Recently, I bought a new PC and was amazed at how easy the setup and installation experiences were compared to the last time. Not so long ago, I routinely handed over anything technical to my teenage son. But fortunately, technology companies have now faced up to criticism about poor user-experience and have invested in ‘design thinking’ to improve the journey for their customers.
We tend to think about design in terms of designing a new product, creating beautiful packaging and enticing environments – all tangible elements of the customer experience. Those of us that work with intangible services, such as financial services, healthcare, the law or social housing, don’t often have these opportunities. But there is still much to be gained from embracing ‘design thinking.’
The concept of design thinking was born long before its application began to take hold in practice. Computer scientist and Nobel Prize laureate Herbert A. Simon first referenced this approach to innovation back in 1969, and the concept has spread across the world of business over the past decade, thanks to pioneers like Tim Brown. Brown, chair and co-CEO of design and consulting firm IDEO, has helped to shift the role of design in business away from a focus on ‘aesthetics, image and fashion’ towards the solution of problems and a focus on human need.
What is design thinking?
Design thinking is a human-centred approach to innovation, which starts by understanding customers’ needs. According to design thinking, the needs of the client must be held in clear focus as products and services are designed so they can be met in the best way possible. This problem-solving process prioritises customers’ needs above all else.
While this began as a technique for creating sleek, new tech products, design thinking can be applied to any context that involves one business providing a product or service for another – at every stage of the client journey. The emphasis on ever-evolving exploration lies at the core of the concept’s application.
Most business’ websites claim to be ‘focused on client needs,’ but how often do you start from scratch with a blank sheet of paper? Or is your first inclination to begin by taking a look at your competitors to see what they are doing?
By asking customers about their experiences, and their needs you are more likely to identify an opportunity for improvement that your competitors have not considered. And who doesn’t want a competitive advantage?
The call for design thinking in all business communication
Many SMEs continue to present their communications – whether online or in print – as though the reader has the same level of background knowledge and a comparable technical dictionary etched in their mind. It gives their communication a sense of gravitas and exclusivity, which may be valued by professional colleagues in the industry, but may be of little value to the befuddled reader.
Business and technical information is often littered with jargon, wordiness, and overly long sentences. This can make it near impossible for the wider public – and your potential customers – to understand the message. For example, legal information is often written as if addressing other lawyers, rather than for potential clients (who may not even speak English as their first language). In design thinking terms, legal information about buying a house, making a will or setting up a business, has been produced but not designed. A flow chart may well be more useful than pages of legalese.
How to use design thinking
There is a great deal of scope for the use of design thinking when it comes to any communications with the outside world. Through design thinking, companies could make it much easier for potential clients and customers to understand why they may want to buy their products or services.
This methodology involves injecting an element of creativity into a traditionally analytical mode of working. It requires recognising the need to present information and deliver services in a way that appreciates the reality that different people consume information in different ways.
The design thinking process has five stages, but is not a list of chronological steps. Think of it more as a circle, without a beginning or end – a continual process.
The stages of design thinking are:
· Empathise: research your customers’/clients’ needs
· Define: state your customers’/clients’ needs and problems
· Ideate: challenge your assumptions and generate ideas
· Prototype: begin creating solutions
· Test: try out your solutions
This means using your customers’ ‘pain points’ as a starting point. Really thinking about what it may be like to be one of your clients will bring some empathy into the process.
For example, if you run a property business, think about some of the everyday challenges that having a building that is not fit for purpose can cause. The tragic death of toddler Awaab Ishak following chronic exposure to mould at his home in Rochdale is an example of the worst possible outcome when organisations ignore the needs of their customers, fail to address problems, and take no steps towards creating a lasting solution.
User-experience testing is so valuable, and it is important to ensure you are testing among a broad cross-section of your audience. Have you thought about how many of your customers might be digitally excluded? Or at least disadvantaged? There are still plenty of rural communities in the UK coping with low speed broadband, and mobile not-spots. Have you checked if you are meeting their needs?
Use design to communicate
We are now in an era of visual information. Approximately 65 per cent of the population are visual learners, retaining information better when it’s transmitted through the use of imagery, projected mapping, and diagrams. Multiple studies have shown that visual explanations improve understanding. Graphics, table, flow charts and infographics are therefore key tools with which to present information to potential clients in an accessible manner.
Flowcharts can be really useful to help people understand the different stages of a process, (such as getting a mortgage, or a course of healthcare) and when things need to be done or to happen. These serve as a helpful roadmap to explain a complex process. Providing customers with a clear, visual overview of a process from start to finish can empower them to better assess and weigh up the options they may have throughout the process. It can help clients to assess risk, plan better, readjust their business objectives, and gain a welcome semblance of control.
Even the way that you present pricing options can be improved with a little design thinking. How often have you received quotes from different suppliers for the same thing and wondered if you were comparing apples with pears? Similarly, making it as easy as possible for people to pay you has huge benefits to cash flow.
Design thinking, at its core, involves an appreciation of clients’ or customers’ needs, an understanding of communication and learning styles and the openness to try, test and revise.
Introducing design thinking to a commitment to continuous improvement is a powerful combination for any business.