Leading companies are integrating design thinking techniques into their innovation strategies to expand their insights and help executives envision a new range of possibilities.
Design thinking, whereby organizations draw lessons from the world of design in the pursuit of innovation, can catapult companies to dazzling new heights. Many business schools and large corporations are embracing design thinking because great designers can help those with little or no imagination vividly experience a world that doesn’t exist yet. A simple story and a prototype shared with senior executives can take the place of hundreds of charts and slides. These decision-makers may love, hate, or want more information about the idea, but since it is clear and tangible, they do not have to waste time trying to imagine it.
Already, the market contains many examples of design-fueled products and services:
- A 30-person team at Los Angeles firm Second Spectrum brought together decades of experience in sports, data analytics, design, computer science, and management to improve how professionals coach and play sports. By integrating massive data sets, analytics models, real-time visualization techniques, and other methods into software tools, the firm enhanced the ability of both players and coaches to understand a complex, fast-moving game. When Steve Ballmer, fresh off his tenure as Microsoft CEO, observed the firm’s work in 2014, he urged it to apply its capabilities to the Los Angeles Clippers, his newly purchased professional basketball team.
- Chinese retail firm Alibaba is taking many well-known global advances in e-commerce ecosystems and catering to the evolving desires of China’s massive and growing middle class. In 2009, Alibaba created a holiday, Single’s Day, a variety of Valentine’s Day culturally adapted for China. On Nov. 11, people who are single give each other gifts through Alibaba at either 11:11 a.m. or 11:11 p.m., because all of the 1’s add up to many “singles.” In 2013, Alibaba became the first firm in history to sell and deliver nearly $6 billion in goods and services on a single day.
- The design team behind the mobile game Candy Crush uses behavioral finance discoveries typical of Vegas casinos, plus beguiling design qualities and clever animations, to encourage players to obsess over their rise through the game’s demanding skill levels. The game makes money through in-game sales: When players are stuck on a level and about to “die,” the game will prevent them from playing for a couple hours; alternatively, players can purchase five more moves for about 80 cents, giving them an opportunity to advance to the next level. A large number of players purchase the extra moves, contributing to Candy Crush’s daily revenue of nearly $1.5 million.
These examples share a common thread: They fuse insights from sophisticated analytics with experiences designed to be smart and convenient for consumers. This is what happens when innovation is done right: It transforms entire fields, often much more quickly than anyone anticipated. Think of the speed with which smartphones changed telephony, Uber changed the urban taxi market, Airbnb changed the hospitality market, and Twitter changed the ability of repressive regimes to control how their populations communicated with one another.
The most effective design thinking teams comprise individuals with diverse backgrounds and specialized skills, including the ability to:
- Conceive and make things
- Differentiate objects, places, and messages
- Empathize with people
- Look toward the future and prototype a better world
- Imagine ideal user experiences
- Sense and value what is new
- Grapple with ambiguity more comfortably than most
- Systematically test and iterate concepts until they get them right
- Simplify and clarify information
Drawing upon these varied talents, design teams are capable of transforming nearly anything: concepts, brands, categories, markets, technologies, materials, logistics systems, experiences, industries, even governments.
What can today’s leaders learn from the ascendance of the design field? Here are three explicit principles that can benefit the modern enterprise:
Use information deftly to manage complexity by bringing together many individuals with specialized skills.
Great design is a critical catalyst and accelerator, which stems largely from designers effectively integrating complexity into an elegant and even delightful experience.
Avoid labeling this “design thinking,” because such a label obscures the deeper truth: What works today is deep, informed analysis seamlessly synthesized into coherent, beautiful solutions.
The last point is especially important. While the promise of design thinking is alluring, its advocates sometimes overreach, regarding it as an elixir that can transform conservative companies into creative ones. In the most egregious instances, some suggest it can somehow replace nearly all other forms of analysis, planning, and strategy. But teams will likely achieve breakthroughs sooner if they do not assume that design thinking is the single, mystery ingredient they are missing.
Consider that 90 percent of today’s data was created in the last two years. This may help explain why so many of the innovations we love, including Google, Wikipedia, GPS systems, smartphones, Amazon, and Uber, are derived from or utterly depend on new forms of analytic tools. Savvy CMOs will understand that there are now dramatically more ways to derive insights and infer emerging customer behavioral patterns in the pursuit of industry-transforming breakthroughs.
Technologies are accelerating at an unprecedented rate, and information availability is exploding. Leaders who respect the power of good design thinking can challenge their enterprises to seize upon this change, and create products and services that are new, innovative, and even astonishing.
Larry Keely is a managing director at Deloitte Consulting LLP.