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The Robots Haven’t Won Yet (And Other Reasons I’m a Design Thinker)

The Robots Haven’t Won Yet (And Other Reasons I’m a Design Thinker)

“Why do you believe in design thinking?”

I was having coffee with my cousin’s friend, and that question, believe it or not, was new territory for me. When you’re a business owner and consultant-type, most questions you get start with “what,” “when,” and “how much.” But “Why do you do what you do?” is rare.

I, of course, know exactly why design thinking gets me up in the morning. But it felt good to say it out loud to someone who was genuinely curious about why design thinking is my chosen profession.

As I answered to my cousin’s friend’s question, I felt and heard the enthusiasm bubbling up in me, the same enthusiasm that I felt when I was first introduced to the discipline. My answers inspired this post. So here are a few reasons why I believe in the power of design thinking.

Design thinking is populist.

Design thinking uses human centered design artifacts like personasDesign thinking begins and ends with the customer. You’re always designing for – and sometimes even with – people who will actually use the solution you’re developing. You begin by trying to understand your customers’ deepest wants and needs. Next, you memorialize them in artifacts like customer personas to remind you who really matters throughout the process. Then you take your concepts and prototypes right back to the customer to ensure you’re actually meeting their needs and giving the most optimal experience. Throughout a design thinking process, the customer is boss.

Design thinking depends on integrity.

Design thinking isn’t just about using colorful Post-It notes and getting a buzz from Sharpie and Expo marker fumes. The process requires each stage to be executed with care and integrity. If you don’t put in the work to authentically understand what your customers want and need, you’ll likely end up with unusable and inaccurate insights. Design thinkers truly want to create something that delights their customers. For us, simply going through the motions of the process doesn’t cut it.

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Design thinking requires humility.

As a design thinker, every tested assumption begets scores of new questions that you might never get the chance to answer. True design thinkers can move forward even in the face of uncertainty. You have to be curious enough to want to be proven wrong and humble enough to admit when you are. “The sheer complexity of the design challenges we face demands open-mindedness—a willingness to test and modify assumptions, to make mistakes and be proven wrong,” writes Facebook designer David Gillis. “Humility is about knowing what you don’t know.”

Design thinking rewards curiosity.

Design thinking inspires you to ask what is possibleDesign thinkers are tenaciously curious, motivated by the possibility that we can improve the lives of their customers and make something better than it was before. We’re constantly experimenting, testing our assumptions and asking “What if?” We don’t settle for the status quo or the way something has always been done, an attitude that has led to innovations everywhere from the opera to NASA. Design thinkers aren’t afraid to play the contrarian or the devil’s advocate for the sake of improving the customer experience. The process of collecting data and extracting insights is just as rewarding as the end result.

Design thinking is lower risk and more efficient.

The traditional approach to creating new solutions within an organization tends to look like this: through some alchemy of ego, internal politics, and time pressure, an organization (often a leader) will decide on one single solution to produce. Throughout the process, everything is kept internal to the organization, and the solution is researched and analyzed to death. Months and months – and potentially millions of dollars – are spent on one single idea. That single solution idea is finalized, polished up, and sent to the marketing division, which is told, “Okay, now go sell this to our customers.” That’s the first time any actual customer has touched, smelled, tasted, walked through, or used the product or service. Sounds fairly risky, right? It is, because you’re putting all your eggs into just one basket from the very start. And you’ve begun your process by heeding only the internal demands of your business.

Contrast this to a design thinking approach, which begins with the customer determining what you make. Not only that, but design thinking demands multiple baskets: you develop several low-cost, low-risk solutions that you then take back to your customers to validate and gather more data.

Take W.K. Kellogg, for example. He carefully tested the recipe for corn flakes with hospital patients until the cereal was so good, it was more than just a breakfast food for patients with diet restrictions – everyone wanted to eat it.

When you seek to understand your customer and experiment with the solution to learn what works and what doesn’t, you can feel confident about the resources you’re putting into the project.

Design thinking puts humans at the center.

design thinking encourages wild ideas and low-cost prototypesAs I’m fond of saying when I discuss the merits of design thinking, the robots haven’t won yet. We are still in the business of designing products, services, and experiences for human beings. Design thinking is, after all, often also called human centered design. Until the Great Robot Wars commence and humans are firmly on the losing side, we will be in the business of trying to delight customers by seeking greater understanding of what makes human beings tick.

Design thinking is future-focused.

In a fast-paced business environment, having an eye on the future is crucial. Design thinking prepares you to pivot and adjust when your customers’ needs change. This is why it trades so much in qualitative data; insights from customers speak to what they want, need, and find meaningful in their consumer experiences. Quantitative data like customer satisfaction surveys and demographic trends can only ever tell you about the past; you may be data rich but insight poor. You’re a lot less likely to get caught by surprise with a design thinking approach because you’ll be much more familiar with not only what your customers need right now, but also how their needs can shift and change in the future. A human centered approach also better equips you to satisfy the needs and wants your customers don’t even know they have.

As Bruce Nussbaum has written in his book Creative Intelligence, we have moved away from an economy in which it makes sense to focus on the probability of something being a market success based on data, and into a new economy in which possibility and “what ifs” rule.

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When I was done explaining why I believe in design thinking, my cousin’s friend said, “Wow, it sounds like you’re exactly where you should be.” She was right. This discipline very much matches my own personal and professional values for all the reasons I’ve listed above. But it also just makes sense. To those of us who practice it, design thinking can seem so logical and obvious that we don’t always stop to verbalize the “why” and jump right into the “how” and “what.” Those are important, of course, but the “why” is what drives us and gives us the ability to execute human centered design with integrity. At least until the Great Robot Wars begin, that is.

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Coonoor Behal is a design thinking expert

Coonoor Behal is Founder of Mindhatch, a consultancy that helps companies and organizations get better results by using design thinking, organizational improv, and innovation facilitation.

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