Design thinking

Why design thinking drives digital transformation

16th Dec 2016

To address client-facing problems, design has always taken a leading role in humanising and simplifying complicated technology infrastructures. Regardless of the industry, the value of a design thinking approach requires all parties to be involved, such as agencies, clients and consumers, to work collaboratively together.

These design thinkers, more often than not, rely heavily on research from ‘real world’ scenarios, rather than historical data or demographics. The method ultimately refines potential outcomes, driving output in coordination with what the leadership wants to achieve and deliver. Design has become the cornerstone of digital transformation projects, and it’s about time industries recognised this.

Defining design thinking

In basic terms, design thinking is a methodology used by designers to solve complex problems and in turn, find a solution for the end user. Design thinkers use logic, creativity and reason to explore possibilities of what could be, to create desired outcomes that benefit the end user, i.e. the customer or client.

Design thinking is suited mainly to service design scenarios, when research and analysis is combined with sector knowledge. By focusing on the creative process as a whole and involving multiple stakeholders, ideas can be validated from all potential avenues, before they are initially implemented into ‘real life’ situations. This ensures that if an unsuccessful product or service is introduced, the failure is understood and can be rectified correctly.

Looking at the bigger picture

People say that you can’t heal or solve something with the same line of reason that caused the problem or challenge in the first place. Design gives us the opportunity to shift the perspective, moving from a tight, inward-facing approach, to one led by insiders - looking in, from the outside world.

This world we are privileged to live in provides rich context, generating terabytes of data daily. This data allows us to completely change the way we create new digital business models, in order for an organisation to deliver value. We use data the same way sailors use radar to show us what lies ahead and understand the ‘conditions’ we may face. Design works as the compass, directing us where we want to go, ultimately guiding the services and products an organisation has in its portfolio.

Streaming strategy

Design-based work is capable of delivering value in the most complicated of cases. To users, a great design can make products more desirable and services more appealing. Regardless of whether users are everyday consumers or company stakeholders, modern IT infrastructure must serve a multi-context, cross functional business system. Business strategies not only have to create a feasible approach to digitalise an organisation, but also a way for the organisation to transform from a features provider, to an ecosystem enabler. Moreover, they allow us to work in three different contexts when we transform an organisation:

  1. To enhance and optimise the way the organisation operates today.
  2. To design and deliver new digital design-led, context-driven, and human-centric business models.
  3. To perform technology digitalisation while we address how to drive innovation even further.

Reinvention is crucial

Roger Martin, author of the Design of Business, wrote that “design-thinking firms stand apart in their willingness to engage in the task of continuously redesigning their business…to create advances in both innovation and efficiency - the combination that produces the most powerful competitive edge.”

A recent and great example of design-led thinking that works comes from Airbnb. The founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia refer to themselves as design thinkers – using design to create the culture of their business; allowing employees to work in an environment where they can be the most creative.

When starting their business almost a decade ago, Airbnb turned heads in Silicon Valley by taking a non-scalable design approach to problems, rather than relying on code as their corporate neighbours were. In the early days when the company was still a start-up, Airbnb noticed that their customers in New York were not gaining as much traction in the market as competitors were, due mainly to the bad photography of accommodation. 

During a meeting, consultant Paul Graham suggested to the team to fly out to New York and take the photographs themselves. The idea in practice was totally impractical for a growing business, but it looked at the situation from a real world perspective. This was a success, doubling the business’ profits in the first week alone and clearly demonstrating that code alone can’t solve every problem that customers have.

Using a design-led approach such as this, gives organisations the confidence to try new things while accelerating their ability and capacity to deliver value to their clients.  Organisations that apply a design-led strategy, have the ability to deliver new versions of products or services ten times faster than before, while improving their ability to absorb feedback or findings from the previous ones.

At the same time, a design approach drives the transformation or the Darwinian adaptation of an organisation from a product-focused value delivery to a service-focused one, as highlighted in the diagram below. [Click to enlarge]


Design thinking data


Design beyond discipline

Due to the remarkable success rate of design-led companies such as Airbnb, Pinterest, WeTransfer, and many others, design has evolved beyond making products or services. Organisations now want to learn how to think like designers, and apply design principles to the any aspect of their operations. Design thinking is at the core of effective strategy development and organisational transformation. It drives the way organisations learn from what others have achieved across various sectors, how they drive their teams to explore new boundaries, and of course, how the new knowledge can be applied to their cases.

Unfortunately, there are still cases in some industries where design has been poorly understood and not given the attention it needs. The skills it takes to become a designer are often assumed as being possessed by a majority of people, when in fact only very few have been gifted with the ability to create original content from start to finish.

In today’s digital world, a design-led approach to business strategy is not industry or even vertically controlled. It should be based on data, understanding the context and the ability to express what the overall challenge is. In the end, a design-led strategy’s overall value should be to enhance or unsettle the industry, by providing solutions to well-defined problems. Strategies which deliver a human-centric service and rely on data to deliver a particular service will always be the most successful and come out on top, regardless of industry.

Replies (1)

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By danmac30
05th Jan 2017 22:02

Great article Georgios. It is interesting how the value that a company creates is really tied to the service they deliver and ultimately how well they understand the their customers. It seems simple but still so many businesses struggle with it.

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