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Why Design Thinking Matters

By Ed Bernacki |

There is much being written about design thinking yet capturing the essence of design thinking is very difficult. You will know it when you see or experience a product, service or business that captures the full opportunity to create an impact on you. You will know when you don't see it: a company that takes the easy route. Your experience is satisfactory but not inspiring.

Design thinking is about identifying problems, asking good questions, and finding better answers. There are many strategists who suggest that design thinking is one of the most powerful routes to profitability. A design approach helps maintain the customer-oriented focus. To put this in context, Professor John Heskett said, "Engineers ensure things work, marketers position goods appropriately, but designers specialize in the detailed interaction between what a company produces and the lives of its users."

This is the space where we must go to truly serve customers in the long term. Akio Morita, founder of Sony Corporation said: "Our plan is to lead the public with new products rather than ask them what kind of products they want. The public does not know what is possible, but we do."

The idea that "the public does not know what is possible, but we do" is provocative. It should not blind us to ignore what customers think they want. It should prompt us to be courageous. In Canada many people have a deep love for the products of Lee Valley Tools. Its founder Leonard Lee talked of his focus on design at a recent conference. His business captures the beauty and elegance of woodworking and gardening tools in a way that prompts many consumers to cherish a new catalogue when it arrives in the mail. Design thinking also prompted him to question a customer about his use of an inexpensive clamp. He was a doctor. He said, "I sterilize these and use them in surgery." This led Mr Lee to consider what tools could be redesigned from the woodworking shop to the operating room. In the process he launched a medical products division of the business.

Design thinking is part passion and part strategic focus on creating growth by looking at all aspects of the business to create more value. It is much more than simply listening to customers. Research is valuable to identify potential needs and opportunities. Yet at some point we must make a leap to an idea: what is possible that your customers do not yet know they want?

Donald Norman in his book, 'Emotional Design' says, "Every time we encounter an object, our reaction is determined by not only by how well it works, but by how good it looks to us, and by the self image, loyalty and even nostalgia it evokes in us." He challenges us to consider our product or service concepts from three perspectives.

  • Visceral impact: This is the first impression you want the consumer to have with your service or product. This reflects its appearance or physical design. Many great ideas have a sense of simplicity to them. The benefits are obvious. This is the reaction you have when you look at a product and think, "wow, this is great". What reaction do you want people to have with your product or service? What can you add to make this happen more often?
  • Behaviour impact: This is how someone uses the idea: its feel, form and function. What is the experience of using your product or service? Enhancements can come from watching people. How do they react? Companies like Lee Valley Tools master this type of design thinking. You see and feel it in its products and the marketing materials.
  • Reflective impact: After someone uses or experiences your service or product, what do you want them to remember about it? What do want people feel afterwards or perhaps to tell others about the product or service? What do you want customers to pass on or say to others? How can you add more to your offering to prompt more positive reflection?

Design thinking is about enhancing the experience people will have with your service or product. Start with research. Add design thinking to make your service or product concepts more meaningful. Your goal is to discover real needs that people have yet to articulate. This is the challenge for innovators. Research is a useful tool but do not confuse it with insight that is crucial to give customers what they do not yet know they want. Thinking about your product or service and how it interacts with the lives of your consumers may lead to new possibilities.

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