Beyond Innovation: Applying Design Thinking Methods Across Your App Portfolio
Edward Hadley / December 11, 2017
To many IT leaders and enterprise architects, the application of design thinking methods is tightly linked to innovation. This perception is due, in part, to growing media hype. For instance, a recent CIO.com article suggests that “design thinking is fast becoming a key pillar in digital transformations.”
But the connection is much more fundamental, with IDEO CEO Tim Brown defining design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”
Beyond the obvious merits for innovation, we believe there’s value in applying design thinking methods across your entire portfolio of application development initiatives. My colleague Danielle Goodman recently outlined four common use cases for a low-code platform. Let’s explore each and how design thinking can help teams deliver solutions that meet both user needs and business objectives.
1. Innovation: Go wide and rapidly ideate to identify the most impactful solution
Design thinking methods are extremely useful for delivering innovative applications that help enterprises launch new digital business models, products, or go-to-market channels. Because these apps represent new ideas—and often wicked problems with no clear solution—a traditional requirements gathering process is simply ineffective. Instead, a creative, iterative, and user-centric approach is needed to unravel the true nature of the problem, go wide to generate multiple ideas, and then narrow in on the most innovative, impactful solution.
A great example of how design thinking can lead to breakthrough innovation is ADP Compass. As highlighted in our recent webinar, “The Secrets of Design-Driven Enterprises,” Compass originated as a request from ADP’s Chief HR Officer for a tool to help people become better leaders. Based on this broad charge, the team conducted design workshops with users to understand their needs and motivations. Within six weeks, using Mendix, they had built a working application that they began testing with real users and iterating based on feedback.
User insights revealed during the process helped ADP make design decisions that drove adoption, such as operating entirely through email and pushing training proactively to users, versus having them sign up for it. This caused usage to jump from 10 percent to more than 80 percent. Based on the successful internal rollout of Compass, ADP recently commercialized the product, garnering Human Resource Executive magazine’s “2017 Top HR Products” award.
2. Customer Engagement: Focus on achieving goals, versus solving problems
Design thinking methods are also valuable for creating external-facing customer engagement applications. The value the design thinking approach brings to this use case is the focus on achieving goals, versus solving problems. This mind shift opens up the opportunity space, and allows the team to deliver more creative solutions than they otherwise would be constrained by traditional problem-solving.
A common example used to illustrate the power of focusing on goals over problems is the Vase Exercise. When asked to design “the thing that holds flowers on a table,” designers inevitably produce a collection of traditional vases, with minor variations. However, when presented with the goal of designing a “better way to enjoy flowers,” the output becomes much more creative, often not resembling vases at all.
One example that illustrates this is Revoltt, a company focused on managing and optimizing the energy needs of small and medium-sized enterprises. They asked themselves, “How can we negotiate a better energy contract price for small businesses?” Focusing on this goal, Revoltt created a process that allows customers to create an ideal energy consumption profile based on their historic usage. These calculations are then presented to the customer in an engaging, well-designed portal, which even alerts customers when a better price is available. But Revoltt did not stop here. The next step is to leverage a chatbot to offer automated energy-saving advice based on the customer’s energy consumption profile and location.
3. Operational Efficiency: Observe users in context to deliver the right solution
A third use case for applying design thinking methods is operational efficiency applications that streamline or automate business processes. What’s important to recognize is that end users have an innate tendency to accept suboptimal environments, and often can’t see the possibilities for technology to create radically new or better outcomes. As such, asking them what they need typically results in incremental improvements, not breakthrough solutions.
Here, the design thinking principle of empathy is critical to deeply understanding users and their needs and motivations. Because people often don’t know, or can’t articulate, these things explicitly, empathy emerges through close observation of users and their behaviors in context, and open, unstructured interviewing. These techniques help reveal insights, which combined with an iterative approach, help ensure that the right solution and outcomes are delivered.
For instance, Damco, a global provider of supply chain management services, needed to develop a sourcing application for a customer in the chemical industry to allocate items to the right ports and carriers at the right time, optimizing their inventory. The app was intended to replace manual spreadsheets and emails with a centralized tool for all stakeholders. Rather than starting with a list of requirements, though, Damco conducted a face-to-face workshop with the customer to understand the users and business context. Based on the shared understanding of the core problem to solve, the team built and iterated upon a prototype, and is about to enter a full-on development process.
4. Legacy Migration: Enhance the new solution by focusing on user needs
The fourth and final use case is legacy migration. Pure life-and-shift projects that focus on rebuilding existing systems and functionality one-for one miss opportunities to drive incremental business value. Instead, design thinking methods can be leveraged to more deeply understand users and enhance the new solution.
Often, this deeper understanding of the users and business context helps the team to close process gaps that existed in the legacy system(s), delivering an end-to-end solution that drives substantial productivity gains. It may also result in the incorporation of new capabilities that weren’t available in the legacy system (e.g. mobile, conversational UI), or the removal of unused features. Both help deliver a more focused and engaging user experience.
For example, COA, a public-sector agency responsible for the reception and supervision of asylum seekers, needed to rebuild an application for field workers to manage the asylum process, including information about various reception locations located throughout the country. To ensure the development team was focused on the needs of end users, they were physically collocated at one of the reception locations. Moreover, workers from 10 reception locations were chosen to be actively involved in the application’s design and development, facilitating frequent interaction.
This user focus was key to identifying value-added functionality beyond what existed in the previous system. One example was incorporating information about refugees – pulled from an external system – into a module where field workers could share information and tasks for the day. Another was a planning board which provides an overview of refugees and room assignments within reception locations. User feedback led to additional context being added to the board (e.g. gender, nationality, medical needs, etc.), helping field workers to not only be more productive but better serve refugees.
Successful Outcomes Require User Focus, Rapid Iteration, and Instant Scale
Across these four use cases, IT organizations should consider leveraging design thinking, as an approach for problem finding, in conjunction with agile, as an approach for problem-solving. Together, the two create a mutually reinforcing environment focused on user-centricity and rapid iteration as a means of reaching optimal outcomes.
In addition, don’t wait until the end of the process to plan for operationalizing and scaling applications once success is proven. The last thing you want is for all your team’s great ideas and designs to never leave the prototype stage—delivering no value at all.