Beyond Design Thinking: How to Ensure Design Is Always On in Your Organization

06/26/2017 12:47 pm ET

A common theme in many of my recent posts has been how and why it’s critical to keep human beings front-and-center in any sort of innovation or digital transformation initiative. This is easy to say but not always easy to do – at least in the right way. That’s partly because, outside of Marketing and Sales, most corporate functions have grown over time without customer-centricity as a mandate. So, many tenured business executives today are simply not wired to think first-and-foremost about the human beings they serve. This is a dangerous condition.

This month, I sat down with my colleague Jeff Wordham to get his perspective on how a different approach to human-centered design is growing in importance in today’s business environment. Jeff leads Doblin, Deloitte Consulting LLP’s innovation practice and one of the first innovation consultancies to apply design principles broadly to business problems, as opposed to just product design challenges.

Geoff Tuff: It seems you can’t have a conversation about digital innovation these days without someone throwing out the term “design thinking.” What’s up with that, and where do you see it heading?

Jeff Wordham: Design thinking as a concept has been around for a long time. It continues to gain popularity, which has helped bring design much earlier into cycles of product development and innovation. But, even today, the way people talk about and use the concept of design thinking is insufficient and not leading to the results we think are possible. Too often we see executives who want to just tack it on at the front end of a process to get to a concept or “clickable prototype.” Then they take the idea and hand it off to a different team to build and scale. In doing this, they’re often missing the opportunity to interject and stretch the philosophy, methods, and tools of design further into the development process.

The issue is that during hand-offs from “prototype” teams to “build” teams the focus shifts from the customer needs that were designed for to what the technologists can build – usually in a way that fits within existing systems. And in that translation, too often what ultimately makes it to market is a solution that functionally works, but lacks the tight connection to customers that was critical to the initial concept.

We try to help our clients stay close to human and market insights throughout the entire development cycle – from strategy development, to early prototypes, right through to the end-product in market, as well as the service infrastructure to support those products. This is what we have been calling “applied design” and it’s an approach that ensures design is always on within an organization.

More and more companies are going to realize that when that doesn’t happen, what makes it to market probably won’t be the idea you had at the start. The companies who realize the importance of always on design will be the ones who outpace their competition.

GT: Why is it so important to have design as part of digital transformations? Can you transform without design?

JW: One of our colleagues always says, “Technology is easy. It’s human beings that are hard.” Too often companies think that digital transformation is a technology transformation. In reality, it’s all about people.

It’s about the customers you are trying to serve and how new technologies will improve your ability to meet their needs more efficiently and at scale. It’s about the people in your organization and how you will empower them with new technology, both to do their jobs better and also to get more satisfaction from their work so they stick around longer. These are challenges of shifting behaviors – in essence, design problems.

We believe the most effective transformations are those grounded in a deep understanding of the behaviors you are trying to change, the needs you are trying to meet, and how that will help you win in the market. Without that, you may be replacing your technology, but it’s hard to believe you’ll really transform your company or industry.

GT: Recently, Doblin became part of Deloitte Digital. Why the move?

JW: Every single one of our clients right now is trying to figure out how emerging technologies are going to shape or disrupt their business. And, as I mentioned, we believe companies that prioritize understanding how to harness those technologies to meet customer needs, shift consumer behavior and provide ever more surprising and engaging experiences are the ones who will create meaningful and lucrative disruptions in this market.

By combining Doblin’s deep roots in understanding latent human needs and behaviors with Deloitte Digital’s deep understanding of existing and new technologies and agile delivery capability, we can ensure that we have our designers in the same room with the engineers and builders throughout the process. That’s the key to success.

A great example of how we’re working together is next-generation interfaces, and how consumers will interact with technology “beyond the glass,” including voice- and gesture-based interfaces. This is exciting technology, but if we want to use it to change people’s lives, we need to marry the technology advances with an understanding of how consumers will work, live, and play in the future. Working seamlessly with Deloitte Digital is going to help us do that.

GT: What do you make of the growing popularity of in-house design studios and teams?

We think it’s great that companies are looking for new ways of working and trying hard to bring consumer insight and design approaches to the forefront. I’m working with a company now where we have established a joint studio to design experiences and offers. Through new methods we’re designing something in 5-6 weeks that used to take 8 months or even a year. So there is real power in the approach, and I think companies who aren’t experimenting with this are likely going to be left behind.

But I also see examples where these studios are more window dressing than substance. They are put out there to show that a company has a “cool” new space, but aren’t really generating products and services that actually make it to market. And that really is the point of all this – to get stuff to market that delights customers, builds your brand, and keeps you ahead of the competition.

GT: What one tip would you give to anyone looking to use design as part of their transformation?

JW: I can’t give you just one…. But I can give you two. First, make sure your designers are focusing on the business challenges that are most meaningful to the leaders in the business. Don’t pick a skunkworks project that is 10 years out that no one cares about. If you don’t have your business executives demanding to have their problem get solved, then you aren’t picking the right things to work on, and you’ll end up with gizmos on the shelf instead of great new products in market.

Second, make sure that your design team has the full set of skills needed to work on the problem at hand. For example, we’re increasingly using from the start teams that combine up-front insights and strategic designers who are skilled at generating new concepts with systems architects who understand the technology stack needed to support those concepts. That way the designers will understand what it takes to actually put things in market, and the systems architects will understand the human problem they are ultimately trying to solve with technology.

To deliver on this requires a depth of design talent that few organizations have – doing this well requires a breadth of skill from ethnographers and design strategists to UX/UI designers, service designers, engineers, and more. And with the increase in available data, we have a growing need to include data science and behavioral economics experts.

It’s not a small charge. But to get the most out of design you’ve got to go all in. It can feel like a big leap, but we’ve seen the results it can lead to – market disruptions, outpacing competition, and building a brand customers love.

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