Design Thinking: oh…what now?

I smell fads from a distance – doesn’t help that I poke my nose into all things I can poke it into.

Some fads are good though in that when they generate sufficient buzz, they get the attention of executives who may then allocate resources to the stuff that their staff may have been asking for or talking about for some time and which didn’t make any sense to these execs – especially from a quarterly growth target point of view – until the buzz. Buzzes are often the result of a new fad getting popular on its own (well, there is such thing as organic spread or word of mouth) or term throwing, sharply dressed consultants from top consulting firms doing brown bag sessions or other executive instructing session(s) with the right executives in the room. Other fads, just serve the ego of their protagonists and delivers no real value to others.

Design thinking (given the buzz it is currently enjoying) is yet another fad, albeit a useful fad!

So, what exactly is design thinking? In simple terms, it is putting the customer front and centre in the development of new products and/or services and/or features or modifying existing ones.

Duh… that’s what all product development teams should do, build stuff that customers need (or want) and can pay for and not what those product teams want.

Half the time, we don’t know what these things are. And some other times, we can read the tea leaves of customer feedback, insights derived from usage data and/or by asking customers directly or even bringing them into the same room with your product team.

Hey, before you come here with arguments backed by the popular one-liner oft credited to Steve Jobs “…the customer doesn’t know what they wants until they see it”, let me introduce you to what may perhaps be the most successful outcome of the adoption of the design thinking process, existing in the public domain today: the computer mouse . The mouse was evolved and offered a prime time show, by Apple and its design consulting partner, IDEO (popular for its use of Design Thinking in their work) and has accompanied all Macs since the Lisa.

That one liner, even if true, I am certain when put in context – social, economic, political, cultural, political and/or technological –  doesn’t exactly mean go on and build whatever tickles your fancy, your customers are too dumb to know they needed it anyway.

It is important to know that design thinking is more of a mindset or thought process for approaching work (creating value for customers and shareholders) than a framework or toolkit that can be spoken about and simply expected to run itself.

It can and should serve as an overarching guideline for the selection of product(s) and/or  project(s), a delivery methodology (or mix of) and continuous monitoring of the product (or project deliverable) in the wild.

Design thinking rests on 5 key pillars described below. These pillars could encompass a variety of tools and vehicles in accomplishing their key outputs, are iterative and requires open minds – one that assumes a lot, open to discovery, doesn’t despise learning and adjusts position when presented with data-driven – evidence-based knowledge:

  • Empathise
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

Empathy – frame a question about your customers (and potential customers) that your firm should answer to generate value for the customer and in turn for your firm. Tools my include but are not limited to: observing customers or target customers in the wild and seeing what their struggles are with your products/services or those of your competition; asking customers directly what their pain points are and what their ideal solution will look and behave like; distilling insights from data (usage data if you currently collect such, or competition data analysis or market research).

Define – collate your findings and paint a picture of the problem(s) that needs to be solved. You may begin to write requirements’ specifications here as well start to document the features of a solution (from your questions to customers on the subject of what a robust solution looks like) – user stories is a flexible yet useful tool to consider here and possibly a Kanban board structured to organise user stories according to how well defined they are, where in the delivery effort the user story is in etc. may also come in handy. But defining a problem isn’t once off and will be impacted throughout the repetitive process that constitutes all phases of design thinking.

Ideate and prototype – My preference is to not separate between Ideate and Prototype. Both phases are fluid and easily merge into each other, given prototypes can be created as ideas are generated.

Test – that the prototyped ideas are a hit (or will be a hit with customers) is super important. This phase like all the others need to be approached with an open mind. New, previously unconsidered angles are likely to be discovered and testing provides another opportunity to empathize with the customer, especially with the advantage of a solid solution idea or an actual prototype.

How will taking a design thinking approach help teams, their employers and their customers create value?

  1. Teams will be solving a real problem – and are likely to deliver a product/service that is in demand or answers questions customers may have. Read: How can Design Thinking Re-invent a Brand?:
  2. Customers are likely to remain loyal and stay with the business – they’d feel heard and recognised – read: Bank of America Helps Customers to “Keep the Change”:
  3. Cost effectiveness and optimal value creation – prototyping and testing with customers likely to reveal early on in the delivery process challenges with the solution which are previously only learnt when a product hits the market and so much money has been committed into creating a flawed or unneeded product/service
  4. Opportunity to learn from the market and continue to remain market fit. Imagine the advantage of always shipping what the customer truly needs? Read: How To Brainstorm Like A Googler: (note: Gmail, the most popular email service in the world today was prototyped for half a decade ( – I agree that’s too much time to prototype and test, someone probably forgot to move it out of beta, if you use the product today, you will see that it is continuously being improved, possibly from insights garnered from how users use the service)
  5. Less and less quarterly frustrations – if there is product market fit, the risk of quarterly frustrations reduces. Read: How Mobisol reinvented solar panel distribution in rural Kenya and made a killing (without killing anyone) in the process:
  6. Ease of developing agility – agility requires that teams develop all the underpinning sentiments required for design thinking to work. It becomes a moot point that an organisation or a team can then develop agility and become super responsive if it is able to imbibe design thinking ‘thinking’. Read about the Golden Gate Regional Center (GGRC) shortening service delivery time from 3 months to two weeks (did you just scream agility? I say: yo!) –


I relied on those who have written before me 🙂 on the subject and here is a list of those I haven’t linked to above:

  1. IDEO on Design Thinking Approach
  2. Interaction Design Foundation’s The 5 Stages of Design Thinking Process
  3. The Accidental Design Thinker’s 40 Design Thinking Success stories:
  4. Cover Image: 

Note this is part of a series of writings that are geared towards my planned 2019 book: The BA Book. I am deliberately grouping them together here as first drafts as that is what most of them are. Doing this helps me stay accountable as well as gain early feedback from stakeholders.

Your comments and feedback on this early thoughts will be appreciated and applied towards further shaping the research that will go into the writing the book.



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