Every business is built on a spark – an idea or an innovation that matters. Innovation is, thus, the real driving force of business. But more importantly how you come up with it and whether it has a positive impact on your customer’s life is what will decide whether your business becomes successful or not. Take the case of the team of Stanford University students who came up with the Embrace Baby Warmer, a sort of incubator in the form of a sleeping bag for new-borns, which has till now helped about 22,000 low-birth babies around the world to stay warm. The team of four who built this – Rahul Panicker, Jane Chen, Linus Liang and Naganand Murty – says that the final product is very different from what their original idea was.
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The group was working on a low-cost incubator as a part of their class project. But when they went to Nepal for field work and met parents of low-birth babies, they found that their idea wouldn’t make much sense because the houses occupied by a large part of their target group didn’t have electricity connections. Upon identifying this problem, they started by stating a solution – a baby-warming device which can be used with ease in remote villages. This led to the discovery of the final product, which includes a phase-change material that keeps itself warm about six hours after heating. An innovation that was useful for the end user was, thus, born.
This story is one of the many that are cited by IDEO and Stanford design school founder David Kelley and his partner and brother Tom Kelley in their book Creative Confidence. Being the ones who came up with the concept of ‘design thinking’, they use this as a perfect example of it. In IDEO CEO Tim Brown’s words, design thinking is “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.” In short, it is just about coming up with practical and creative ways to solve a given problem. It is a creative thinking process that focuses on building an idea up from the core need or solution expected and transforming it into a usable and economically viable model.
Many companies around the world, both big and small, from Apple to Google, use design thinking in everyday operations. It is an ideology that can be applied to any process, irrespective of size or scale. Usually, a design thinking process goes through four stages – defining a problem, creating many options that might solve it, refining the best options and, finally, picking the most suitable one. While B-schools teach students to base their decisions on market research and data, design thinking uses real-life interactions and problems to work with. Here’s how you can use design thinking to drive your business to success:
Two main things that set designers apart is empathy and creativity. They try to identify what the client needs by putting themselves in the customer’s shoes and then create a practical, feasible solution to it. Market research can take you only up to a certain level and innovation doesn’t stem from a few numbers. Beyond that, you need to think like your customer by observing him or her. Identify the real need, look what is missing or find what can replace something that frustrates them. Observing customers can be the source of all your innovations.
Use your observation as a base to zero down on the real problem. The Airbnb case study is quite famous among design thinking supporters. How Airbnb pulled itself out of bankruptcy by just upgrading bad photographs on their site with beautiful, professionally clicked photographs is a thing of design thinking legend now. It wasn’t a textbook solution because it was impossible to scale, but it worked. Their income doubled. They also changed their rating systems from stars to hearts to reflect the warmth that their brand and idea stood for. This simple act increased business more than 30 percent. So identify the real problem that affects your customers and try to solve it creatively, not necessarily by textbook principles.
Taking off from the Airbnb story, we see that it was the founder’s conviction in an unlikely idea that sparked the turnaround in their business. So value every idea, however wild it may sound to you. The end result you should focus at is customer satisfaction. Make your team come up with different creative ways to solve the given problem and list them all out. Do not leave out any because they don’t fit your budget or because you don’t know how to go about getting it done.
Design thinking is essentially a process of reiteration. From the list of ideas you have come up, take out the most interesting ones and test them for viability. In this way, you will be in a position to identify potential flaws in the solution and rectify it, or abandon one that doesn’t seem to work and move on. Finally, zero in on the best possible solution.
Design thinking is a human-centered approach. You don’t need to be a designer to think like one. Apply these steps listed here to innovate and make a difference to your customer.