Design Thinking for the Digital Age

Design Thinking for the Digital Age

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Digital technology advancements are redrawing the features, delivery and impact of products and services. A realignment of tasks between machines and humans is taking place as automation and embedded intelligence spread to more and more functionalities. Tasks that are repetitive, precise, analytical and hazardous are getting increasingly assigned to machines since they are more efficient and accurate in doing such activities. However, functions involving creativity, innovation, critical thinking and judgement remain in the realms of human pursuit. Ideation and execution involve human discretion and behavioral interfaces. Thought leadership is spurring breakthrough technologies and applications.

The potential and impact of critical thinking is more relevant today than ever before in the context of massive digital transformation of businesses and public services. Design Thinking, a holistic, customer-centric and solution-focused approach to planning and problem solving, has emerged as a ‘global best practice’. It has been increasingly adopted by successful digital businesses like Google, Oracle and SAP for innovative product and service design. Technology industry in India too is taking to design thinking as a serious tool in product and services innovation.

Some people tend to view it as just another jargon for organized and systematic analysis and likens the concept to the chain of ‘management fads’ that have appeared from time to time. However, as an idea which has attracted widespread interest and converted many digital technology experts as its evangelists, Design Thinking merits a serious look.

Bryan Lawson, a Professor of Architecture at the University of Sheffield wanted to investigate how two separate groups of designers and scientists would approach a particular problem. He set each group the task of creating one-layer structures using a set of coloured bricks. The perimeter of the structure had to use either as many red bricks or as many blue bricks as possible. There were many ways of placement and relationship of the blocks within the outer layer. Within the same rules and restrictions, both groups set out on the task.

Lawson published his findings in his seminal book,  “How Designers Think”. The designers approached the problem with a focus on building the perimeter as per the set conditions and proceeded to fill-in the structure with the remaining bricks. The scientists on the other hand debated endlessly on various combinations and permutations of using the whole set of bricks. Lawson observed that the scientists focused on identifying the problem (problem-based thinking) whilst the designers prioritized the need to find the right solution (solution-based thinking).

What if we could use a designer’s approach (starting with the clear definition of outcome and seeking the best of the alternative courses to reach there within the constraints) to non-design situations for analysis and problem-solving? That’s exactly what Design Thinking is all about.

Simply put, Design thinking is the act of “thinking like a designer”. It is a way of thinking that continuously re-focuses on the ultimate customer in every process and activity.

To understand the central idea of design thinking, think of how an architect handles a client who wants to build a house. He will probe deep about what features, convenience and outcomes the client is looking for. He will also holistically seek to understand the budgetary and time frame constraints that the client has and proceed to design the house. He then checks back, gets feedback, refines the design and settles down on the final specifications and design which are mutually agreed. Design Thinking seeks to apply the same model in the conceptualizations, development and delivery of products and services.

In the digital technologies business, the most critical success factor in go-to-market strategies is the User Experience (UX). The overarching importance that Steve Jobs assigned to user interface and experience in the design of Apple products right from the Mcintosh PCs to I-pod, I-phones and I-pads is now part of the digital folklore. His obsession to the design finesse extended not just to the device aesthetics but even to typography.

The discipline of design thinking is especially relevant to digital technologies business with newer and innovative array of web, mobile and smart applications emerging on to the scene. Creativity is the driving force behind the ongoing digital revolution. In the hyper-charged digital technologies business, we are witnessing a convergence of technology, behavioral sciences and business domains to produce disruptive innovation with the customer insight at the core.

Design Thinking as a creativity and innovation framework is aggressively promoted by The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, commonly known as the d. school. The Stanford Model of Design Thinking is a five-stage process.

Stage 1: Empathize: The first stage of the design thinking process is to gain an empathetic understanding of the users and their needs. Design thinking starts with the customer and ends with the customer. The whole process is triggered by an intense understanding of how a customer perceives value in an existing or potential product or service.

Stage 2: Define: Next, we need to analyse the comprehensive information on customer insight and define the core problems in a human-centered manner from the perspective of the customer.

Stage 3: Ideate: In the third stage of design thinking, we need to develop our thoughts of how best to meet the identified customer need. Here, we can start to “think outside the box to identify innovative solutions to the problem statement. This is an iterative thought process involving review, fine-tuning and critical examination of alternatives. The process leads to shortlisting of ideas for prototyping.

Stage 4: Prototype: This is the experimental phase to identify the best possible solution by testing out a minimum viable solution and gaining insight and feedback from actual users.

Stage 5: Test: Here the complete product which has been improvised based on the outcome and feedback in the prototype phase is tested on wider samples. This is the final phase of the model but, in an iterative process such as design thinking, there may be several rounds of refining for enhancing customer alignment.

The relevance of design thinking for startups can hardly be overemphasized. In the digital technologies domain, where most startups are born and thrive today, holistic and customer-centric ideation is the springboard to successful rollout of products and services. Gone are the days when entrepreneurship was unidimensional; today, successful business ideas are generated through an interdisciplinary inquiry where behavioral and social sciences are as much an integral part of the process as are the technical or professional functionalities.

A global study of a randomly selected sample of 101 startup failures identified “not aligned with market needs” as the top factor for failure, with 40% of failed businesses mentioning this as the most important cause of failure. With an overall success rate of below 5% for startups in digital technologies, it is critical for aspiring entrepreneurs to deep dive into the customer needs with a 360 degrees perspective before zeroing in on the seed idea for their foray. Design Thinking framework is an ideal sprint-board at the start of entrepreneurial journey.

An interesting survey titled India Design Quotient 2018 was conducted by KPMG, the global consultancy firm, to identify the perception of design competence in the Indian business ecosystem. It identified Entrepreneurship, Creativity and Learning as the top three determinants of successful businesses in India, whereas Simplicity, People and Systems were identified as the top three areas of improvement. An obsessive urge to keep simplicity in approach, organization and procedures can make life easy and more productive in any field.

Our education, value systems and social behaviors make us predominantly as a society that tolerates and perpetuates complexities and restrictive practices rather than encourage simplicity, openness, experimentation, willingness to fail and perseverance. Conformance is valued and deviation and questioning are discouraged.

The very social structure of the age-old caste system probably came into being to limit creativity, functional migration and aspirational indiscretions. Quite a divergence from the Vedic thoughts on openness! ''Aano bhadra krtavo yantu vishwatah''(Verse 1.89.1 Rigveda). Let noble thoughts come to me from all directions. Borderless thinking is at the core of the Indian tradition. Design Thinking, the integrative thought process, traverses the multidisciplinary space in search of best-fit solutions to meet the end user requirements.

We need to look at the interface and complementarity of three contemporary strategic thought streams - Design Thinking, Lean Management and Agility. All three are lively elements of current thought leadership and especially relevant for digital transformation.

As seen above, Design Thinking is how we explore and solve problems with holistic and solution-driven approach. Lean Management is the framework for resource-efficient management. Agility is the ability of businesses to transition smoothly from “as is” to the “should be” state with ease and energy.

Design thinking is a powerful transformational process whose time has come. The only way businesses and individual can stay relevant is by internalizing willingness to learn, adapt and experiment.

*The author is Principal Consultant & CEO of Cherrypick India, Trivandrum and can be contacted at