Is Design Thinking still alive?

Guest contribution by | 17.01.2022

I’ll start with a counter-question: What do YOU understand by Design Thinking?

If you imagine the term “Design Thinking” to mean 5-10 people in a room full of Post-It-paved plan walls, colourful moderation cards and boxes full of Lego bricks of different colours, shapes and sizes – then you have come to the wrong address.

This is just one manifestation of how you can use Design Thinking for an innovation workshop, for example. Design Thinking is so much more. But for that, you first have to understand what is really behind it.

Why Design Thinking has nothing to do with innovation for me and what your next power point presentation has to do with overcoming silo mentality, you will find out in this article.

Design Thinking is a way of thinking – and not (just) a way of doing

Design Thinking, as most non-designers know it, is the attempt to package a designer’s approach to product development into methods that can also be applied by non-designers. The problem with this is that through this sometimes very rigid, methodical approach, much of the actual “Design Thinking” is lost. The term “Design Thinking” comes from “think like a designer”. And how does a designer think?

When a designer develops a product (and that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day), the first thing they have to understand is WHO they are designing the product for. By the way, “for everyone” is usually not the intended target audience. Even when it comes to everyday products like kettles, pots and pans or similar: there is always a very specific target group behind it, which can be described by characteristics like “sophisticated”, “practical”, “sporty” but also by situations in which the product is used, like “in the swimming pool”, “while shopping” or “in a small shared kitchen”.

The designer then immerses him/herself in this target group. She/he tries to understand how this target group thinks, what is important to them and what their life is like. When the designer has fully understood the target group, she/he tries to solve the problems of the target group through different approaches and to fulfil their needs through functional but also visual or haptic design.

In marketing, too, the right target audience approach is the key. If (to exaggerate) an advertisement for an impact drill is pink because the art director likes this colour so much, then this may not necessarily meet the taste of gritty do-it-yourselfers.

And nothing else applies to your Power Point presentation:

The audience is not interested in the details of your subject area

All too often I hear from people in service companies that presentations do not go down well with clients. Procedures are explained in detail and the technical or professional know-how of the team is emphasised. And the customer? He is disappointed because he really only wanted to “see something”. Weeks of preparation for the appointment, lots of blood, sweat and tears. The service provider gave the presentation from HIS point of view, i.e. talked about what is important to HIM and relevant from his point of view. So in the case of software agencies, for example, the service provider talks about elaborate data models, sophisticated algorithms and the advantages of the technology stack used – simply because this is what has occupied him in his work over the last few weeks.

And the client? He has absolutely no idea about any of this. He can’t assess how future-proof the technology stack is, how much work a really good data model requires and how much time a BPMN process diagram takes. And quite honestly, he’s not interested in that either. He wants to know what the result looks like.

Slipping into the audience’s shoes – easier said than done

Now, one could argue that this is all much too early to show anything. That it doesn’t make sense at this point because there are still far too many unanswered questions. And yet one DOES something behind the scenes, and not a little.

Now, for the next presentation, you may detach yourself from what you consider important and relevant. You may ask yourself: What does my audience want to see? What expertise does my audience have? Where do they stand mentally? And if the audience already wants to “see” something 4 weeks after the start of the project: Then you should find ways to show something – even if it is “complete nonsense” from your point of view. (By the way, you shouldn’t mention that either – it usually doesn’t come across well).

That’s it: that’s Design Thinking. Putting yourself in the shoes of the person(s) you are creating something for, be it an innovative and fully automated flower vase or a dull PowerPoint presentation at the next meeting. And that also answers the question at the beginning: Design Thinking is still alive and it will always be alive.

By the way: as easy as it sounds – it’s sometimes just as hard. I am no exception. Leaving your own needs, preferences and problems completely out of it and creating something exclusively from the perspective of the target person(s) requires a lot of discipline, brainpower and empathy. Method books and workshop guides can help, but only if the basic attitude is right.

Overcoming silo mentality with Design Thinking

If we now return to the context of product development, Design Thinking can help to break down silos in organisations. People who have already participated in Design Thinking workshops report on the special power of teamwork, where people from different fields come together and generate innovative ideas. However, this is not where interdisciplinary collaboration should end: Every employee has a different perspective on the customer and the products in the company. Everyone is involved in a part of the so-called “customer journey” – from marketing and acquisition to production to invoicing or delivery. Thus, every employee can contribute to improving the customer journey and thus to customer satisfaction, product improvement and recommendation – no matter what he or she is working on and how small the role in the organisation’s value creation process may seem.

The importance of collaboration

The demands of our society increase from year to year. Whether it is in the area of advertising, product quality, customer service or branding. Globalisation and the increasing number of internet users make companies and products more easily comparable and also vulnerable.

Collaborative work within the company to optimise the customer experience is not only the most important tool in the future – but actually also the cheapest. Instead of buying in external consultants to turn production inside out to make it more efficient, organisations can start by involving their own employees in a continuous improvement process. For this to happen, it is important that the corporate culture allows this and that management exemplifies change and improvement – without pressure. Because only intrinsically motivated change remains sustainably anchored and really improves the status quo.

The simplest question from Design Thinking to create great results

If organisations now combine the aspect of collaboration between different areas with Design Thinking or ” thinking like a designer”; i.e. putting themselves in the shoes of their users for the development of products and services, not only innovations are created, but also simply damn good customer experiences with their own company.

Good customer experiences start with small gestures and don’t stop with excellent support. When we think of improvements, we often think of process automation, quick-response chatbots or high-end equipment. Yet it is often worthwhile to simply look for the improvements in small things: Which ideas generate a high benefit at a low cost? Answering this question is part of the design thinking process. I always use it in software projects with my clients to select features. It can be applied in any context – try it out!



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Franziska Toth
Franziska Toth

Franziska Toth is a business information scientist and has been working as an IT consultant for many years. Many small businesses with a growing number of employees need to support their operative business digitally in order to cope with the increasing complexity in the company. As an external project manager, she supports the entrepreneurs as a staff unit in the planning, implementation and introduction of new digital tools – always in close cooperation with the employees. This allows the entrepreneurs to concentrate on their core business and not have to worry that everything will blow up in their faces during the go-live and that the frustration level of the employees will be at the limit.