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Clay Richardson
Clay Richardson
CEO & Chief Excelerator, Digital FastForward
3 min read

Design thinking’s real ROI: Unlocking creativity

This methodology to problem solving shows that anyone, and everyone, can tap its power to transform the enterprise.
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A few years ago, a large pet food maker had a problem: dog obesity. Scores of well-meaning pet parents had been overfeeding their dogs on the brand’s food, mostly because they didn’t know how much of it to give them. That led the frustrated parents to turn to competitor brands of diet dog food. The company’s goal: stop those brands from eating its lunch.

To do this, the company’s research and development (R&D) wizards turned to technology. They designed a digital food scooper to tell customers exactly how much to feed their dog based on breed and size. Genius. But when they tested the slick gadget, they found that while it technically “worked,” it didn’t “work” for customers. They kept overfeeding their dogs. After millions of dollars and countless hours wasted, they decided to try a different approach: design thinking.

"Design thinking is a methodology that helps teams solve problems through exploration, experimentation, and creative iteration of solutions."

Design thinking is a methodology that helps teams solve problems through exploration, experimentation, and creative iteration of solutions. While creativity in business is too often considered the domain of a select few employees and their professions, design thinking is meant to show that anyone – in fact, everyone – can tap into this power. It gives stakeholders from the C-suite to the call center a step-by-step process for unlocking their creativity.

Here’s how it works – and how I explain it to anyone who wants to harness its potential. Typically, when we see a problem or challenge, we jump into fix-it mode. We think: I have a process – or in this age of technology advances – I have a tool or gadget that can work.

Yes, it’s human nature to try to build a better mousetrap. But what if the old mousetrap isn’t the problem? What if it's the mouse or the messy kitchen counter attracting the mouse or something else entirely? Design thinking recenters the problem around understanding and empathizing with your customer and their pain points through a series of four collaborative steps:

Observe: Don’t ask the customer about their “problem.” Instead, observe what the customer normally does around this problem. Your objective here is to put yourself in the customer’s shoes so you’re exploring the problem through their eyes.

Empathize: Next, draw what we call empathy maps, or persona maps, of the pain points and processes. The goal is to look beyond your initial assumptions toward the deeper emotional components of the problem. Then prioritize the top four or five insights you’ve gleaned from your observations.

Brainstorm: Next, try to spitball hundreds (not dozens) of potential solutions in a very short (10- to 15-minute) period. My own team sets ground rules so that this session will be a no-judgment zone. Don’t worry if the ideas sound wild and crazy. Don’t worry about if they’re implementable. Quantity is the most important thing.

Experiment: Vote on the most promising one or two ideas and experiment with them. This test should not take more than one hour nor cost more than $100. In other words, don’t build a $1 million high-tech prototype and hold six months of focus groups. Put your newly tested idea in front of your customer fast. If it doesn’t work, refine it and try again or move on to the next best contender.

When the pet food company tried this process, it got their team’s creative juices flowing. They examined the problem – putting the owners at the center, not the dog – and came back with the insight that pet parents tend to overfeed their canine companions because of the perceived emotional reward the pet gives them. Wagging tails. Puppy dog eyes. You get the picture. That full-bodied I love you fulfills the owner’s needs, not the dog’s nutritional ones.

That insight led the company’s R&D team to experiment with a different approach. The result was the development of a lifecycle program that focuses on changing pet parents’ behavior around their pet’s lifespan. The pet food company smartly positioned itself not as a purveyor of low-calorie food, like its competitors, but as a provider of a holistic strategy that lets pet parents express their love through lifestyle management, including diets.

"Reaching for the “fix-it” solution – especially the gadget-first or technology solution – is pervasive across all industries and across all areas of the enterprise. "

Reaching for the “fix-it” solution – especially the gadget-first or technology solution – is pervasive across all industries and across all areas of the enterprise. Today, we arm our call centers with AI and automation. If customer satisfaction is lagging, we may decide to ditch a legacy CRM for a new one, without ever actually talking to a customer to help us help them.

Design thinking empowers us to walk in our customers’ shoes, to discover the emotional root of their dissatisfaction. Often, they’re dissatisfied because they feel like the service agent is on autopilot, treating them as a task to be handled, not a human being with a need. I learned this in a meaningful way from a client who found a novel way to forge a bond with his own customers. And it was through that most banal of conversation starters: the weather.

My client’s idea: For each customer who called into his customer service line, the CRM would display the local weather to the call service agent to personalize the call. To test this, my client decided not to code it into his existing CRM because that could take two or three weeks. Instead, his team created a low-fidelity prototype by linking to a weather website.

When a customer called in, the agent checked the weather website and would say, “I see it’s 72 and sunny there in Florida,” just to gauge the customer’s own temperature. Sure enough, the customer would warm up, “Oh, it’s been beautiful the last three days.” During a one-week test, customer satisfaction rose notably – without writing a single line of code.

That’s the beauty of design thinking methodology. It’s not a gadget-first approach. And no idea is too small – which means you might fail. But the freedom to fail unlocks a willingness to conceptualize out-of-the-box solutions. That’s the real return on investment of design thinking: the chance to try, fail, and try again to deliver creative solutions that work.

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