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Design Thinking Principles: Empathy as a Path to Mutual Value

Design Thinking Principles: Empathy as a Path to Mutual Value by Edward Hadley

Design thinking is increasingly finding its way onto the radar of IT leaders. In a recent article, senior writer Clint Boulton reveals that “Design thinking is fast becoming a key pillar in digital transformations, as forward-thinking companies tap the human-centered design philosophy to deliver robust, user-friendly products and services.”

Aside from having a vague sense that design thinking is about creating solutions that users actually enjoy, though, many IT leaders lack a deeper understanding of design thinking principles and how they impact their IT organization and the business value they create. One potentially misunderstood—or at least, underestimated—design thinking principle is empathy.

The 4 Stages of Design Thinking

The foundation of human-centered design (see image above), empathy is the process of developing a deep understanding of an application’s intended users, their behaviors, and their true motivations. Because people often don’t know, or can’t articulate, these things explicitly, empathy emerges through techniques such as close observation of users and their behaviors in context, and open, unstructured interviewing. The goal is to gain insights into how users think and feel, and why they behave in certain ways.

The process of developing empathy for users is paramount to successful application design and development. After all, the problems your development team is trying to solve are rarely their own. They belong to a particular group of users; and to effectively design for them, your team must gain empathy for who they are and why they have these problems. Empathy helps the team to view problems with a fresh set of eyes in order to “go wide” in the ideation and prototyping stages, with the goal of identifying impactful solutions that truly resonate with users.

ADP Applies Design Thinking Principles to Deliver Breakthrough Digital Products

ADP is a great example of an enterprise that’s applying these design thinking principles in software development. The company’s product incubator specializes in developing innovative digital solutions in the field of talent management, combining design thinking and behavioral economics to create solutions for people as they are, not as someone wants them to be.

Responsive Application Design Example

The use of behavioral economics is a novel approach to understand people’s deep-rooted motivations and behaviors and deliver solutions that affect positive change. The field challenges the assumption that people always act rationally. For instance, people may know what behaviors lead to weight gain, and yet continue to exhibit those behaviors even when they want to lose weight. In the workforce, similar scenarios play out with respect to areas workers know they need to focus on—like fostering leadership skills—but chronically ignore.

ADP is developing mini-applications that make these focus areas a little easier or less painful to address. One example is Compass, a tool designed for leaders and teams to quickly identify unproductive behaviors and treat them via personalized, automated coaching. To ensure a high level of adoption, writes ADP VP Gerome Gouvernel, “we considered everything from heuristics and biases, to priming and intrinsic motivation, to create the highest probability that it would inspire positive changes in managers.” This deep user understanding has paid off: an internal rollout to 5,000 managers saw 100 percent read the first two coaching emails. Compass is being well received by ADP clients too, and is even garnering industry awards.

Empathy Creates Value for Both Users and Businesses

What examples like ADP Compass reveal is that empathy is a path to mutual value for both a solution’s intended users and the organization creating it. In other words, the sole purpose of design thinking isn’t to create intuitive, aesthetically pleasing products that improve people’s personal or professional lives.

As Gartner analyst, Brian Prentice writes: “If this is all design did, it could just as easily be called art. Design is a business process. This means that things that are useful, intuitive, contextually relevant and aesthetically pleasing for a specific audience are also strategically/tactically meaningful, efficiently produced and profitable for the organization executing the design process.”

According to the Design Value Index, there is a direct correlation between design focus and business performance. The latest index, released in late 2016, showed that design-led companies outperformed the S&P 500 by 211 percent, marking the third consecutive year that the index has shown an excess of 200 percent over the S&P.