What’s your [customers’] problem?
Design Thinking is a hype. There is nothing wrong with that though. The popularity helps to break up existing structures and make space for new ways of thinking.
In this short article I want to explore how design thinking can help in the process of creating digital business strategies.
Never heard of design thinking? Nowadays, the term often gets confused with aimlessly clustering walls with colorful Post-it notes. But there is more to it. Here is a short yet meaningful definition by Tim Brown, the father (aka evangelist in modern Linkedin lingo) of design thinking: “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people (desirability), the possibilities of technology (feasibility), and the requirements for business success (viability).”
So tell me why, why can this fad contribute anything to the art and craftmanship of digital transformation and digital business strategy? The complexity and rate of change in today’s world require more than annual strategy offsites. A non-linear process with dynamic iterations seems more appropriate to keep up with an ever faster spinning world. And that’s where design thinking kicks in. This mindset is an excellent way to get away from the waterfall approach widely established in the business world.
Let me follow the classic 5 step approach proposed by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Stanford d.school to illustrate the benefits of design thinking for [digital] business strategies. The five stages of design thinking, according to d.school, are as follows: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. See a quick overview below.
The strong emphasis on empathy and people-centered work is an enrichment to the widespread prevalent economic and technical feasibility studies when looking for strategizing input.
Of course, we still do our homework: tracing technological trends and executing competitive analysis. Analysis of market, technology and social trends form the basis. A basis that is complemented by an in-depth understanding of current and future customer needs and problems.
Going out there into to wild and confront ourselves with the problems and needs of real human beings accelerates our learning curve within the strategic process. Potentially, it saves us from proving hypotheses that have emerged somewhere (by somewhere I mean some obscure space between management, product development and marketing). With the first customer contact we already learn so much that our synthetic, internally developed, strategic concepts become outdated within minutes.
Understanding people’s problems and needs opens up an infinite solutions space.
So start asking and having a conversation with your customers about what they are concerned about and what they need. By doing so, we understand what the digital business strategy should aim for. Just to be clear, we do not ask customers about how they like something to be, we merely want to understand their problems. Understanding people’s problems and needs opens up an infinite solutions space, which means that we are no longer preemptively limited by existing solutions.
Grounding our strategy not only on competitor watch and technology geekiness, but also on a deep understanding of our customers’ (future) needs, enables us to develop a truly competitive strategy.
[By the way, this section will be the longest — reflecting its importance.]
As mentioned before, understanding the problem and not hastily jumping to solutions, is at the core of developing a solid digital business strategy.
Starting with clearly defined problems helps us pinpoint where to focus time and energy. I keep being asked to find strategies to serve everyone in every situation with the right product at the right time. There is nothing wrong about that per se. However, by doing so we will discover a multitude of problems that need attention. And we need to break them down in digestible modules and prioritize them. A word of warning: by modules I do not mean independent features each addressing an individual need (=featuritis). As we are talking strategy in this post, it is important that the modules themselves build up to a coherent picture (the lighthouse in the picture below).
In short, a clearly defined problem helps to tackle projects faster and does not allow to hide behind a nicely written concept.
Design Thinking ideation sessions are more effective: we are drawing on a well-founded knowledge base (empathize and define phase).
Moreover, we can learn two things from the ideation phase for digital business strategies. Firstly, even in strategy work there is space for creative outbursts. At the end of the day our strategy has to be operationalized. However, this does not contradict with creative ideation sessions.
Secondly, co-creation in interdisciplinary teams produces better solutions: taking different views into account early on. Before a question is thought through three times from the same point of view, it helps to apply a new perspective to it. And this works better when working together. Sparring partners are essential to progress.
Low resolution = high impact: Great gains in knowledge can already be achieved with very simple prototypes. This not only holds true for usability tests of actual products or services with customers, but also for prototyping concepts.
A widely known (slightly esoteric) quote fits the prototyping phase quite well: “Love it, leave it, change it” (For a more detailed analysis of the quote in the design thinking context check the Design Thinking Playbook).
Always strive to solve a real problem and do it in iterative loops: with the findings during the test phase, it may not only be necessary to refine the prototype, but also to move back to the “define” phase. It’s like playing snakes and ladders. But think about it, the sooner a strategy is tested, the sooner the right course can be set.
Stay agile as an individual, as an organization and use it as a guiding principle as such. By doing so, you are sailing on the right path no matter where you are heading to.
Empathizing with your customers, defining problems, ideating solutions, prototyping concepts, and testing them: through the design thinking lens I learned that it is all about strategizing and not so much about strategy.
It is all about strategizing and not so much about strategy.
This post reflects my current view on the topic. I hope that with new projects this view will become clearer and I will eventually get wiser over the course of the next months. Please help me getting smarter and leave your comment.
Or even better, if you want to get involved in this journey, don’t hesitate to apply for a position with Hinderling Volkart or contact me directly. Give me a shout via Linkedin, Instagram or in the comments section.
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