How it looks vs. how it works Design thinking and business

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My first encounter with the term “design thinking” was five years ago, while researching a project for a client. At the time we were facing a “wicked problem,” a problem with multiple and inter-connected sources. The client’s team had tried all the traditional methods and tools and failed, so we were tasked with looking at how we could find unconventional ways of solving the issue.

What I discovered about design thinking was beyond my expectations, and it was one of those big “aha!” moments. What struck me was the realization that design is actually not how things look—as we have been accustomed to describe the design of, for instance,  flower vases—but it is about how things work; in the case of a vase, is it easy to handle, fill with water, put on a shelf? As the late Steve Jobs said, “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer—that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Since this epiphany, at Brandcell we took a deep dive into this discipline and now use design to solve key business challenges, designing growth strategies for major clients.

So what is design thinking? According to Tim Brown of global design company IDEO, “Design thinking can be described as a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

Basically, design thinking is a methodology that we use to solve complex problems, and it is a way of using analytics with empathy, and using user-research to trigger and envision future innovations that lead to sustainable growth.

The design thinking process, or what is now called human-centered design, starts with understanding user needs and the job to be done. This is achieved by walking in the customer’s shoes with a large dose of empathy to discover the world through the lens of the customer’s declared and undeclared needs and aspirations. This leads to identifying key insights, which are translated into opportunities for innovation and problem solving, or what is called “framing the challenge.” This is followed by an ideation stage to design solutions that are: 1. desirable (for customers), 2. viable (for the company) and 3. technologically feasible (doable and differentiating). The third stage entails zooming in on a key solution and creating rapid prototypes for testing before roll-out. The last stage involves implementing and monitoring results.

It is worth noting that in a lot of situations we are surrounded by bad design. Bad design is easy to achieve as it does not require high skills, and people do it all the time without much effort. It does not need much concentration to think about the best way to integrate the form and function of the object. However, the most worrying and insidious effect of badly-designed products or services is its impact on our well-being. Some examples include: complicated public administration processes that cause people to suffer because of a poorly thought-out service design; a frustrating call-center where no answers are given; bad product displays; difficult to read packaging; a back-breaking chair; a website with 100 steps to process one request; a one hour queue at a hospital. These bad designs make people’s lives more difficult and stressful. Design is therefore about moving things toward more desirable outcomes and more enjoyable experiences.

Design thinking is today a core capability adopted by major companies around the world. Companies have embedded design labs and applied design thinking to solve issues, producing both incremental and radical innovations. Large management consulting firms have embedded or acquired design studios and designers to complement their traditional tools and provide more holistic solutions to problems that cannot be tackled by analytics alone. The fields in which one can apply design thinking are extremely wide, from designing business strategies, to organizational development, customer experience, new product development, social design, and more. One particular field of importance nowadays is “experience design.” As the world economy shifts toward customers spending more on experiences and less on goods, designing a good customer experience is key. If you’re a strategist or CEO, and you are thinking about how to differentiate your company and services without attempting to understand and improve how your customers experience your brand at every touch-point, you are probably missing out on a very, very important lever.

Another application of design is digital transformation. Too often we meet clients who want to integrate digital channels but start at the wrong end, building a lavish website and spending on social media to attract potential customers, with limited success. First you need to understand which part of the journey customers would like to see digitized and in which part they prefer to keep interacting with a human, which is more reassuring (insurance and banking works best with a mix, for example). This is what we call designing an omni-channel strategy. Design then permeates the back-end, to redesign more efficient functions and processes, removing silos to ensure best delivery of a customer experience that will delight and create loyalty. We have been helping local organizations adopt design as a core skill for innovation, rapid prototyping solutions, and new initiatives in situ, before committing heavy resources and spending on expensive launches that might fail in the real world.

While not everyone is a designer, to design is to liberate the creative confidence and advance with an open, curious mind. With this approach, we can achieve better solutions, amazing innovations, and aspire to the best there is, and even to heights that have not yet been scaled. Better designing what we need is also a good discriminator to limit what we produce to what is of real value in improving human lives, and dropping the clutter that pollutes our senses and affects the quality of the environment.

It is important to realize the greater sense of design that lies beyond the shape and look of things, and to understand and practice how human-centered design actually improves life.

Brilliant design is holistic beauty, and as they say, beauty is a promise of happiness—in Lebanon, we all need it badly.

Joe Ayoub is the founder of Brandcell Consulting.

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