Design Thinking: the art of human-centred innovation

The link between design and innovation

A body of research published by organisations such as Design Council and Design Management Institute demonstrates that the most innovative companies in the world use design as an integrative resource for innovation. Design driven companies are better at understanding their user’s needs, encourage creative thinking and experimentation. As a result, they outperform the S&P 500 by 219%. Source: Design Management Institute

To tackle problems, designers use a unique blend of skills and tools: anthropology, user observation, ergonomics, prototyping and testing, visual thinking, creative brainstorming to name but a few. This is precisely what fosters innovation and forward-thinking organisations are eager to introduce and develop these skills across their operations.
One approach to address this is to simply hire designers: IBM, Cognizant, Infosys and others have been racing to hire hundreds of designers to team them up with engineers and consultants and diffuse their knowledge. Source: Bloomberg 

Another approach is to work more closely with design studios making sure to engage them at an early stage of product development when their creative input can have the biggest effect.

However if an organisation wants to truly internalise the design approach and make it a part of its corporate DNA, it can turn to a methodology called Design Thinking.


What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a repeatable, human-centred process for creative problem solving. It is organised into stages, tools and templates that can be applied to the development of any product (physical or digital) and service (commercial or social) that will deliver value to users.

The focus is to develop empathy with real users to deeply understand their problems and turn them into design challenges. It involves collecting insights, collaborating and brainstorming, building rough prototypes and iterating with users. It is a learning by doing approach, where nothing is set in stone and curiosity and inspiration are key drivers. This way of working is very liberating and sparks a lot of enthusiasm. Teams become inspired to solve the problems of users they’ve come to truly know and understand.

The work of a Design Thinking team may seem chaotic at first but it follows a tried and tested approach, mixing spontaneity with cool-headed evaluation. This so-called “controlled creativity” environment is where innovation thrives.

Design Thinking has been popularised by a Stanford university professor – David M Kelly who founded IDEO – a design & innovation consulting firm, which utilises design thinking to develop user-centred innovations for clients such as Apple, Shimano, Boeing etc. He also created a unique academic facility – the which teaches students and future start-up founders how to innovate with design thinking.

Currently this “new way of thinking” about innovation is finding its way to global corporations who use it to break outside of their corporate boxes and develop radical ideas. Siemens has recently launched a Beijing-based Industrial Design Thinking Center (i.DT) to identify users’ hidden needs while generating ideas for innovative products.


Innovation starts with empathy

The first and most important stage of the Design Thinking process is empathy. It is a term rarely heard in a technological or business context but is crucial for the success of any innovative solution. To “empathise” means to get into the mind of users and see the world from their perspective. The practice of empathy involves conducting ethnographic interviews (as opposed to focus groups or market studies), creating empathy maps and shadowing users in their daily routines. The main goal is to identify sources of frustration and unmet needs.




Design Thinking4


To illustrate this approach l will share an anecdote from one of my workshops that focused on the topic of redesigning the fitting room. Following the principles of Design Thinking, the teams carried out interviews with real users who were in the middle of their shopping experience. The exercise helped to uncover some interesting insights. One woman mentioned that her main frustration is the bad lighting in most fitting rooms and how it affects colour perception and the photos she’s taking while trying on clothes. This insight could lead to a design challenge: “How might we design a fitting room which is better suited for taking pictures?” The ideas can range from simply equipping the fitting room with a camera holder to more advanced solutions such as adjustable lighting modes.
Another interesting observation came from three female customers who were social shopping. They complained about having to squeeze into a fitting room together where one would be trying things on, the other holding the bags and they would all be very uncomfortable. In this case the innovation challenge could be presented as: “How might we design a fitting room better suited for a group shopping experience?”

These insights reflect the changes in the lifestyle and behaviour of the users. They are starting points for projects which would later involve idea generation, prototyping and testing with users. The solutions could be radically different to today’s fitting room space where the main focus is on the style and fabric of the door.

A conversation about the fitting room is an opportunity to discover people’s unmet needs in the whole shopping experience therefore the final solutions can reach far beyond the fitting room itself.


How can I learn more?

Wake Up Design event

Thames Valley Berkshire will be co-hosting the Wake Up Design event on Fri 17 November 2017 @GROW at Green Park Reading. To hear more from Lukasz Liebersbach about design thinking and innovation, book your place today



Lukasz Liebersbach is an Innovation Advisor at Oxford Innovation Services. He helps companies understand the benefits of design and implement the design thinking approach. He runs workshops, conducts user research studies and facilitates creative brainstorming sessions that guide teams to develop “out of the box” solutions. His work is heavily influenced by experience gained at the Institute of Design at Stanford University, California (commonly known as The

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