I recently read an article in which the author proposed that design thinking was nothing new and simply repackaged a known set of tools. While I can agree somewhat with the author’s perspective on tools, I cannot agree that design thinking for innovation fits with the status quo. Design thinking proves a unique perspective for innovation and new product development (NPD) that is often missed with more systematic, institutionalized processes.
What is Design Thinking?
Design thinking is a collaborative and creative problem-solving methodology utilizing customer empathy to drive innovation. The design thinking process is very simple: identify the problem and solve the problem. However, the steps to identify the problem (discover and define) are iterative as are the steps to solve the problem (create and test). It is important to cycle between the “identify” and “solve” steps to ensure the right customer challenge is being addressed with a user-friendly solution.
Design thinking uses several tools throughout this simple process to help innovators and NPD practitioners understand and build empathy for the end-user. Some of these tools include:
- Customer journey maps,
- Customer empathy maps,
- Concept testing, and
- Rapid prototyping.
What is Innovation?
While design thinking provides a methodology, framework, and a set of tools to identify and solve customer problems, it is not innovation by itself. Innovation is an act of creating and introducing something new or different to a marketplace in which consumers exchange their hard-earned dollars for a product, service, or application that gives them some benefit.
Thus, innovations are different than inventions since utilization of the features is more important than the recognition of the possibilities. Most innovations deliver a profit to a company; though, some government agencies and non-profit organizations pursue innovation to increase productivity or efficiency without a profit motive.
Innovations can improve or enhance existing products, services, or applications. Process improvements that remove manufacturing or distribution bottlenecks are innovations, and even processes and systems that improve innovation itself are considered innovations. Typically, we think of innovations as adding features or functionalities to new products. Other common innovations involve the introduction of new products or services that use new technology.
For example, the ability to scan various hotels and pricing through a smartphone app is an innovation because it utilizes new technology to deliver a new service and brings a profit to the parent company. Individual consumers are happy to exchange money (directly or indirectly) for the app because it offers them a benefit of convenience and cost-savings in booking a hotel room.
Design Thinking to Improve Innovation
Unfortunately, too many companies simply jump to the “creating” part of innovation without truly understanding customer needs. Failed products and service litter the R&D and marketing histories of most firms. Why does this happen?
In presuming a customer’s problem and devising a technical solution with a rigorous, institutionalized NPD process, many firms end up failing. Innovation success is built on understanding customer needs and desires. And this is where design thinking offers a unique perspective to NPD.
Recall that design thinking is a collaborative problem-solving method relying on empathy to design and develop innovative solutions. Empathy is different than observation. Empathy involves walking in someone else’s shoes to gain a holistic understanding in experiencing their problems. Once you have empathy, you “own” the problem, and you are vested in the right solution.
For example, nursing students are often taught empathy for their elderly patients by wearing vision-restricting goggles, bulky gloves, and over-sized shoes. These odd clothing items help future nurses empathize with their patients because they have actually experienced what it feels like to have a challenge in seeing, handling items, and walking. NPD practitioners can use these same tools to better understand challenges of the elderly across a wide spectrum and to develop novel products and services for this target market.
Design thinking also helps to ensure that innovators solve the right problem. Rather than assuming an elderly person has difficulty opening a pill bottle, an empathic developer might identify the problem as the number of different pills that the elderly patient must take. Crating a solution to the administration of many prescriptions is very different than creating an easy-to-open pill bottle.
Innovation Needs Design Thinking
While many of the tools of design thinking have been known for years, innovators cannot ignore this new approach to product development. With a cross-functional focus on the customer and in developing deep empathy for his/her challenges, NPD practitioners can unlock the right problems to solve. Innovations that discover and define customer problems and that create and test solutions by collaborating with the customer are the most successful. Innovators using design thinking are more successful in meeting customer needs and can launch products faster.
To Learn More
To learn how to apply design thinking to enrich innovation, please join us in Life Design Master Mind (LDMM), Innovation Master Mind (IMM), or New Product Development Professional (NPDP) certification. LDMM is designed for your personal growth by applying design thinking tools to finding the next step in life. IMM is a 6-month peer coaching group that allows you to extend your NPD knowledge beyond NPDP certification and to collaborate with other CIOs and innovation managers. You will realize improved efficiency and growth from LDMM, IMM, or through NPDP certification which entails a deep dive into strategy and NPD processes, including design thinking. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 281-280-8717. At Simple-PDH.com where we want to help you gain and maintain your professional certifications. You can study, learn, and earn – it’s simple!
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