Businesses spent over $3.5 trillion worldwide on technology last year, according to research company Gartner. A large part of these investments is due to digital transformation strategies. Harvard Business Review defines “digital transformation” as an ongoing process of changing the way you do business. It requires foundational investments in skills, projects, infrastructure, and, often, in cleaning up IT systems. It requires mixing people, machines, and business processes, with all of the messiness that entails. The question is: How can a company initiate that digital transformation? The short answer is: design thinking.
In recent years the term “design thinking” has built up a lot of momentum across different fields. The world’s leading brands, agencies, and consulting firms have incorporated the design thinking process into their business. So, what is design thinking, anyway? And why is it so important for you to know about today?
Design thinking is a creative approach to problem solving, using five main action steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. The methodology goes back to the early 90s, when IDEO, an international design and consulting firm, was founded in California and started applying a human-centered design (HCD) process in various fields—from designing a computer mouse for Apple to solving complex challenges related to healthcare, government, education, and more. Today, bluechip companies and consultancies (such as IBM, Accenture, Microsoft, and Google) have adopted and adapted the methodology. A March 2018 study by Forrester Research found that teams employing IBM’s design thinking practices doubled design and execution speed, shortening initial design time by 75 percent and development and testing time by 33 percent. Picture that on a multimillion-dollar investment.
People, not technology
There is a reason all of these successful companies are now using this methodology: Building a product that no one would use is a waste of time. HCD methodologies, which the design thinking process belongs to, are tailored in a way to solve people’s troubles first, by having designers metaphorically walk in the shoes of their end-clientele. In this formulation, people, not technology, are the key to digital business solutions. Back in 1997, Apple Computer Company (as it was then known) transformed its business from the bottom up, by putting the customer first, and designing its products accordingly. Steve Jobs famously said, “You‘ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.” Often there are many customers, not just one, ranging from external consumers and stakeholders to internal customers, otherwise known as employees. In the latter situation, internal departments and team members take on a larger role in finding and establishing intra-corporate, innovative solutions.
Co-designing: A multidisciplinary approach
It might seem slow or counterproductive to some, but a solution that focuses on people first requires that one listen and engage with a wide array of participants. Hiring only a pastry chef will not, after all, help a restaurateur create a complete menu. By the same token, companies need to involve several specialists with multidisciplinary backgrounds to develop the right solution, especially when it comes to technology solutions.
The design thinking process emphasizes collaboration, not only to make sure that the right product is being built for the right audience, but also to unleash creativity throughout the organization while solving complex challenges. In fact, the co-design process involves customers, business owners, designers, researchers, engineers, and all other stakeholders to ensure that the end result is practical and meets the existing needs. When Ideatolife answered the call to find a technology solution for an oil and gas firm, they made sure to involve all the stakeholders from the different departments, from IT to the sourcing department, and bottom-up, from the field and rig teams to the VP’s office.
Rinse and repeat:
Test, learn, iterate
While some companies already adopt a lean and agile approach to finding solutions, most of them find themselves ending the process at the first iteration. Technically, this limits the opportunities for the corporation. In fact, the process should continue on for several iterations, which would be tested among the different teams, but mostly from the different points of view of the relevant audiences.
Iterations can become products, with every new model emerging after a design thinking process cycle is complete. Mark Zuckerberg reportedly said that he never knew the full potential of Facebook until after he and his team had tried several versions of the site, applying different ideas over the years.
Zuckerberg’s 2012 letter to potential investors that laid out “the hacker way” highlighted this critical culture: “The hacker way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete.”
Each person and organization faces challenges in their own way. The design thinking process aligns your efforts and helps you focus on what is truly the most important thing: people. We are all trying to find solutions for problems that people are facing, whether in their companies or in everyday life. Technology helps streamline those solutions for people, and not the other way around.
How are you using technology to solve your problems? Are you ready to use the power of design thinking to rocket into your next iteration?
Loubna Ibrahim is a product and innovation manager at Ideatolife, a creative software development company based in Beirut that adopts design thinking for digital innovation.