Human Nature

Design Thinking Done Right Generates User Insights that Deliver a Competitive Edge




AT a time when creative problem solving can make or break a business, design thinking is fast moving beyond the fringe and squarely into the mainstream. By focusing on the people for which projects and products are being built, teams can discover hidden opportunities. Whether teams are using an agile, waterfall (predictive) or hybrid approach, identifying users’ less observed behaviors, subtler motivations and barriers to action can provide a competitive business edge.

For teams and organizations that do it right, design-thinking ROI has been impressive: A 2018 analysis by Forrester for IBM found design thinking over three years can buoy an organization's portfolio profit by US$18.6 million and trim project budgets by US$20.6 million, all while reducing risk. But as project teams apply design thinking, they could encounter a maturity gap. According to a 2018 Mindbowser survey of people at organizations that use design thinking, only 18 percent of them had training for it.

Four project professionals with strong design-thinking experience share how teams that focus on the human experience can generate the right solutions and achieve maximum value:


Vidhya Abhijith, PMP, co-founder and director, Codewave Technologies, Bengaluru, India


Renata McCurley, PMP, group product manager, Devbridge Group, London, England


Juliano Muniz, PMP, program manager, Poly, São Paulo, Brazil


David Paré, CTO, digital health, DXC Technology, Perth, Australia




What's the value of design thinking to organizations?

Mr. Paré: It provides a different way to solve problems. Design thinking is a facilitated process designed to help anyone think differently, even if you don't think of yourself as creative.

Mr. Muniz: Design thinking helps you identify the problems of your customers to provide better solutions. You'll end up creating products and services that more naturally solve their problems. And it's not a large upfront expense. Instead of spending a lot of money in marketing and development, you can hypothesize, test and refine, integrating feedback as you go.

Ms. McCurley: Absolutely. It is so much less costly to uncover a misalignment between product direction and right-fit functionality in an ideation phase than once a product has been released and put to real-world use.

What limits should project teams anticipate?

Mr. Paré: Like anything, you need buy-in. If you're in a room with people who are not open-minded or who don't understand why design thinking could work, it won't. And you need a diverse group of people. Diversity of age, gender and ethnicity—and including people from outside your company—is really important.

Ms. McCurley: The need for a large, diverse group really resonates with me, too. In order for design thinking to be successful, it's necessary to have enough variety in ideas and opinions to be able to challenge what is created.

Mr. Paré: You also need time. If you have a meeting next week to present ideas, you might do a bit of ideation, but you won't have time for the upfront data gathering that design thinking requires.

What mistakes do teams make when implementing design thinking?

Mr. Muniz: The most common mistake I see is when teams already have the solution fixed in mind before they even talk with their customers.

Ms. Abhijith: I agree. We all have a tendency to be clouded by our own judgments and to try hard to prove our point, but that defeats the purpose of design thinking. Your goal is to remain open. Approaching the problem with the spirit of a social worker helps. I encourage my team to maintain a sense of altruism and listen in order to understand people and businesses.

Mr. Paré: Thinking you know the customer without talking to them is fatal to design thinking. Unless you involve them, it won't work. But it takes a bit of courage to talk to customers like that. I've seen teams skip the harder parts of the process before, like assumption testing or rapid prototyping, and that's a mistake.

Ms. McCurley: Skimping on user testing is the most common mistake that I have both made and subsequently advised against on projects. The feedback loop from actual users is one of the most important success factors. After numerous failed attempts to convince stakeholders of the value of testing with ROIs and cost-saving projections, I've learned that storytelling is a much more compelling technique.


Two reasons to use design thinking, according to Vidhya Abhijith, PMP, co-founder and director, Codewave Technologies, Bengaluru, India:

imgAiming higher. Human-centric solutions refined by customer feedback have a greater propensity for adoption and a higher predictability for business success.

imgFull participation. It will build an inclusive, collaborative experience, leading to profound insights and a culture of openness.


Two reasons not to use design thinking, according to David Paré, CTO, digital health, DXC Technology, Perth, Australia:

imgIt's not for every problem. If there's already a solution that works well, don't try to reinvent the wheel.

imgThere's a lack of resources. If there's a lack of talent and time to run the process.

How do you keep it from becoming too rigid a process?

Mr. Muniz: I think it's important to understand that there's no one space that owns design thinking. It's adaptable. It can be mixed with other approaches to align with the specific needs of your customers and your company.

Ms. Abhijith: Right. Design thinking encourages you to make reasonable assumptions, make informed decisions and quickly validate ideas, rather than shooting in the dark for years only to realize what's built is neither meeting real needs nor delivering what the business is capable of offering. If people feel that design thinking ended up becoming a “rule book,” then it's probably not understood well by everyone on the team.

How can project managers foster a better understanding of design thinking and its benefits?

Mr. Muniz: Start small. Show your team the process and the results. The most important thing is to put the ideas to work. The only thing you can't avoid is change; you have to embrace it for the process to work well.

Mr. Paré: The best way to do this is by assembling the right team with the right conditions. There's a creative approach where you give a bunch of teams 10 spaghetti noodles, paper, tape and a marshmallow. They can make whatever they want, but the team that gets the marshmallow highest off the ground wins. I run that exercise with executives, and it works. When I did the same experiment with students at my kids’ school, they got freakishly creative. One kid just taped the marshmallow to the ceiling of the room. They did things I'd never seen adults do—ever. This is why diversity of age is so important with design thinking.

Ms. Abhijith: Having the support of founders, visionary leaders, senior directors and strategic thinkers is critical for directional alignment throughout the project. Every four weeks, we ask founders to participate in a project all-hands meeting where we jointly reflect on new observations, user insights and feedback, learnings and directions.

Mr. Paré: For me, the essence is: Solve a real problem and talk about how it worked. Show success and you've showed value. PM



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