15 September 2018

What can design thinking do for business?

design thinking blog

Design thinking is the latest buzzword in business innovation but what can it really do for you? Most business leaders find it easy to identify their most pressing problem: the data usually points you straight there. The challenge lies in understanding why it is a problem. More likely than not, the cause isn’t what you think it is. As a human-centred process, design thinking lets you get inside the head of your customers and learn about how they interact with your organisation and what they really need or want. Only then can you come up with solutions that actually solve the problem and improve performance and outcomes.

Instead of starting with a predetermined solution (“we need an app for this!”), design thinking works by identifying the desired outcome or end goal (“we want our customers to …”). Although design thinking can effectively be applied to technology innovation and digital transformation, it is not itself a technology. Instead, it is framework for making and doing that puts humans at the centre of the design process and enables them to fully understand, describe and define problems. Design thinking then provides a structured process to rapidly identify, prototype and test potential solutions.

Optimation recently hosted a design thinking breakfast for business leaders from some of New Zealand’s big players in the logistics, retail, and insurance industries. Most of the attendees were familiar with design thinking as a concept, but they were not as clear on how they could practically apply it to unlock innovation, solve pressing problems, and improve performance in their own businesses.

Optimation senior consultant Dan Gray explained what design thinking is, how it works, and how it could help these leaders address their biggest priorities. This was supported by practical examples of how Optimation has used design thinking to help customers across the public and private sectors.

Design thinking gets a troubled project back on track

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For example, the Optimation consulting team recently worked with a government agency to get a major project back on track. The agency had already spent two years and a seven-figure sum gathering requirements when they discovered they were focusing on the wrong things. They hadn’t actually identified the real causes of their business problem because they hadn’t talked to frontline staff.

Design thinking workshops facilitated by Optimation not only helped this agency identify and clearly define the core business problem they needed to address, they also broke down silos between IT, the service design team, and frontline staff. Once these different groups were working together towards a common goal they all agreed upon, they were able to rapidly prototype a solution.  

Design thinking at Optimation

There are many different ways to do design thinking. Our approach is based on Google Ventures Sprint (or ‘concept sprint’). We use a streamlined but highly scalable step-by-step framework that takes general design thinking concepts and adapts them specifically for technology-focused contexts. While this approach can be applied beyond IT, it is particularly well suited to an environment where outputs from the design phase will then feed into an agile development ‘build’ phase. A key strength of Optimation’s design thinking framework is that it is pragmatic and cost-effective, prioritising rapid prototyping and early development of a ‘minimum viable product’.

When compared to other methods of problem-solving such as the classic brainstorming session, design thinking stacks up extremely well. “Brainstorming just doesn’t work,” says Dan. “There is plenty of research to show that people will only voice things they think their boss wants to hear, or won’t say anything at all. A big problem with brainstorming is that it encourages groupthink.”

A design thinking approach solves these problems because people ideate individually and anonymously. Only after that do they come together to share ideas and vote to prioritise the best ones to take to the next stage of prototyping and testing. Participants use creative techniques such as building with Lego to help them articulate problems and potential solutions in a concrete way.

Rapid, low-cost prototyping (as little as a week) then allows ideas to be tested and either further refined or discarded before large amounts of time and money are invested. Prototypes can be as simple as a storyboard, a set of wireframes, an HTML mock-up, or even a functioning mobile app.

A major long-term benefit of design thinking is that it fosters true collaboration between different parts of the business – for example IT, business managers, and frontline staff – and between the business and its customers. It leads people to come up with a single clear vision they can all unite behind, breaking down silos, creating shared understanding, and giving all stakeholders the tools and structure to work together to find the optimal solution.


If you want to find out how design thinking can help your business, feel free to contact us for a chat.