Successful companies are increasingly putting customers, not technology, at the heart of designing products and services. It turns out that understanding what problems customers have and how a product can solve them is more important than simply incorporating new features enabled by the latest technology.
One method for achieving this customer-centric perspective—one that is receiving a lot of attention in its application across many areas of the business—is called “design thinking.” Forrester Research defines design thinking as “a collection of practices that help teams better identify with customer experiences and shift from logical problem-solving to creative experimentation.” But what it boils down to is creating products and services with features, which customers fall in love with and can’t live without, during the product development process.
If you have ever wondered how companies with relatively low R&D spending seem to be dominating the market these days, it is because they use some form of design thinking to come up with offerings that connect with users emotionally and aesthetically, rather than simply through form and functionality.
People like me, who come from a background in product design, sometimes wonder what the fuss is all about. Of course, you need to assess a new product through the eyes of the user! For example, if during the product development process you are conceptualizing an infrared camera for the military, you need to realize that it makes no sense for a soldier to stow his or her infrared camera before picking up a gun to fire. When seen from this perspective, you need a monocular ambidextrous camera—one that can be used by the nondominant arm while the soldier still has the gun in the dominant arm—in order to create a seamless battlefield experience. It’s worth noting, in this example and in general, that design thinking identifies the right thing to do— but technology makes it possible.
Or think of Kiva Logistics (later Amazon Robotics) which was obsessively customer-centric. It built its business, market strategies, and products around its customers—for example, the warehouse picker pulling products from the shelves of a warehouse. Instead of thinking how technology could make it easier for the picker to move throughout a warehouse to pick ordered products from the shelves, Kiva created a system in which a robot basically brought the shelf to the picker. It was a revolutionary product innovation that resulted from looking through the eyes of a user.
Of course, the best product development teams have employed some form of design thinking—even if not by that exact name—for decades. But too often, that hasn’t been the case. There are innumerable examples of products that failed to succeed in the market despite being rich in features and technologically sophisticated. Think of Sony’s MiniDisc, Apple’s Newton, or even Google’s modular smart phone Ara. Those products were technologically ahead of their time but didn’t become popular because during product design and development, they didn’t place the customer at their core.
Another aspect of design thinking is its holistic approach. Traditionally, companies employed an “over-the-wall” model of product design and development in which products and services were developed in consecutive phased stages by sets of teams working in silos.
Concurrent engineering is an age-old method that companies have used to overcome this problem. Products are designed and developed in such a way that different characteristics of a product —for example, its manufacturability, serviceability, or usability (“X”)—are taken into account in the design process right from the start, rather than sequentially. In concurrent engineering, the so-called DfX (“Design for X”) techniques are used that can assess a product’s performance in different areas and along all stages of its lifecycle. This decreases product development time and also the time to market, leading to improved productivity and reduced costs.
Design thinking takes concurrent engineering further, making it truly holistic. It:
- Applies equally to architecture, products, services, and similar human-centric creative activities.
- Incorporates an appreciation of how a product is designed, delivered, deployed, and used, while also taking account of the ecosystem relevant to each of those stages.
- Brings an agile approach to the entire product development process with rapid iteration and end-user involvement that targets outcomes where they will make the most difference.
Design thinking, thus, puts the customer—and the customer experience—at the core of product innovation. This results in a mind-set remake for engineers and a cultural transformation in product design. This, in turn, leads to products that directly address customer needs—including those that the customer wasn’t even aware of!