Breaking down the Three Stages of Design Thinking

Design Thinking is the new approach companies are taking to consult with clients and understand their needs. The fundamental goal of Design Thinking is to replace product design methods such as “we think we can guess what the customer wants” with real data built around customer feedback. The goal is to deliver a product that delights and meet specific customer values that should then, in turn, convert to sales or some other measurement of success.

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An example of where Design Thinking is accelerating a business is with Airbnb. The company started, by all intents and purposes, by accident. In 2007, The founders of the company had recently moved to San Francisco, and they were finding it both difficult and expensive to pay for rent. To find extra money, the founders began to rent out their sofa as a cheap alternative to the high prices for local hotels. The idea worked. In many ways, the idea was an accident. To take Airbnb to a $25B company, the leadership team have embarked on a continuous series of small, incremental updates to Airbnb services with each updated reviewed through a Design Thinking process. Today, Airbnb is not just a sofa renting service. Today, Airbnb is a central site for vacation experiences to visit all over the world with each destination finely tuned to exceed a Customer's expectations.

Validating Your Work with Design Thinking

The focus your teams can bring to Design Thinking will mostly move through three distinct stages. The three stages are:

  • Collaborate
  • Innovate
  • Accelerate

Each stage gets completed in co-creation with your client and the client’s customer. At first, it may feel alien to have so many collaborators working together. However, there is a good reason why you need so many people. Design Thinking is not a process where you do lots of work and, after months, have a big reveal. The process of Design Thinking is a series of small steps comprised of different collaboration exercises. Each exercise has a single goal: How can we validate that the work we are doing meets specific values the customer needs to be fulfilled?

Validation of your actions is the central theme for all three stages. Always take the work you are doing at each stage and validate your findings with the customer. The result is that you will have a product that the customer has stated they need vs. guessing. 

The number of people you will need to involve in Design Thinking exercises can vary depending on the task. With that said, there are typically three groups of people you will always want to include:

1. Design Thinking Team

Usually, the Design Thinking Team is an outside, impartial group comprised of designers, developers, and human-centered thinkers.

2. Client

The client who is funding the Design Thinking work should be represented. They will ultimately become the “Product Owner” of the work the Design Team creates.

3. Customer

The end-user who is paying for the product or service sold by the client. The customer is the target for any work the Design Thinking team completes.

By the end of the three Design Thinking stages, there will be an outcome proof of concept (POC) that fits the customer’s needs. 

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Stage 1: Collaborate 

In many ways, the essential Design Thinking stage is to understand your customer. Understanding the customer will expose what motivates the customer to complete specific activities. What do they get out of the work? What are the barriers preventing the customer from being more successful? For instance, if the customer is a sales manager, but their sales are down, moving through this stage will expose measurable reasons why sales are down. Complex reporting methods could be taking up 75-percent of the sales managers time. A final product that makes reporting easier will reduce the time spent by the sales managers on reporting. And thus, increase their time meeting with clients and (hopefully) increasing sales.

With your Design Thinking team and client, there are three key activities you will want to conduct to understand the customer better. They are:

  • Interview
  • Persona 
  • User Journey

The Interview is the first step in the Design Thinking process. The goal of the Interview is to meet the customer and ask them open-ended questions that allow the customer to talk about their experiences. You are looking for what motivates a customer to complete an activity and what is blocking them. The customer interview can be the most laborious exercise to complete. People are busy, and the last person you want to annoy is the person buying your product or services. The good news is that customers love to talk. IDEO, a leader in Design Thinking, has a great article on customer interviews for reference. 

To be successful in the Interview activity, you should speak with 6-20 people. 

The outcome of the customer interview is a strong understanding of the customer. What they want, why they can’t access it quickly today, how it could be easier to achieve their goals, and why the client should complete the work. In other words, the customer is now a key collaborator in the Design Thinking process. From here on out, keep reviewing the work the Design Thinking team accomplishes with the customers you have interviewed. The feedback will result in better products and services.

Following the Interview, the next stage is to distill your findings into an identity that the team can resonate. The identity is called a “Persona.” The goal of the Persona is to typify a specific demographic group. Depending on the type of product or service, there may be several Personas. There is an increasing number of great templates and examples you can use to build Personas. An excellent place to start is Usability.

A third technique that will help elevate opportunities to improve customer experience is a User Journey Map. Put, the User Journey takes the created Persona and visually walks you through a day in the life of that person. The goal is to highlight motivations and barriers to success. Each barrier is an opportunity to make the customer more successful. 

These three techniques provide a solid understanding of the customer. The most important is the Interview. The goal is to provide an opportunity where you are collaborating with the customer to make a better product.

Master the concepts of Design Thinking, a powerful process of problem-solving to understand customer needs on a deeper level with the Design Thinking Course.

Stage 2: Innovate

For many teams, the fun part of Design Thinking is the “Innovate” stage. This stage is where rapid ideation and creation occurs. It is essential to note that if you do not do the work of the first Collaboration stage, then the results discovered in the Innovate stage will be baseless. 

There are lots of activities that can be done in the Innovate stage. Google has a collection of games teams can leverage. To get you started, the following are three activities that work very well:

1. How Might We

This activity is a simple sticky note exercise where teams write down ideas on how to solve problems. The is no restriction on the plans. At the end of the exercise, the team all have three sticky dots they can use to identify the most popular idea. 

2. Crazy 8s 

This quick sketching exercise you can use to identify eight approaches to a problem. As with How Might We exercise above, have the cross-functional teams vote on ideas.

3. Sketches 

Building on the Crazy 8 exercise above, have teams sketch is a quick, rough idea that adds more detail to the winning design. Restrict the amount of time for a sketch to 10 minutes.

The goal with each of the above exercises is to create ideas quickly. And run them by the client for fast, incremental feedback, aiming for a series of small wins that build on each other. Rapid, additional updates validated by the customer is the trademark of a sound Design Thinking process.

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Stage 3: Accelerate

The final stage is to Accelerate your ideas. As with the previous stages, you will want to validate each incremental step with your Customer always. There are three techniques you can leverage: 

1. Prototype 

Take a sketch and make it a clickable prototype using one of the many prototyping tools now available. The prototype will give you valuable information on what needs to be in a final product. For a breakdown of the difference between a sketch, wireframe, and prototype, explore this article

2. DevOps/Rapid Release

Throughout the process, you must build a product. Move to a model where your product releases can support a rapid feedback loop. The DevOps tool stack is explicitly designed for timely releases giving development teams opportunities to course correct releases with feedback from consumers.

3. Constant Feedback 

Always keep communication open with your customer. Your customer's feedback is the most prime information your team needs to create the next “killer” feature.

An example of a company who leverages three stages above is Etsy. Etsy is continually talking to and listening to their customers. The move to DevOps has allowed releases to go from twice per month to fifty times per day. Each release is small and targets a customer problem explicitly. Leveraging the techniques above will enable Etsy to accelerate a customer experience that improves continuously and adjusts to changes in customer needs.

Bringing It All Together

The three stages above - Collaborate, Innovate, and Accelerate - form a framework that can be adjusted to your needs. The only caveat is the need to talk and validate progress with your Customer at every step. There are many other techniques that Design Thinking Teams can leverage to improve customer experience. New to Design Thinking? Take our Design Thinking course to learn how to adapt this methodology to increase your team’s productivity and quality.

About the Author

Matthew DavidMatthew David

Matt is a Digital Leader at Accenture. His passion is a combination of solving today's problems to run more efficiently, adjusting focus to take advantage of digital tools to improve tomorrow and move organizations to new ways of working that impact the future.

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