Design Thinking Needs to Go Deeper, Not Just Broader

Design thinking is in the midst of a significant move into the mainstream. IBM is making it the center of their corporate strategy. eBay announced their intention to take it “to every corner of the company”. Just the other day, the Health section of the New York Times published an article about using design thinking for personal reinvention.

This trend is gratifying to those of us who practice, appreciate, and champion design thinking. In the digital service economy, however, applying design thinking to a broader range of problems is necessary but not sufficient. We also need to apply it more deeply to the entire value creation process.

To some degree, the new design thinking movement still reflects an industrial-era, product-centric approach to making things. eBay’s “Design Playbook” website is beautiful and elegant; the job postings it lists, though, largely represent “traditional” UX positions. To succeed at service, companies need to look beyond the things they make, and address the entirety of their relationships with their customers. The quality of those relationships reflects the quality of a company’s development, delivery, and support processes. The quality of those processes in turn reflect the quality of the company’s organizational structure, and its capacity for agile, empathic internal communications and collaboration.

The nature of digital service makes product, service, and organizational design inseparable. We need to apply design thinking to them all. We need to consider the interactions between them as part of our design process. We need to go beyond designing for the user experience; we also need to design for the employee experience.

When I call my health insurance company’s support line, my satisfaction depends as much on the support agent’s experience as it does on mine. Their experience depends on their ability to interact with other parts of the company in order to deliver a satisfactory solution to my problem. Customers’ patience for answers like “please log onto our website to find that information”, or “you’ll need to call back in the morning to resolve this problem”, or “I can’t help you with that because I don’t have access to the right system”, and so on, has worn thin.

Empowering employees to co-create satisfaction with customers means designing the organizational structures, communications channels, delivery and response systems, and cultural expectations that drive the employee experience. It means designing for empathy, not just for the customer, but also for each other.

New digital delivery practices such as Agile and DevOps work by dissolving silos between the groups involved in creating digital solutions. To fully serve customers in the digital service economy, we need to apply this approach throughout our organizations. We need to rethink how groups communicate and collaborate with each other in the process of communicating and collaborating with customers.

The most powerful place for design thinking to go next is not just to design how a company’s entire product portfolio looks and works, but to design what the company itself is and how it works. What happens when we use design thinking to reimagine the nature of IT, or HR, or Finance? On an even deeper level, what happens when we use design thinking to reimagine how IT and HR and Design and Finance relate to each other through the lens of customer empathy? When we do that, we truly make design thinking a pervasive foundation for the life of a company.