Design thinking is a process used by some of the top brands in the industry today and is used to learn about your audience, understand problems within your customer processes, and seek to create unique solutions.

In this article, we’re covering:

  • What design thinking is,
  • The Ikea effect,
  • The five steps in the design thinking process, and
  • Its practical application.  

Let’s get into it.

What is design thinking?

As marketers, and as human beings, we habitually stick with ingrained methods of thinking - and while in many situations it is incredibly helpful, like when locking a door or cooking dinner -  it can hold us back when we approach more abstract discussions.

These entrenched patterns of thinking make the usual connections - for example, my dog is barking so it must be the post coming through the door.

Design thinking encourages us to challenge these assumptions and the ‘jumping to conclusions’ that our brain does on autopilot, to explore another world of possibilities, and suggests that creativity is a skill that can be learned and refined over time.

The approach of design thinking is another potential tool in our kit that can be used to form or reevaluate plans and strategies. Laura Jones, Head of Marketing at Instacart, defines design thinking as ‘an approach to innovation that focuses on the user’.

The Ikea effect

A good example of these entrenched patterns of thinking, sometimes referred to as a cognitive bias, can be seen in what is known as the Ikea effect. Imagine you go to an Ikea store, buy a chair, bring it home, and put it together. How would you value that chair? $100? $150?

Chances are, you’ll value the chair as more expensive compared to a pre-assembled chair. The fact that you have pored over the ins and outs of assembly means you’re more attached to it.

The same logic follows with ideas, or plans - if you’ve come up with them, you’re more likely to hang on to them and value them above all others, possibly getting tunnel vision, and ignoring other possibilities that may be more valuable or effective.  This is the type of cognitive bias that design thinking tries to combat.

The design thinking process

The roots of design thinking can be traced back to the 1960s, when Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon suggested several categories that could be used to break down the process. More recently, however, The Institute of Design at Harvard University have theorized a more contemporary model consisting of 5 stages:

1. Empathize - with your users/customers

2. Define - what are the customer’s needs? What are their problems?

3. Ideate - challenge assumptions and create ideas for solutions

4. Prototype - to create solutions

5. Test these solutions

It’s important to point out that these stages often overlap and do not have to take place in any specific order.

At the heart of these statements lies the intention to better understand something, such as a product or a customer, by investigating the conditions in which the thing is used.

The framework also encourages us to challenge our assumptions: can we prove whether something is valid or not? Once we have a better understanding of these conditions and our own assumptions, we can then truly begin to create meaningful solutions.

Design thinking can be transposed onto the wider customer journey map, or specific journey maps can be made connected to a particular problem in the ideation or prototyping stages.

Let’s go into a little bit more detail.

  1. Empathy

Firstly, let’s take a look at empathy.

As a customer marketer, you may or may not always have your hand in research or regular first-hand contact with customers, but it’s a great opportunity to get into their headspace. This can be done in a few ways:

  • Customer interviews
  • User observation
  • Task analysis
  • Empathy mapping
  • Become users ourselves
  1. Define

In this phase, you’ll start to see patterns - and make discoveries. You might find out that the problem isn’t what you assumed, that you have not just one but multiple problems, or that a specific group of customers only have this problem.

Collate all of your research and see what presents itself. Remember, you’re looking through the eyes of the customer, and not transposing your own biases - be guided by the observations and information gathered.

  1. Ideate

Once you have a handle on what your problems are, it’s time to generate some solutions. There is no such thing as a bad idea, and there are some great exercises out there to get you started.

  • You could put large sheets of paper around a room, each with a different problem. You and your team have 1 minute per sheet per person to add solutions.
  • Draw it out - like a cartoon strip, start with your problem and map out possible solutions as you move across the paper, with drawings of course. For a more tech-based method, try a digital whiteboard such as MIRO.

  1. Prototype

Next, the prototype can give way to further unanticipated problems and test the validity of solutions. There are low-fidelity prototypes (for example storyboards) or high-fidelity prototypes - those which mimic the ‘real’ thing, such as different versions of an app or webpage.

  1. Test

Arguably the most important stage is testing -  testing can happen at any stage, though it is often coupled with prototyping.  The results can feed directly into prototype alterations through user feedback, and often sheds further light on the initial problem statement, which may have to be revisited as a result.

It’s useful here to offer more than one prototype to test, as having points of comparison can help users clarify differences, likes, and dislikes more easily.

Having laid out this framework, it’s important to re-highlight that these are not strict boundaries - you may find yourself moving back and forth between stages as you get more information. As an example, prototyping and testing may happen earlier than some of the other stages to feed into definition and ideation.

The aim of design thinking is to counteract the cognitive biases we all have - this fluidity between stages aims to counteract the traps of our own judgment.

It encourages collaboration and a focus on the end goal, and the numerous ideas generated at the definition and ideation stages stop fixations on one single solution - when this happens, ideas and solutions often become self-serving rather than customer-centric.

Practical applications

To look at how design thinking works in practical terms, let’s take a look at an example from Stanford Hospital in the USA, which implemented design thinking to improve the patient experience.

The team wanted to first understand the unmet needs of patients and their families, empathize with their struggles, and discover what could be done in an ER setting in addition to pain management and speed of response.

They began by taking part in a series of interviews with patients and caregivers to shed more light on their experiences in healthcare - the student doctors commenting that it was a huge benefit to them to understand the emotional dimensions of their role.

They then took part in a simulated accident, in which the doctors played the role of the patient’s family - emulating the often chaotic and confusing environment of the emergency room.

On the second day, patterns began to emerge in the participants - they defined the problems as information flow issues.

As a family member in crisis, they were in the dark about which professionals were talking to each other, and felt out of the loop. Finding a solution to this issue, they concluded, may well reduce some elements of the stress felt in that environment.

After prototyping and testing, the participants shared their findings with senior members of the emergency department, and solutions are being implemented currently. The key takeaway here is that empathizing often leads to identifying and understanding issues you didn’t even realize were there.

A similar approach was taken by Airbnb - in the early days of the company, one of the founders, Joe Gebbia, enrolled in a design thinking course.

They decided that instead of sitting behind a desk, they needed to get out there and meet the customers that were beginning to sign up to their website and actually ask their customers what they were looking for in a stay-away experience.

Gebbia believed that this empathy was vital to the success of the business, and as a result, would ask new starters to plan a trip to encourage employees to observe issues with their own eyes and talk to customers first hand in their home environment.

So to recap - here are the key takeaways from our look at design thinking:

  • it can encourage us to truly empathize with the customer and delve deeper into their pain points at any part of the customer journey. Design thinking is flexible enough to ‘zoom in and out’ on the bigger picture or smaller processes such as onboarding or adoption.
  • It helps to bring different teams together to speculate on what is truly possible and can generate innovative solutions.
  • It can be transposed onto the wider customer journey map, or specific journey maps can be made connected to a particular problem.
  • It also comes back to the core of what customer marketing is all about - truly connecting to what people need and creating a highly personalized experience.
  • It breaks our ingrained patterns of thinking.

The next step

This article was a sneak peek into our Narrative Design course. This course includes real-life case studies, examples of narrative design in action, getting internal stakeholders to understand and back your vision, and more.