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Design Thinking

“Design thinking” is a phrase that you may have heard bandied about by tech companies like Google and other progressive organizations. In fact, design has become a central focus for successful companies in a wide range of industries. There are a number of elements to design thinking—and they have almost nothing to do with making things “pretty.” So if you’re of the opinion that design is a frivolous afterthought or a feature that’s ultimately peripheral to a product’s success, here’s why you should reconsider.

1) Design thinking keeps the customer’s perspective central to every decision.

A company dedicated to design thinking takes the time to observe customer interactions and seek customer feedback. It does empirical research to find out what aspects of their product or service create intuitive, pleasant experiences for customers, and follows through by taking steps to improve areas where customers have sticking points.

Sutherland Healthcare Solutions’ medical billing redesign is a prime example of this. Taking to heart the Margaret Mead quote that “What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things,” Sutherland put together a Patient Experience team that includes psychologists and anthropologists who discretely observe patient behaviors. Using the information gleaned from these observations, Sutherland created a suite of patient tools that have led to increased customer satisfaction; they anticipate an increase in point-of-service payments, as well, which will cut down on collection costs.

2) Design thinking champions iterative thinking.

Iterative thinking, also known as agile thinking or agile process, builds revision and rediscovery into the creative process. It’s been described as “learning by completing.” Whether you’re creating art or a new widget, iterative thinking encourages you to repeat the development process using prototypes and enacting small changes based on observation and new information, refining your product with each wave of development before it moves on to the next stage of production.

The opposite of iterative thinking is known as the “waterfall process.” In the waterfall process, each department completes its portion of production before sending the product—whatever it might be—on to the next department and the next phase of development. A process cannot be reversed any more than Niagara Falls can start flowing upwards.

The fatal flaw in the waterfall process is the notion that all project requirements can be known at the beginning of a project. We don’t mean to be hyperbolic when we say that in the history of human achievement, this has never been the case. New requirements materialize. The market changes. Information deemed too unimportant to share at the beginning of the project suddenly becomes infused with urgency. New players enter the scene. And the list goes on.

Still confused about iterative thinking? Consider evolution. Like iterative thinking, evolution uses a trial-and-error method in which only the fittest design advances to the next generation.

3) Design thinking values simplicity.

A team dedicated to design thinking doesn’t try to create a product that’s everything to everyone. Instead, they trim more than they add—and what they end up with is elegant, targeted and deceptively simple.

The Nest “smart” thermostat illustrates the simplicity of design thinking. Nest creators Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers—both instrumental in the design of the iPod and the iPhone—studied the thermostat market and found that the most recent advance in HVAC technology, the programmable thermostat, was too complicated and unintuitive to produce much in the way of energy savings. Bearing far fewer buttons and knobs than the average thermostat, the Nest is actually a triumph of technology—it learns its owners’ behavior, connects to their smartphones and saves homeowners money by decreasing energy use when their humans leave home. But this complex engineering adds up to a very simple-looking product that invites intuitive use.

So, how can a company code design thinking into its culture? Check out the links below for some great resources that can help you start to view your processes through the lens of design thinking.

15 TED Talks that Inspire Design Thinking

Design Thinking Comes of Age

Stanford’s Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking

Design Thinking: A Unified Framework For Innovation

3 Great Examples of Design Thinking in Action