Opinion: Digital strategy is not enough - we need to embrace design thinking

Design Thinking is not digital strategy repackaged – it requires a cultural shift, argues Thoughtworks' Mike Biggs

The concept of digital is something we see everywhere. It’s a loose term we use to describe the integration and infiltration of everything online. Television was once referred to as technology, not anymore, because we understand it, and it just works. In the same way, very soon we will no longer refer to anything as digital.

More recently, we dubbed this concept 'The Internet of Things', and watched on as the world connected around us. We have well and truly embraced the age of digital, but universal technology is meaningless without a conscious effort to make deliberate, informed decisions to guide its development.

We need to adopt the principles of Design Thinking to harness the benefits of the digital age. The key is in empathy. We simply cannot design IT that is valuable to customers without intimately understanding what they want and need before they do.

Design thinking

Design Thinking has been around for a long time in various forms. Key to its development is the book Design Thinking by Peter G. Rowe published in 1987, which talks about the discipline through the lens of architecture, but the concepts are applicable to design across all domains. More recently the company IDEO and the Stanford School have further popularised the idea.

Design Thinking centres on an approach involving flexibility, an eye on context, a focus on learning, agility, and continual evaluation. Successful outcomes arise when we think about problems and solutions at the same time. In IT, this might mean using materials such as HTML to create prototypes to explore the solution space, while simultaneously gaining insight into the problem space.

Since the early 1980s, IT has been positioned as a standalone business practice. We now continue to view digital strategy as a separate function to business strategy and product development. With some of the fastest growing businesses in the world building entire digital business models around valuable consumer insights however, this way of thinking is now insufficient.

Success stories

AirBnB is a brilliant example of a technology business which has applied the principles of Design Thinking with great success. Customer insights guide all decisions at the company, and the result is a business model which provides value to the consumer at every level. At AirBnB, ideal travel experiences involving large and small changes to user and worker functionality are constantly evaluated against the question, “How does this decision improve the traveller’s experience?”

Employees all take a trip using AirBnB when they first start and are required to document their experiences, which are then shared back to the entire company. Ideas are often launched on a small scale despite not looking as though they will be feasible across the entire platform. While this may seem counterintuitive, it often yields unexpected results that create a whole new view of the traveller’s experience.

Service industries like telecommunications could benefit from Design Thinking when evaluating the effectiveness of their customer communications across platforms. Meanwhile, a washing machine that emails you when the load is complete is a product which is arguably unnecessary – it’s a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist.

Read more: Dealing with the dark side of digital disruption

Fast forward

Our ability to create systems for everything from interfaces, and ecosystems, to business models and public policy, has created a new type of problem; we have lost visibility and control.

Design Thinking is not digital strategy repackaged – it requires a cultural shift. When fully embraced, Design Thinking can enable disparate or disconnected parts of an organisation together for a concerted problem solving effort. More than ever, this now means that digital innovation will become the driving force behind all business strategy, and insightful digital products will become an essential part of the business framework.

The concept of Design Thinking may have arisen from the school of architecture, but in our rapidly innovating, customer-centric world, can we afford not to apply its principles to everything digital?

Mike Biggs is design and innovation lead at Thoughtworks.

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