Design Thinking: This method brings you even closer to your customers

When developing a new concept or an innovation, questions often arise first: What is actually worthwhile from an economic point of view? And what is technically feasible?

First of all, you should consider: What are my (potential) customers looking for? After all, they are the ones whom you are developing solutions for. Design thinking is an approach to idea development that clearly focuses on customer centricity.

Design Thinking - a short Overview

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Design Thinking: A process for more customer understanding

Design thinking is a method that completely focuses on the needs of the customer. Originally, it was a way of working used by industrial designers to stimulate their creative process and develop customer-centric products.

Larry Leifer, Terry Winograd and David Kelley from Stanford University eventually transferred the creative process into a larger context and thus established design thinking as a method that can be applied in many industries, to the most diverse questions and in many companies. Design thinking’s goal is always to produce an innovation – one that the customer really wants.

The term “hidden needs” is also used here, i.e. the hidden needs of the target group or users that you have to find out. In short: Give your customers something they need but have perhaps not yet expressed. Observe and put yourself in the perspective of the people you want to support with your solution.

Breaking up rigid structures: Nothing is impossible

Design thinking is one of the agile methods in project management, as the working method is very open and leaves room for creativity and independent work. Inflexible thought patterns and outdated structures are overcome. Independent teams come to the fore, whose members are in constant exchange with each other and can thus react quickly to changes.

Design thinking is dynamic – and deliberately plays with the unattainable. After all, if you only think within the fixed framework of what you already know, you are unlikely to come up with a new idea. And certainly not develop an innovation. Design thinking therefore pushes the limits of what is possible, at least in thought.

No concept is too crazy, no approach too unrealistic – nothing is impossible! First of all, when it comes to fulfilling customer wishes, every new flash of inspiration is welcome. This is exactly what distinguishes Design Thinking from other methods: There are no limits to creativity. What really works in the end turns out later in the process. In the beginning, the following applies: Thoughts are free.

How Design Thinking promotes creativity

Three special features contribute to Design Thinking producing successful results:

According to the method of the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI), the iterative process used in Design Thinking consists of six steps. The whole process begins with everyone becoming aware: I know that I know nothing (“Beginner’s mind”). So everyone should start development with a fresh mind instead of making pre-assumptions. In the beginning, you don’t know what your clients want – you have to find out. Keep an open mind to the learning and creative process that follows.

Tackling problems interdisciplinary: Here are the advantages

Whereas in many industries and companies teams consist only of people who have the same or at least a similar professional background, Design Thinking recognises the strength of mixed teams and makes interdisciplinarity a core competence: the more different focal points and disciplines are included in the team, the more perspectives open up.

To solve problems, design thinking does not rely on a single technical expertise. Rather, the focus is on ideas from a wide variety of sectors and subject areas. It is therefore only an advantage when social scientists and mathematicians, business scientists and journalists or engineers and linguists come into contact with each other and work together on a solution. So many different approaches and such diverse background knowledge – that means lots of new ideas.

Creative techniques support design thinking

When working alone, you should at least try to leave your usual knowledge bubble and think outside the box. For this, you can try out some creative techniques. These will spark new ideas and show you other perspectives.

Looking for new ideas?

When rooms reflect thinking

Variable rooms are basically just the continuation of the many perspectives you get by using creative techniques: Everything is intermixed, flexible and open – so why should the space in which the new concepts emerge be stiff and confining? Spatially, too, space must be created for ideas and creativity in design thinking.

Whiteboards, notes, flipcharts and blackboards should find a place wherever they are needed. No area of free space should be wasted on unnecessary furniture. Chairs are unnecessary – when standing and walking around, thoughts may flow a little more freely. In short: Design Thinking needs space, and you should give it to the

Design thinking as a process: from problem to idea in six steps

The iterative process in design thinking consists of six steps that follow one another. The first step is to really get to know the customer and identify their needs. This is achieved with an empathetic approach. And this is how it works:

Step 1: Understanding

In the beginning, it is necessary to define the initial situation in the Design Thinking process. That means: Think about what problem you want to solve:

  • Who is affected by this problem and when?
  • Why is the problem a problem?
  • What is the current state, where are the challenges?Was ist der Ist-Zustand, wo liegen die Herausforderungen?

So you make assumptions about what problems your customers have. Important: This is only about defining the problem. Possible solutions to problems are not yet relevant! These will only become concrete in the next steps.

Implementation: Use sticky notes or a flipchart to describe the problem - like brainstorming. Write down everything you can think of, either in sentences or keywords. Once you have gathered all the thoughts, try to express the problem as accurately as possible in one sentence.

Step 2: Observe

The core of the whole method is this step: you engage directly with your customers. In this phase of design thinking, you try to understand their needs and put yourself in their shoes. Try to find out what fears, feelings and needs your target group or potential users of an innovation have.

Instead of making assumptions, find out! How do your customers see the problem? The best way to do this is to actually ask them. It is also helpful if you immerse yourself in the reality of other people’s lives.

Implementation: You have the following options to generate as many insights as possible about your target group:

- Observe: Look closely at how people act in the environment where the problem you described in step 1 occurs. But do not contact them directly so as not to distort their behaviour. Do they encounter a challenge somewhere? Are they angry about something? Take notes.

- Interviews: Question your customers about what their needs are. Do your assumptions about the problem you defined in step 1 apply to the target group?

- Data analysis: How does your target group look like? Find out as much as possible about your customers or users, e.g. age, gender, profession, marital status, user behaviour, etc.

Really get to know your customers in this step – and leave your point of view completely out of it! The focus is on your (potential) customers and their problems and wishes.

Step 3: Defining the perspective

Now you have to compile the knowledge you have gained about your customers’ needs. Form an overall picture and bring the wishes of your target group to a point. What were the most important findings? What surprised you? Where were your assumptions confirmed or not confirmed?

Based on these findings, you can now create a persona – that is, you describe the typical customer you want to help with your solution. Describe in detail how old this customer is, what he does for a living, what his hobbies are, what he is annoyed about or what makes him happy. Put yourself in his or her shoes as much as possible. Also give him or her a name. The persona you describe is your ideal first customer who will buy the solution you have developed for his or her problem.

Implementation: Gather all the findings from the observation phase and write them down in sentences or keywords, for example on a flipchart or on sticky notes. Think about whether you can recognise patterns. Which things stand out, which are particularly important? Form a persona from your findings. Write down all their characteristics in a profile.

Step 4: Find ideas

Now you have a problem that you have defined and had confirmed by your target group. And you have your ideal customer in front of you in the form of a persona. You can now use this to find solutions to the problem. Proceed in three steps:

  1. Idea collection: Completely without evaluation, collect all the ideas that come into your head. Write down everything you can think of – and don’t start sorting them out here. Do not set yourself any limits! Nothing is too crazy in design thinking.
  2. Sort: Once you have collected enough ideas, take a look at which of them are really feasible. Which of these ideas are worthwhile from a financial point of view, which are realistic at all? Arrange the ideas in descending order of priority.
  3. Decision: Settle on the best idea. But don’t try to include all the aspects you have thought of. Keep it simple – decide on the idea that seems best to you and that is realistic.

Implementation: Again, it is worthwhile to work with adhesive pads or flipchart. Write down everything that comes to mind. When developing ideas, you can use creative techniques such as classic brainstorming. We have described more such methods above.

Step 5: Develop prototypes

Prototyping? At first, that sounds very technical. However, a prototype does not have to be something material. It is simply about developing your solution in a way that it could actually look like in the end. It doesn’t have to be perfect yet, but you should give it a first form. The solution should become tangible.

Implementation: Depending on the type of solution you are working on, your prototype will look different. You can, for example, programme something, make it out of paper or Lego bricks, or draw the product. But equally, it is possible to develop a storyboard with which you record a certain sequence of events, for example, like in a comic, or to make a role-playing game with which you re-enact situations. The latter works best in a team.

Step 6: Testing

This is the serious part: presenting the result of the prototyping to your client. But it’s not about convincing the client or selling your idea. The goal of this phase in Design Thinking is to collect feedback. Observe how the customer deals with your solution and ask him specifically what he thinks of it.

Important: Keep an open mind about the result! If you notice that the client can’t do anything with your solution, then you should admit to yourself that you still have to change a lot or even discard the idea altogether. Prepare yourself for the fact that negative criticism can and may follow. You should put your ego behind you – after all, it’s about your customers’ needs, not your own.

Implementation: Have several clients try out your prototype and collect their feedback. You can do this, for example, by asking them to say all their thoughts out loud (thinking-aloud test). Alternatively, you could create different prototypes and see which one is better received overall. Once you have collected enough feedback, you classify it. For example, you can create different categories, such as "positive feedback", "This was unclear", "This needs to be improved" and stick or write the collected keywords in the appropriate category.

After the feedback is before the feedback

Then you have to reflect: Does the whole idea have to be thrown over or is it enough to improve a few things in the prototype? Depending on how the feedback turned out, you have to start again – either with the development of a completely new idea, with the revision of an existing idea or only with the adaptation of the prototype.

The important thing is to take the feedback seriously. But be aware that even if you have to start all over again, it is a process that sometimes takes longer, sometimes shorter. See it as a path to success, not failure. When you feel that your customers like your prototype, then you can start to actually implement your solution. You have done it!

Conclusion: Design Thinking - Creativity with Method

Design thinking is a customer- or user-centred method with which you can get to know your customers very precisely. In the process, you find out what they want and develop a customised solution for problems. No matter what industry or company you work in – the absolute customer-centricity benefits everyone. Design thinking awakens creativity and gets you closer to your target group – and that is of central importance for sustainable success. Try it out and dare to apply the method!

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Manuel Schmidt

Manuel Schmidt

About Me

As a customer insights expert and certified Scrum product owner, I experience the importance of customer-centric product and marketing development on a daily basis.

In combination with agile optimization processes and a corporate culture that is open to experimentation, you will get your growth fully on track.


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