Buzzy-lingo aside, design thinking is not a new concept. People have been using the basic concepts of more human-centric design to solve problems for a long time, mostly without realising it. It honestly makes the most sense to design anything this way – when you think about it.

Think about a cabinet maker. A job that has been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years in various forms. One would be able to suggest that any cabinet maker can make a cabinet. However, the truly great cabinets – generational pieces of furniture – that are timeless in form and function, are still in use today because their creator understood a number of things. The purpose, the problem to solve, and the details of the demands. And they understood them from the customer’s perspective.

Very quickly, that box with a door can become an ornate armoire with delicate carving, room to hang a full-length ballgown, and drawers that glide open with ease.

Know your audience – and their audience

The key to the cabinet maker’s success is knowing, understanding, and responding to what it is that the customer is asking for. Except, doing so is not always as simple as it sounds. Where might that cabinet be used? A hotel room? All of a sudden, the person who commissioned the cabinet has become an arbiter or middleman between the designer and the user of the box with a door.

This is often an issue that is not addressed in many design thinking workshops. Many facilitators will work with business owners and stakeholders to hit their nominal value, which is often driven by lowering costs or reaching a particular target, goal, or measure. I’ve been in so many workshops where the design to optimise, justify, or rationalise a particular service is by “building an app”. Grooooaaaaan. All of a sudden, you’re not doing what’s best for the real customers anymore. You’re just trying to satisfy the bean counters. Here’s an example of that particular failure in action.

Again, I am not trying to say that all digital solutions are incorrect… far from it. However, a far better approach is to truly understand purpose, as defined by your customers, your users, your daily-grinders – and leveraging that. The best workshopping sessions I have ever been involved in have worked with the client, and their users as well.

Trial and error

One of the coolest things about design thinking is prototyping. Scraping together bits of stuff, extremely quickly, and putting it in front of your customer to see their reactions. Then responding to that feedback, and re-tooling a prototype, and testing again. And again, and again. You will find that very quickly, you are able to refine what the customer is looking for, what irks them, what excites them, and whether you’re on the right track. It also helps the customer to define and refine their understanding of their own problem to solve.

Adapting and changing to the customer is key here. Iterations of 1, 2, or 4 weeks like in an Agile shop are too long. Responding to feedback as soon as possible will not only shorten the cycles of improvement, it will also get customers directly involved in the design of the solution. If you can get your feedback cycles down to as close as real-time as possible, you’re well on your way to true continuous improvement.


The worst design thinking outcomes are always lead by assumption rather than fact or experience. In some discovery sessions, many facilitators will drive deep-dives or use case exploration by swarming and grouping concepts, and then draw a line through which ones seem to converge the most. This sounds great in practice… but it smacks of customer disconnection. Making assumptions about what customers want will always be the wrong decision, in one way or another. This is why it’s critically important to involve your customers – and their customers – in the cycle as much as possible.

Something to consider: is a design ever complete? Is a project ever really ‘done’? In a truly evolving, continuous improvement cycle, the answer to that is a big, fat ‘no’, especially in the service industry. Sure, the cabinet may be built, is used, and is functional… however, customers will often change over time.

Clients may often want to time-box a project, allocate only a finite amount of funding and resources, and the like. This can often be a problem if you’re working on a large-scale problem, or an ambiguous one with no initially well-defined issue, as well as an end state that is often in flux. This is entirely and absolutely okay!

To tackle this, as you work through a design with clients, the best way is to build the continuous improvement and interactive, iterative cycles into the operating rhythm. By becoming a normal way of doing things as a part of the everyday work, there will be no need to babysit whether things are continuing without being formalised as a part of the cycle. They will be the cycle.

This is critically important to ongoing successes with design thinking projects. Many projects lose their way by forgetting purpose, allowing the human-centric components to slip, and allow the ever-present maniacal thumb-forehead pressure to win the day. Real problem solving, ongoing and continuous, shuns tradition and embraces change.

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