Innovation has a Simple and Successful Formula: Design Thinking

Design Thinking has helped several enterprises around the world succeed at innovation. Design Thinking works in all types of innovation scenarios – breakthrough or incremental, individual or team.

Business organizations have chanted the innovation mantra for years. So why is it that only some succeed while others, despite employing the best technology, fail to impress? Over 40 years ago, a study aimed at identifying the factors of innovation success concluded that understanding customer needs early on was the most important factor. But aren’t organizations doing that already?

In a surprising number of cases, we find that innovation isn’t inspired by customer need; it is driven by other factors such as technological or regulatory developments. Moreover, most innovations follow a ‘me too’ approach and offer mere improvements on existing solutions.

For innovation to be truly great, it must solve and occasionally uncover the greatest problems of our times. This is possible only when businesses – before they start innovating – develop a strong sense of empathy for their customers to understand what they truly desire. Everything else – the new idea, its technical feasibility and commercial viability – is secondary.

This is the core premise of Design Thinking, a practice that has helped several enterprises around the world succeed at innovation. Design Thinking works in all types of innovation scenarios – breakthrough or incremental, individual or team.

The science of empathy

As empathy is the starting point and key principle of Design Thinking, let us explore the concept through a simple example. A drill manufacturing company that empathizes with its customers knows that the real need is not an actual drill but an easy way to create holes of various shapes and sizes. By focusing on enabling their customers to do exactly this, the company is able to produce better drills.

Establishing empathy calls for much more than the traditional requirements-gathering exercise. Empathy cannot be acquired through market research. To build empathy, a business must first understand how its customers live and how they solve problems. They should discuss these observations in detail with customers to understand the motivation for customer behavior. While this process definitely reveals consumers’ direct and indirect needs, it can also uncover a surprise element that may be a source of valuable insight for the business.

The observation of consumers in their natural environment is a powerful Design Thinking tool. By synthesizing these observations into a point-of-view, businesses can focus on a particular key insight or consumer need. A simple formula depicting this outcome is:

Point of View = User + Need + Insight

There are some insightful lessons to be learnt from the example of companies that leverage Design Thinking for innovation. For example, Embrace Corporation has a low-cost incubator that is saving millions of lives in many poor and developing countries. The company’s point-of-view is ‘A desperate parent in a rural area needs to give her dying baby a chance to survive’. Here, the user is a ‘desperate parent in a rural area’, the need is ‘to give their baby a chance to survive’ and the insight is that ‘more often than not, babies die’. Once the point-of-view is clear, a business can ideate several solutions to a problem by using the point of view as the frame of reference.

Design Thinking framework

The next step in Design Thinking is to employ product design sensibilities to create products that are deeply desirable to customers and solve their problems. Organizations should assess these product innovations from the standpoint of technological feasibility and commercial viability.

Stanford D. School has devised the following three-part framework to understand Design Thinking.

                 Fig 1: Three-part framework of Design Thinking

1 Desirability – To innovate, businesses must first empathize with their end-users by understanding their actual product usage experiences as well as the emotions and psychology that influence their actions and tasks. This is the utility and emotional appeal of a solution.

2 Feasibility – To establish whether an innovation is technically feasible, businesses must understand the product details or, in the case of IT innovation, the underlying code. It is important to know what it takes to get something done and what the product does or does not do. This is the know-how involved in bringing an innovation to life.

3 Viability – In this step, enterprises need to evaluate the product from a business standpoint, i.e., its potential for value creation and commercial viability.

Great innovations happen at the intersection of the above three aspects. We recommend that businesses examine their new product ideas using the Design Thinking framework to ensure they are desirable, feasible and viable. If not, they should return to the drawing board and re-evaluate their innovation. A closer look at some of the truly innovative products you have used will show that these meet all three Design Thinking criteria. On the other hand, products that are not ‘clear innovations’ will meet only one or two.

Test quickly. Fail early

An idea that meets the criteria of the Design Thinking framework must now be visualized and quickly prototyped. This enables the business to test an innovation with end-users and loop their feedback into an iterative prototyping process until they get it right. This method of ‘quick and dirty prototyping’ has several benefits. For instance, customers become open to sharing feedback about products that aren’t completed and companies can minimize the cost and risk of innovation by ‘failing early and often’.

                     Fig 2: 5 steps in Design Thinking process

The above diagram illustrates the key steps in the Design Thinking process. While these are laid out sequentially here, in actual practice Design Thinking is cyclical and iterative. This means things can get fairly messy; and businesses should take that in their stride. One way to minimize chaos is to instill a spirit of mutual respect for the expertise and contribution of all the teams, i.e., the designers responsible for empathy and visualization, engineers responsible for bringing the innovation to life and business representatives responsible for viability.

The role of the organization

Organizations can facilitate the innovation process by creating a supportive physical environment such as an open workspace where designers and engineers can collaborate closely to create new products and applications. Here, office design plays a key role. The silo nature of cubicles can hinder the free flow and exchange of ideas. On the other hand, an open office encourages discussion and provides the right atmosphere for creative thinking. It might also be worthwhile to locate all those involved in an innovation project within the same premises.

However, vibrant surroundings are of little use unless they are accompanied by the right organizational culture. Even in large companies, a Design Thinking unit should act like a startup and focus on quickly creating a working product or solution that can be consumed by customers. And, finally, great innovation is only possible when there are great people who are rich in empathy as well as craft. In the Design Thinking construct, engineers must not only know code but they should also understand what users desire from a product. Cross-functional knowledge and mobility are important enablers of innovation.

Fig 3: The intersection of empathy and craft for successful innovation

 In a way, Design Thinking is more of a mindset than a defined process. Besides investing in time and money, businesses that want to pursue Design Thinking should be willing to drive the necessary changes in their culture from the top. This is how they can embark on the journey to innovation success.

Authored by Ganapathy Subramanian, VP – Unit Technology Officer, Big Data & Analytics unit, Infosys

Why Even Great Innovations Fail, Nathan Furr,




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