Harnessing design thinking

Have you ever wondered how entrepreneurs come up with good ideas?

One tool employed to spark innovation is design thinking, Dr Ivano Bongiovanni speaks to Ellen Rossiter about the benefits the process brings to businesses. A structured approach to galvanising innovation, design thinking incorporates three key stages:

1) Inspiration

“To find your inspiration, keep customers at the forefront of your mind,” explains Ivano. “Focus on their needs, identify their feelings and use these insights to inspire innovation.

“It’s not about market research, it’s about stepping into your customers’ shoes, so you understand the frustrations they encounter and their needs. One of the biggest mistakes businesses make is to distance themselves from people. Bring your customers on-board and involve them in the creative process.

“Meet customers in person, as this will provide far richer insights than requesting they fill in a feedback form. Based on the information gleaned, create users’ journey maps and personas of typical users, to deepen your understanding. Don’t discount details, what may at first seem superfluous can prove central to developing effective solutions.

“Go through the same experiences as your customers, identify the pain points on their journey and the problems they encounter. Consider your company website, for example, do the web pages download quickly, are the links easy to find and do they work? Can customers filter out information that’s irrelevant to them? What problems do they encounter on their journey through the website?

“Tim Brown, one of the doyens of design thinking, sees a problem identified as a source of inspiration and the springboard from which business opportunities may follow.”

2) Ideation

“After identifying your inspiration, next comes the brainstorming or ‘Ideation’ stage. Bring a multi-disciplinary team together and come up with as many original solutions as possible. The ideas may seem contradictory and divergent, but at this early stage, the more wide-ranging the ideas, the better.

“Involve people from a variety of professional backgrounds, who bring different skills, perspectives and insights to the table. Design thinking is not solely for designers, it’s a team effort, it’s about bringing people together, rather than working in silos. The key message is that it’s ok to sit down together, to acknowledge a problem, to discuss potential solutions and how you can make them viable.”

3) Implementation

“Once you’ve gathered your initial ideas together, select the most desirable and feasible with a view to developing them. At this point, you’ll find the ideas begin to come together rather than diverge. Prototype your chosen innovation, test it with customers, refine it and test again, gathering feedback all the while so you can make further improvements until you reach your final version.

“Within as little as six weeks, during an Innovation Sprint with a multi-disciplinary team, I’ve seen solutions created for businesses, with a clear idea of what the endpoint will be and with work underway on a prototype.”

Be human-centric

“Harnessing design thinking is not necessarily about using technological innovations, it’s the end user’s needs, not technology, that drives innovation. Moreover, these innovations may be centred on service, experiences or processes as much as technology or products. You might say that design-led innovation is technology agnostic. Be human-centric rather than technology-centric in developing solutions.

“Imagine, you’re looking at how passengers progress through airport security – what are the frustrations they encounter? How can you make the process run more smoothly or the experience less onerous? Can you remove unnecessary holdups and provide information about the reason for them when they are unavoidable? Can improving the customer experience present additional business opportunities? Design-led innovation bring focuses on satisfying customers’ needs, while leveraging technological affordances and meeting business requirements.

“There is a risk of failure, you have to be happy to take that risk, but the upside of successfully introducing innovation largely outweighs the risk of failure. Ultimately, a design which is driven by people’s needs is more likely to have a positive impact on businesses than technology-led innovation. This is why design thinking, which keeps people at the heart, has helped businesses to increase profits and assist public sector organisations to save money and produce greater value for citizens.”

The power of creativity

“Don’t underestimate the power of creativity. Design thinking is all about recognising the importance of creativity in today’s life. Sometimes it’s assumed that creativity is not needed in business, but this is far from being the case. Embracing creativity can lead to unconventional but brilliant ideas being explored.

“Sometimes offbeat ideas lead to something amazing and therein lies the value of creativity, it can help in looking at problems from a different perspective and coming up with a fresh solution. The creative process is inspiring and can very helpful to business.

“Design thinking has been criticised for re-inventing the wheel, for bringing jargon to what is merely common sense, but don’t let a perceived lack of uniqueness detract from its value. Being pricey and impractical are also criticisms levelled at the approach, yet design thinking can be bound by limited resources and time. These boundaries, moreover, can help galvanise innovation. Bite-sized, Design Sprints of 5 days, have proven a good starting point for developing innovations. Necessity may indeed be the mother of invention.

“There are many unmapped needs out there and as business people we need to take the time to find them, to see problems as our inspiration and our opportunity. Identifying problems and finding solutions can open up businesses to new markets. There are many opportunities out there if we respond to customer needs and design thinking provides a powerful tool for bringing businesses and customers together for the advantage of all concerned.”

Dr Ivano Bongiovanni


Research Fellow (Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow)

Digital Fellow (Chair in Digital Economy, QUT Brisbane)

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