What is design thinking?

The subject of ‘design thinking’, introduced earlier in this series, has triggered requests for deeper definitions and explanations around its application. Here, Paul Stead explores the guiding principles using a textile industry case study.

Curious readers have asked for more on the steps involved and ways to utilise the design thinking approach to support business growth. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer, there are certainly some guiding principles. Using real-world examples from client Standard Textile, which designs, manufactures and distributes textiles/apparel for the hospitality and healthcare sectors, this article will cover the fundamentals.

Let’s start with a definition and the key characteristics. Design thinking is a problem-solving approach to create products, services, experiences and business models that better service and fulfil human needs; and in the process drive differentiation, value and profitability. It embraces empathy, cross-functional collaboration and rapid prototyping.

The following five core elements provide a more detailed picture of this approach.

1. Emphathise

Empathy is about feeling, and being interested in what another is feeling. This only happens through engagement with users, that is an organisation’s primary end-user or stakeholder – be they B2C or B2B. It is vital to converse with users and seek their stories, feelings, values and motivations. Listen deeply to what they say, recognise their pain points, observe how they use products and services. A deeper dive with a wider lens into the life of the user often reveals original insights and unlocks broader strategic opportunities.

Woman drying her hair with a towel
Standard Textile designs, manufactures and distributes textiles/apparel for the hospitality and healthcare sectors – image courtesy of Standard Textile.

At Standard Textile the team met purchasing decision-makers to understand its pain points, brand, customer service criteria and purchase drivers. They engaged with housekeeping and laundry staff to understand the daily challenges and the journey of a towel/sheet/pillowcase. They met guests, discussing their perceptions of the hotel around sleep, bathrooms, and amenities.

2. Uncover

Uncover key problems, unmet needs and new opportunities by looking at things differently. Collating the key insights from the user empathy sessions can do this. Be specific about who the user is by summarising stated needs, problems and aspirations, and then going deeper by analysing compensatory and inconsistent behaviours. Needs/problems can then be reframed by examining deeper emotional beliefs and values, as well as functional issues, and clear problem statements developed to ideate against.

At Standard Textile the team uncovered numerous insights. Key drivers were the different value different hotel brands place on ‘luxury in the bathroom’. Some hotels expect towels to last 80 washes, others more than 120; there is no standard for the hardness/ softness of towels; and men and women dry themselves very differently!

3. Ideate

Ideation is about exploring possible solutions to better address human needs. It involves the structured brainstorming of ideas around problem statements and visualising these through words, illustrations, pictures, moving images, models – any medium that resonates. Quantity and wild ideas are all beneficial here, as is building idea on idea; but have one conversation at a time and defer judgement.

At Standard Textile one problem statement the team reviewed was: “the journey of a towel – how do we add value to the hotelier/user?” Ideas included weaving towels on demand, new industry standards for softness, labels changing colour when the towel needed replacement, new laundry processes, pay-per-use models – as well as recycling.

4. Prototype

Prototype is the tangible representation of the idea that makes it testable. Early on this is about creating a minimal viable product, service, experience, or environment to share with end users; something rough and rapid that tells a story of how it works/ looks/interacts. It’s about being able to succinctly communicate ideas to gain deeper user insights.

Standard Textile trialled multiple prototypes, including a towel called Ying Yang (one face hard, one soft) - image courtesy of Standard Textile.
Standard Textile trialled multiple prototypes, including a towel called Ying Yang (one face hard, one soft) – image courtesy of Standard Textile.

At Standard Textile there were multiple prototypes including a towel called Ying Yang (one face hard, one soft); a new low-chemical laundry process, sales engagement systems and tools, new internet and literature systems, new packaging and sampling systems.

5. Test

Testing is having users experience a prototype to provide feedback experience of prototypes to provide feedback through focus groups, beta testing, surveys, pre-release tests – whatever works best. It is important to scene-set around a prototype and give context – and then act as a guide, not a lead. Observe the user experience and capture what does and doesn’t work; see how they use and misuse the prototype and give users the chance to interpret. The user is the expert, and if they don’t understand it’s your issue.

At Standard Textile multiple new ideas were prototyped and tested with customers. This reinforced brand relationships through removing pain points and adding value. One simple idea – to pre-launder the product in the factory with Tide – allowed the towel to go straight into the guests’ bathrooms – saving a wash and valuable time for clients. This created the brand ‘Room Ready For You Laundered with Tide’.

Ground rules

Any design thinking initiative must have board-level support and empowerment. To that extent it is a top-down approach. It’s going to involve time, energy and open minds, so design thinking is better aimed at solving big business questions – the no-constraints questions, the seemingly mountainous challenges. However, do keep it grounded in reality.

Paul Stead Design Thinking - Standard TextileA small, empowered, cross-functional team will be needed, along with a ‘friend of the business’ to be a catalyst to ask the difficult questions, be the external voice, keep the team on track.

And finally, the journey is probably as important as the destination for the experience it generates and don’t expect to hit a ‘hole in one’ every time.

Just remember

If you think design thinking sounds all very nice but not very hard-nosed, the bottom line is that companies that use design strategically grow faster and have higher margins than their competitors. – Harvard Business Review, “Design can drive exceptional returns for shareholders”.