulty into opportunity. It’s also very good value for money. “We’ve worked with thousands of businesses,” says Cat Drew, Chief Design Officer for the UK Design Council, “and what we’ve found is that for every pound invested in design thinking, you get about twenty pounds back.” It’s not so much that design thinking creates profits out of thin air – the philosophy simply identifies inefficiencies and problem areas. It can help spot pain points in the customer journey, or explain a sudden spike in consumer attrition. Businesses pour a tremendous amount of time, money and energy into solving problems: Design thinking simply asks, “Is it working?”
Follow the leaders
Drew says you don’t have to look too far to see design thinking in action, especially during the COVID-19 crisis. Some brands, like Virgin and Coca Cola, are using their image to promote messages of public health. Others, like MoMa or the National Gallery of Victoria, are adapting their services to match new consumer behaviour, running online art classes or creating virtual exhibition tours.
“I think what’s really exciting is where businesses have been pivoting their core mission to a new collective purpose,” says Drew, “increasing their reach and staying relevant. Look at Intercontinental Hotels, who have turned over rooms for homeless people. Supermarkets have been prioritising vulnerable people, opening up stores a bit earlier. Fashion brands like Zara have been making personal protective equipment. Dyson have started manufacturing ventilators.”
Design thinking from a distance
Of course part of the reason design thinking works is that it’s collaborative. It’s usually the product of overlapping human interaction: between departments, employees, managers and (crucially) customers. With social isolation still in place, this is a big challenge, and companies are turning to tools that combine design thinking methodology with remote work. Tools like MURAL.
MURAL is a program that allows users to collaborate and share ideas in real time, and it’s been getting massive traction since COVID-19 began. More than 40 per cent of Fortune 100 companies are currently signed up to MURAL. Big tech firms like IBM and Intuit use it as a virtual collaboration tool, so that designers, product managers, developers and senior management can work together to solve business critical problems – remotely. IBM actually has an entire division dedicated to what they call ‘Enterprise Design Thinking’.
Change your thinking
Perhaps the best example of design thinking adoption is American software company Citrix. Citrix has proved to be incredibly resilient to the COVID-19 crisis (in fact their share price is near its all-time high), and many senior leaders put that success down to design thinking. In 2015, Citrix’s Senior VP of Customer Experience told McKinsey that the company really changed when they moved away from intuition and focused on customer feedback and data-driven strategy. “Today, our product teams are engaging customers along the way, with an iterative process of failing and learning. Getting to this point has required big process change.” Citrix new customer-centric approach worked: their share price climbed from US$35 in 2010 to nearly US$150 last month.
Drew says this is why design thinking is perfect for dealing with crisis. It fosters creative thinking by going directly to consumers. It acknowledges that their needs supersede the needs of the company. “Before you jump straight to the solution, think about what people really, really need right now. And interrogate those needs. Think about what’s lying beneath them. Once you’ve done that, you can come up with ideas and test them to see what works. That way you can make sure you’re coming up with things that people really want.”
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