Empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. These are the foundations of design thinking.

The framework is meant to deliver solutions that answer hidden or unknown customer or business needs. Most people in the early 20th century, for example, probably thought that the only way to get around town faster was to get a faster horse — until mass production of the Model T. 

Practicing design thinking also helps companies build products that work better for the customer rather than what works better for the builders. To take another auto example, car makers have shifted their focus from lowering the cost of their manufacturing operations to making it easier and cheaper for their service centers to maintain and repair customers’ vehicles. 

Outside-in thinking: A customer strategy game changer

You can conduct as many customer surveys as you want and perform as much A/B testing as you like, but neither approach can do what design thinking does. The data we collect based on a set of confined questions within current contexts and the randomized experiments we undertake without regard for empathy won’t surface customers’ unconscious needs and will completely miss the mark on discovering what they really want in products and services. We fall victim to seeing things through the lens of the bias we have created.

Design thinking changes the game, moving the business from inside-out thinking to outside-in thinking, where we make decisions based on what is best for customers — internal or external — by standing in their shoes. It’s the opposite of focusing on processes that are designed and implemented based on internal thinking. 

The success of design thinking rests on having a conversation with the end user through all five stages of the framework, building empathy along the way. Working with proxies for the customer is unlikely to provide transformational results, as these individuals haven’t themselves lived the customer’s day-to-day experience.  

Transformational results hinge, too, on not getting locked into an outcome until you’ve explored other possibilities. Design thinking is the art of the possible — ongoing prototyping and testing of empathetic, defined and ideated possibilities are vital. 

An iterative approach is the only way to continually gauge user response. Practitioners of Wardley Mapping, an empathetic and experimental approach to making better strategic decisions through greater situational awareness using maps, are comfortable with the concept that there is never only one solution to a problem. It’s always just a matter of finding a better way to do something based on continuous feedback.

Innovation connection

Many innovative leaders tap into the principles that distinguish design thinking. Eric Ries, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and lean startup methodology guru, put it well when he said, “We must learn what customers really want, not what they say they want or what we think they should want.”  

Dreamworks Animation (DWA) fits the innovator mold, too. Its artists are among the studio’s most valuable assets, and over the years it has reinvented its creation processes and tools to continually improve their end-to-end workflows. DWA constantly revisits its understanding of the artists’ experiences as it continues to meet the resource demands of computer-generated film production and moves into other ventures, such as creating content for theme park attractions and TV series. 

As DWA’s ambitions grow, so too does its focus on optimizing the artists’ experience. The most recent phase of its ever-evolving, multi-cloud pipeline enables the studio’s talent to seamlessly connect with the tools and compute needed to create the hundreds of millions of digital files that make up each of its GG animated films.    

Now’s the time for design thinking

There are so many ways that design thinking is more critical now than ever before, with so many processes ripe for — and requiring — innovation. Businesses must rethink their supply chains to make them more dynamic as customer demands shift; reimagine their product lines to respond to new market needs (luxury brand LVMH is now creating hand sanitizers, for instance); and reposition established service delivery models to interface with clients in new ways (think telemedicine).

Design thinking helps point companies in the right direction as they dial themselves into the five-phase process to discover users’ real needs that they can answer with custom-built products or services. Importantly, taking this approach is not particularly costly to start with, and the payoff can be considerable. 

Think of it this way: When you embrace design thinking, you’ll be on your way to out-evolving the competition. To quote another entrepreneur, author Lisa Masiello, “Happy customers are your biggest advocates and can become your most successful sales team.”