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What is design thinking? The secret to digital success

Clint Boulton | July 31, 2017
Design thinking is fast becoming a key pillar in digital transformations, as forward-thinking companies tap the human-centered design philosophy to deliver robust, user-friendly products and services.

The mindset is also forcing banks to become more digital as they see Apple Pay, Mint, PayPal and other services take more share of the digital wallet pie, Evenson says. And she says she’s seen design thinking seep into established software vendors such as Microsoft, where she worked as a user experience design manager from 2009 to 2011. When Evenson joined Microsoft the focus was developing and testing software before ceding it to product management. By the time she left, Microsoft had injected design into the software development process, Evenson says.

But as technology is increasingly woven into the matrix of a business, even traditional companies are considering user experience as a key factor in solutions both for employees and customers. Today a big part of Evenson’s job involves speaking with CIOs and other business leaders about how to build software and services akin to Airbnb, Facebook and other services that consumers feel were designed for them personally. “You can’t have a corporate service that isn’t considering usability, desirability and putting people first rather than what we can do technically or what makes sense to get what they need,” Evenson says.

The shift to design thinking typically involves ditching the classic cubicle farm for open, collaborative workspaces where product managers, designers and software engineers sit and huddle over new solutions. In such environments, it’s not uncommon for CIOs to walk into the workspace and not know exactly who reports to them.


Design thinking in practice

Design thinking requires a culture change. But for many firms undertaking digital initiatives to transform their businesses, design thinking is increasingly becoming part of corporate strategic agendas, says Chris Pacione, co-founder and CEO of LUMA Institute, which teaches people how to do human-centered design. Design thinking, Pacione says, can help foster innovation as companies seek to “renew” themselves frequently to keep up with the pace of change.

Pacione’s approach to design thinking blends product design and systems engineering with anthropology and ethnographic approaches. Design thinking, Pacione says, can help organizations avoid common pitfalls that keep projects from succeeding. Those include:

Problem framing: All too often well-intentioned teams will rush to fix a problem without fixing its root cause. In short, they don’t capture the scope of the issue plaguing their organization. Pacione recommends firms “question the question” by exploring new ways of framing the problem accurately and ensuring teams are on the same page. “Teams that understand the real opportunity in the first place have a chance of success,” he says.

Empathy: Another big reason projects fail is the lack of understanding and empathy for myriad stakeholders the initiatives are intended to serve. Capturing empathy isn’t an easy task as end users don’t share a hive mind. Moreover, enterprises need to design solutions keeping in mind those who must install, repair or maintain them. This is where contextual inquiry and other ethnographic and participatory design techniques come in handy for IT teams.


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