Design thinking and the fields that use Human-Centred Design (HCD), like UX and service design have finally gone mainstream. In the scramble to stay relevant, there’s a growing number of companies looking to design thinking as a means of maintaining their competitive advantage. In the rush to become design thinking compliant, it’s easy to overlook some of the core principles, or worse, implementing them incorrectly. In this month’s blog post, we look at new and interesting ways design thinking is being applied both locally and abroad, and whether its increasing ubiquity means it offers less return on investment. 

The Ford Motor Company has become an international symbol of industrial success. Given that its success is largely attributed to tried and tested processes, firmly rooted in traditional business practice, when looking to fill the role of CEO many believed an automobile expert would be the obvious choice. Unexpectedly, Ford decided to shake things up and hired furniture designer Jim Hackett in 2017. Drawn to Hackett’s commitment to design thinking, Bill Ford – the company’s executive chairman and Henry Ford’s grandson – acknowledged that they needed someone who could bridge the gap between man and machine. 

During the two decades Hackett spent at Steelcase, design thinking became synonymous with the creative process, helping him and his team shift the focus from how best to innovate cabinetry to how best to serve the user. In doing so, Hackett and Steelcase have revolutionized the way many of us interact with our office environment. 

As Hackett states, ‘we don’t live in the age of the automobile, or even the age of the computer. We live in the age of user experience’ and as such core principles such as customer-centric approaches critical to design thinking are a must for any company looking to compete. But as UX becomes commonplace, how does one maintain their competitive advantage? As Kaan Turnai asks, ‘Will design thinking ever reach the point of diminishing returns?’

In the business world, where strategic insight relies on statistical and numerical data, many will testify to the challenge of trying to define the return on investment (ROI) for UX design. Two of the most referenced voices on the topic are Tom Glib and Robert Pressman. While in-depth, their research dates back to the 1980s and 1990s respectively, a time when many of the processes inherent to design thinking hadn’t been defined as well as they are today. When evaluating design thinking’s worth, these outdated models are largely inaccurate, if not irrelevant. Good design simply does not get you the same level of return as it used to. 

Other misconceptions crop up when trying to ascertain how valuable design thinking is. Some may argue that in order for design thinking to be considered valuable, it has to be disruptive – reimagining existing technologies or channeling disruptive technologies in the drive for innovation. We also make the mistake of associating design thinking as a once-off endeavor related to a specific project or the sole responsibility of one person. 

In contrast, design thinking is perhaps most useful when used as a lens to review persisting problems.  This was beautifully illustrated at Ford. When Hackett initially began incorporating design thinking into his team’s creative process, he was met with confusion and misunderstandings. Facing discord, Hackett went back to the proverbial drawing board and asked his team to look back on the customer complaints they’d received. This exercise proved fruitful, not only by singling out a pervasive problem, but in doing so, by also bringing the team together. So often we become fixated on creating the next best thing, that we seldom stop to question whether our existing solutions are working or if they are even necessary. Clouded by our increasing knowledge and expertise on a particular subject, we begin losing sight of the customer’s needs. Described by Hackett as the design gap, it’s in this space where UX makes all the difference. 

In 2013, the Design Management Institute took on the challenge of accurately measuring this difference. Cognisant of how difficult it is to quantify the value of design, they created the Design Value Index (DVI), which in comparison to the broader S&P 500, tracks the performance of companies informed by design thinking. Along with the Design Maturity Matrix, which determines the extent to which a company has embraced design thinking, and the Design Value Map, which illustrates key areas of value, together they form the Design Value System. Since its inception, the DVI has consecutively shown design thinking companies to outperform those on the S&P 500.

With the results in, people started thinking about other, less obvious areas that could benefit from some design thinking. Global health is one such field. With long-held assumptions and underwhelming fulfillment, traditional health systems are ripe for an overhaul. In response, there are a growing number of organisations and initiatives using design thinking for better health outcomes. 

Rather than replace traditional approaches, advocates of design thinking encourage it to be used as a complementary practice. In this way, design thinking becomes a unifying channel through which we are able to combine different disciplines in an effort to uncover overlooked creative avenues and solutions. While traditional research provides valuable scientific data, design thinking translates that data into better outputs by encouraging health practitioners and researchers to see it from the community’s perspective.  

In line with global trends, we’ve been privileged to collaborate with a host of partners on some of the more innovative health initiatives in South Africa. The need for these types of partnerships has become more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially with the increasing prevalence and rapid spread of misinformation. Healthforce for example, is a design-lead telemedicine solution for nurses in clinics, allowing nurses to video call a doctor to get advice, prescriptions and escalate severe conditions, while the patient is in the room. Each participant’s experience of the interaction affects the level of care provided. Understanding the interaction from all perspectives is therefore key to making it a more valuable one. Focussing less on the RIO of one single role or process, increases our chances of offering a better solution, and in doing so, extending the reach of comprehensive healthcare to more South Africans. It’s in contexts like these, where the stakes are highest, we’re confident design thinking will yield its greatest returns.

Read more about Jim Hackett’s posting at Ford in Jerry Useem’s interview which featured in the March 2019 issue of The Atlantic

Listen to panelists discuss Design Thinking: A New Strategy for Shaping Global Health. 

Learn more about design thinking and the debate around its competitive advantage.