Design Thinking: What's it good for?

I use design thinking, in fact IBM's version called IBM Design Thinking, in my work everyday on a very wide range of problem spaces and with a wide variety of organizations. I'm therefore often surprised by the limited view people have of the applicability of design thinking. Many people believe that it is only relevant to the user interface or the "look and feel" of an app or application. Nothing could be further from the truth. These people are essentially conflating and thereby confusing design and design thinking. I explained the difference between the two in my previous post.

In that post, I pointed out that design thinking, or more specially IBM's version called IBM Design Thinking, should be learned and practiced by all disciplines represented by the horizontal generalist stroke of their T skill set. So following on from that, if design thinking isn't limited to the user interface and the "look and feel", and should be practiced by all disciplines, you might ask, what is it good for and what kind of problem or opportunity spaces is it relevant to?

Well, I'm finding in my work that the framework is applicable to virtually everything I've applied it to and I haven't found a situation yet where it wasn't relevant. Let me summarize briefly several examples that illustrate the wide range of applicability. 

  • Healthcare providers have developed new approaches for making patient care more effective, convenient, and at lower cost including processes, apps, and systems.
  • Financial institutions have focussed on making their client experience more engaging, seamless, and automated focussing on procedures, policies, apps, websites, and call centers. 
  • Transportation companies have developed innovative ways to make their client experience efficient and their application development operations more agile through apps, technologies, and simplified processes.
  • Insurance companies have examined and redesigned the various touch points their agents have with clients and the technologies that mediate those touch points.
  • Telecom companies have improved the B2C and B2B client experience to competitively differentiate their offerings and to speed up delivering new capabilities to clients. 
  • Retailers have refocussed their companies on their customers and their employees and the various ways they can make the experience of both more enjoyable, efficient, and cost effective.
  • A collection of high tech companies looking to attract the best talent to a particular city used the approach to better understand the variety of types of candidates they should targeting and how best to communicate to them.
  • Universities have used the approach to design the direction for their curriculum, how they should collaborate with one another and with industry, as well as the methods they should use to communicate what they offer. 

In many of these cases the initial experience of IBM Design Thinking was through a one to two day workshop I ran with them. A typical experience often starts with some level of scepticism, largely due to misperceptions about the approach that I referred to earlier. However, once everyone gets into the workshop proper, they quickly see the power in the approach and the applicability of it to their organization and problem/opportunity space. C level executives often comment that they think the approach is powerful because it focusses everyone on the human beings they are trying to improve the lives of and also because the methods drive a level of collaboration that takes the ego out of the equation, gives everyone an equal voice, and leads to more diverse and often more innovative ideas. 

Many companies quickly realize that there is much more to the approach than simply using it within workshops and they ask us to help them launch a design transformation of their company like we've done at IBM. They realize that IBM Design Thinking is the foundation and is necessary but that it isn't sufficient to transform the way a company works. I'll get into great detail on that topic in a future post.

When a company has gone through a design transformation, all parts of the organization start to use design thinking as a matter of course. They start to think and act differently. That is the case for IBM. Here are several of the ways different parts of IBM have used the approach.

  • Product development: We use IBM Design Thinking in the development of our products whether its an entire ecosystem for developers to create apps and applications like Bluemix or a Cognitive solution to help Oncologists treat cancer patients with IBM Watson. The designers, offering managers, and engineers together use the design thinking to conceptualize, iterate on, and develop the product. 
  • Services: We have a business services and a technology services organization and both now use IBM Design Thinking. We use the approach when our services involve designing and developing a solution (website, apps, call center, etc.) for a financial institution, for example, and also when our services involve designing an entire IT infrastructure solution for a transportation company, for example, for whom we run their entire IT systems. 
  • Sales and Marketing: Our sales organization and our marketing and communication functions uses IBM Design Thinking to better empathize with clients and potential clients to better understand them, their current experiences, and challenges in order to more effectively determine a solution to their challenges, as well as to develop marketing (websites, advertising, etc.) that communicates to a broader audience what we have to offer to address challenges companies are having.      
  • Human Resources: Our HR organization has used IBM Design Thinking to reimagine our employee evaluation system so that it actually has built into it key aspects of our framework (collaboration, iteration, feedback) and they're also using the approach to improve our recruiting and on boarding methods, applications, and processes. 
  • Finance: Our financial analysts have used our framework to determine how to better serve their internal clients, managers and employees, by simplifying processes, approvals, and reporting. 
  • IT Systems: Our CIO's office as well as individual country IT organizations have used IBM Design Thinking to dramatically improve the user experience with the internal apps and applications our employees use. For example, we have a new app and web application for finding any employee in the company, any information about them, and the ability to connect with them directly. Another example is the internal Mac@IBM App Store which dramatically simplifies setting up, installing new apps, and requisite updates for employee computers.   

It's important to point out that incorporating design thinking into a project or using it to transform an entire company involves a journey and isn't accomplished overnight. It should also be noted that the approach has limited effectiveness if the scope of project is too narrowly defined, if it isn't applied at the beginning of the project, and if the requisite skills and staffing aren't made available to the project. There are initial conditions that need to be met in order to effectively apply the approach. However, I hope that the examples I've given here of the various types of companies, the types of problem spaces, and the types of areas within companies have provided you some idea as to the wide applicability of design thinking in general and IBM Design Thinking in particular.