Driving innovation with design thinking

It used to be that ‘send it to the designers’ was the last stage of product development. It was what happened after all the ideas had been had, when the solution had been arrived at. Design was an afterthought, the icing on the cake, making that final product look swish.

But the agile revolution has turned that process on its head; marketers and product owners now recognise that we can solve problems faster, in a more innovative way, more effectively and more profitably if we put design in from the start of a project. This approach is called ‘design thinking’.

People watching

The term ‘design thinking’ gets thrown around a lot at the moment, often with some confusion about what it actually means. But in fact the concept is simple; it’s a way for designers to solve problems by observation.

Observation has always been at the heart of great innovative design; Velcro was invented after George de Mestral used a microscope to look at the tiny hooks on the cockle-burs that were sticking to the loops in the fabric of his trousers, and the hugely successful Trunki kids’ ride-on suitcase was designed after inventor Rob Law went out into the real world in search of luggage ideas; he observed ride-on toys in a department store and spotted the wasted space inside them.

In a modern product development process, designers let consumers take the lead, observing how they live their daily lives, what problems they encounter, what hacks and workarounds they use. This process uncovers consumer needs. According to economist Peter Drucker, it’s a designer’s job to turn these needs into demands.

Hands-on inspiration

The second stage of design thinking involves thinking with our hands. Instead of just coming up with ideas in our heads, we build them, whether it’s a digital prototype or with paper, cardboard, clay, plastic or junk. When Steve Jobs told his engineers to design a mouse for the next Apple computer, there was no other mouse on the market. They were creating an entirely new product with nothing to model it on and no idea what would work and what wouldn’t.

They got physical, buying a rollerball deodorant and a butter dish from a Walmart and sticking them together to test. Their innovation was successful because they prototyped early, testing a control device hands on that otherwise might have been discounted as too niche or difficult for a general user.

When we assess ideas in our heads we might discount them before we have a chance to spot innovation. Getting hands-on like this is a shortcut to spotting possibilities. Accommodation site Airbnb was on the point of going bust when its founders noticed that lots of the photos of rooms on the site were poor quality.

Their first idea sounded crazy – hire a professional photographer and send them to take better pictures of people’s properties. It wasn’t scalable, but against their better judgement they tried it anyway. The improved photos doubled the site’s weekly revenue. And so, they brushed up their photo guidelines for users and actually started offering a free professional photography service in some areas. This is still a key aspect of the site now. It was a turning point for the business, now the world’s largest accommodation provider.

Minimising uncertainty

Attempting to innovate always carries a degree of risk; does your innovation truly address a problem? Does the problem you’re solving really exist? And will people pay for the solution? Design thinking reduces that risk by getting up close and personal with people; identifying unmet needs and testing and refining concepts with prototypes. This isn’t just assessing dry market research or old data; design thinking means getting our hands dirty, playing, watching and talking to make our ideas better.