Design Thinking: the art of human-centred innovation

The link between design and innovation

A body of research published by organisations such as Design Council and Design Management Institute demonstrates that the most innovative companies in the world use design as an integrative resource for innovation. Design driven companies are better at understanding their user’s needs, encourage creative thinking and experimentation. As a result, they outperform the S&P 500 by 219%. Source: Design Management Institute

Design is a unique discipline that cuts across social sciences, technology and arts. To tackle problems, designers use a combination of skills and tools: ethnography, anthropology, user journey mapping, visual thinking, creative brainstorming, prototyping and testing to name but a few. This mixed approach is a recipe for successful innovation so forward-thinking organisations are eager to introduce and develop these skills across their operations.

One way to address this is to simply hire designers: IBM, Cognizant, Infosys and others have been racing to hire hundreds of designers aiming to team them up with engineers and consultants to diffuse their knowledge. Source: Bloomberg 

Another approach is to work more closely with design studios making sure to engage them earlier in the product development process when the designer’s creative input can have the biggest impact.

However if an organisation wants to truly internalise the design approach and make it a part of its corporate DNA, it can turn to a framework called Design Thinking.

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a repeatable innovation process that can help anyone become better at developing human-centred products, services and experiences. It involves getting in front of the users, creative collaboration, building rough prototypes and testing with users. It is a learning by doing approach, where nothing is set in stone and curiosity and inspiration are key drivers. This way of working is very liberating and sparks a lot of enthusiasm. Teams become inspired to solve the problems of users they’ve come to truly know and understand.

The work of a Design Thinking team may seem chaotic at first but it follows a tried and tested approach, mixing spontaneity with cool-headed evaluation. This so-called “controlled creativity” environment is where innovation thrives.

Design Thinking has been popularised by a Stanford university professor – David M Kelly who founded IDEO – a design & innovation consulting firm, which utilises design thinking to develop user-centred innovations for clients such as Apple, Shimano, Boeing etc. He also created a unique academic facility – the which teaches students and future start-up founders how to innovate with design thinking.

Currently this design-led innovation process is finding its way to global corporations who use it to become more creative, agile and customer-centric. Siemens has recently launched a Beijing-based Industrial Design Thinking Center (i.DT) to identify users’ hidden needs while generating ideas for innovative products.

Innovation starts with empathy

The first and most important stage of the Design Thinking process is empathy. It is a term rarely heard in a technological or business context but is crucial for the success of any innovative solution. To “empathise” means to see the world from the user’s perspective. The practice of empathy involves conducting ethnographic interviews (as opposed to focus groups or market studies), creating empathy maps and shadowing users in their daily routines. The main goal is to identify sources of frustration and unmet needs.

To illustrate this approach l will share an anecdote from one of my workshops that focused on the topic of redesigning the fitting room. Following the principles of Design Thinking, the teams carried out interviews with real users who were in the middle of their shopping experience. The exercise helped to uncover some interesting insights. One lady mentioned that her main frustration is the bad lighting experienced in most fitting rooms and how it influences the photos she takes while trying on clothes. This insight could lead to a design challenge: “How might we design a fitting room which is better suited for taking pictures?” The ideas can range from simply equipping the fitting room with a camera holder to more advanced solutions such as adjustable lighting modes.

Another interesting observation came from three female customers who were social shopping. They complained about having to squeeze into a small fitting room together where one of them would be trying things on while the others watched and helped. In this case the innovation challenge could be presented as: “How might we design a fitting room better suited for a group shopping experience?”

These insights reflect the changes in lifestyle and behaviour of the users. They are starting points for projects which would later involve idea generation, prototyping and testing with users. The solutions could be radically different to today’s fitting room designs where the main focus seems to be on the style and fabric of the door.

A conversation about the fitting room is an opportunity to discover people’s unmet needs in the entire shopping experience therefore the final solutions can reach far beyond the fitting room itself.

How can I learn more?

If you would like to learn how Design Thinking can help your organisation innovate better, please get in touch at:

Contributor; Lukasz Liebersbach | Oxford Innovation

Lukasz Liebersbach is an Innovation Advisor, Design Thinking Lead Advisor at Oxford Innovation. He helps companies understand the benefits of design and implement the design thinking approach. He runs workshops, conducts user research studies and facilitates creative brainstorming sessions that guide teams to develop “out of the box” solutions. His work is heavily influenced by experience gained at the Institute of Design at Stanford University, California (commonly known as The