Design Thinking and CX: History and Explanation
There has been a great deal written about “design thinking” in the past few years. Much focus has been placed on its value in helping define business strategy, with design firms around the world claiming that they have evolved beyond their role as developers of products into a new role as business visionaries. It seems nearly every firm with a design practice has a “proprietary and unique” problem-solving process that will unlock the magic combination of Customer Experience, Brand Vision and Strategy—transforming any company into the next Apple.
This is only half true.
Design is a process that helps people develop systems that other people will use. This process can be applied to software, buildings, space shuttles, tea kettles and organizational structures. CX design is about applying design’s problem-solving capacity to align a business to face its customers. It needs to work across channels, touchpoints and media—making it different from other fields. Software designers make software. Automotive designers make cars. CX designers enable experiences.
But no one owns this process. Its origins are ancient. Its effects are ubiquitous in the modern world and permeate every facet of our lives.
This is the first of a two-part story—about how this process came to be, how it works, and how it can be leveraged to build a better connection between a business and its customers.
The design process turns up in some form in several disciplines. Ign al-Haytham was an eleventh-century Persian Scientist who debunked theories on optics developed by such scientific heavy-weights as Ptolemy, Euclid and Aristotle. But just as importantly, he articulated the process behind his work. Empirical evidence drove his ideas, which were tested using an iterative process of experimentation, continuing until he knew his ideas worked in the real world. This was one of the first well-documented examples of the scientific method—and while he wasn’t the only one to work this way, his successes in the field combined with his well-known intellectual rigor helped spread the word. Some version of this process can be seen in fields as diverse as mechanical engineering, physics, visual art—and customer experience design. The basic principles are:
- Learning as much as you can about a problem or opportunity
- We will call this area of focus Discovery
- Asking questions, developing hypotheses, creating concepts to test
- We will call this area of focus Ideation
- Testing those ideas to learn from them—eeding learnings back to step 1
- We will call this area of focus Testing
A version of this is taught in virtually every design, art, engineering and science school in the first year. The process itself is renamed from field to field, but the components remain basically the same. In science it’s called “the scientific method,” in engineering it’s usually referred to as a “problem-solving process” and in design it’s usually called “design thinking” or “the design process.” No one owns this process—but the perspective that each person or team brings to it is what makes it unique.
From products to experiences
Despite its ancient history and diverse origins, today the design process is usually associated with the field of industrial design, consumer product development and with the broader field of invention. The focus here is on developing manufactured products. But there was always an understanding that those products have to work for people. At each phase of the process questions around how people value, purchase, use, store, maintain and eventually dispose of a product would sit side to side with how the product actually worked to satisfy those needs. The question “would the user like it?” would have the same weight as “does it work?” For this reason, designers became schooled in how to understand users needs, market trends and cultural frameworks.
As design went beyond the focus on the product to focus on the person, each phase in the process was affected. Discovery centered around research into user’s needs, perceptions and wants. Ideation employed techniques like role-play, use-cycle-analysis and participatory-design (bringing users into the creative sessions.) And testing involved taking mock-ups of the product concepts to the users to see how they would interact with it and to capture their thoughts on its value. Each area of focus started to employ techniques from the social sciences to help connect people’s preferences and perceptions to the product.
The design process was later adopted by people who were designing software. As they worked to make new technologies usable and valuable to a larger audience, they grabbed hold of the tools that had long been employed by industrial designers and applied them to non-physical products.
One of the most important tools that was adopted by this new group was the “journey framework.” This set up a visual representation of each step of the user’s experience. The product wasn’t the primary focus here—it was about mapping the interactions, experiences and perceptions of a user in the real world, and predicting how a product should intervene in those interactions—patterning the behavior of the user and delivering some kind of value to them. Larger maps could be constructed that showed the systems that supported the product, the lifecycle of the relationship between the user and the product, multiple users interacting through the product’s features, cyclical patterns and repeated interactions etc. This technique is the origin of customer journey mapping which is a key process for anyone in the field of customer experience.
Design thinking was always about making things work for people—but now, the things were fast dissolving into services, environments, software and media—the people were becoming more and more diverse and interconnected—and the channels through which people connected were fragmenting and overlapping. Who could possibly be an expert in all of these fields at once?
The simplest answer is “no one.”
Bill Buxton has developed the idea of a “Renaissance Team.” In essence, he said that the design challenges of today are too complex and involve too many disciplines to be solvable by a single expert. The Renaissance Team takes over from the notion of the Renaissance Man. The collective knowledge of a diverse group trumps the lone genius.
The process, the teams who applied it, and the types of problems it was aimed at solving, all evolved simultaneously. It became a unifying force for innovation behind extremely diverse teams and businesses. Where it used to focus on physical products, it became a powerful methodology for developing complex, people-centric systems of any kind. It shifted the conversation away from the supply chain and towards the customer.
In Part 2 of this series, we will examine the design process in detail and explain how it can be applied to help your business better face your customer.
Tags: Customer Experience, Design thinking