Design thinking de-bunked

It was the Dalai Lama who once said ‘Countless rebirths lie ahead, both good and bad’ – or, put simply, ‘what goes around comes around’.

We think this applies to the current buzz around Design Thinking. 

Popularized by IDEO and adopted as a core curriculum item at Stanford the benefits of design thinking have been widely adopted in the tech industry. But recently its popularity is spreading, seen as an important source of competitive advantage across many industries.

But what exactly is it?

Here we unpack some of the hype surrounding Design Thinking and show that, at its core, it is based on sound marketing principles which have stood (and still stand) the test of time. 

Overall there are 3 core principles:

Design Thinking

  1. It’s an iterative framework that helps us come up with solutions. It involves analytical and intuitive thinking and encourages collaboration along the way
  2. It is intensely customer focused. At the center of design thinking is always a deep understanding of and empathy for the end user
  3. It helps us to evaluate and test-out many ideas

…and, while not compulsory, it also involves using lots of post it notes!

At Brand Learning we have been using this broad framework (& post its) for the last 15 years. Whether to solve business challenges, derive customer insights or create innovative solutions, these core principles underpin our approach.  With digital natives demanding intuitive experiences from all services and products, and new competitors constantly redefining value across the customer experience, it’s critical that we are able to continuously iterate and enhance all aspects of the customer experience in a changing environment.

So, what are the 5 key steps and how are they ‘the same but different’ in today’s world?

EMPATHISE: ‘Work to fully understand the experience of the user for whom you are designing.  Do this through observation, interaction, and immersing yourself in their experiences.’[1]

We need to understand the end to end customer journey and the holistic experience at key touchpoints but the general principle of understanding our customers’ underlying needs and motivations has been a bedrock of great marketing for decades. The whole concept of ‘human centred design’ is simply about having insight into and empathy with our customers as people and their human needs.

Ikea is a great example of a business who have nailed this, showing constant curiosity about people’s everyday lives. Each year, Ikea carries out thousands of home visits in different countries to ask people about their daily routines, how they organize each of the rooms in their house and anything that frustrates them about their space. Answers and images are then recorded on a vast database. They then publish an annual Curiosity Report which narrows their focus for the year ahead into key areas so that they can produce relevant products.[2]

DEFINE: ‘Process and synthesize the findings from your empathy work in order to form a user point of view that you will address with your design.’[3]

This could be referred to as a ‘Consumer Issue’, a ‘Customer Question’ or even a ‘Marketing Objective’. It was Einstein who said “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes finding the solution.’’ Having clarity about WHY you are generating ideas and WHAT they need to deliver is an essential ingredient for good ideation.

Amazon realised that busy people cherish the convenience of online shopping, but it also needs to be convenient for them to receive their goods, not just order them. Thus they have invested in developing ideas that improve the customer experience of delivery, for example Amazon Lockers and Pass My Parcel.

IDEATE: Explore a wide variety of possible solutions through generating a large quantity of diverse possible solutions, allowing you to step beyond the obvious and explore a range of ideas.’[4]

We use a wide range of creative idea generation techniques with our clients to explore new concepts. What’s essential is that this should be done cross functionally. In a world of digital disruption, ideas and opportunities can come from many different directions – all functions play a role in keeping their finger on the pulse and thinking creatively about how to improve the customer experience.

In our 2016 research we found that 74% of growing companies are structured around the end customer experience. Nina Bibby, Marketing and Consumer Director, O2 (Telefonica UK) explains “we form fully integrated teams across marketing, the consumer P&L, technology and the channels so that they are all aligned with a single focus in order to deliver a seamless experience for our customers.”[5]

PROTOTYPE: ‘Transform your ideas into a physical form so that you can experience and interact with them and, in the process, learn and develop more empathy.’[6]

I vividly remember my excitement, many years ago as the Nivea Sun Brand Manager, when I finally got my hands on the first mock ups of our new range of Hydrogels; I’m sure many other brand managers would have similar stories.

Today, prototyping is likely to involve integrating virtual reality and mixed reality as this helps us to prototype products and experiences quickly and at scale.

Design Thinking Ford FIVE labFor example, the Ford Immersive Vehicle Environment (FIVE) enables consumers to experience a car design fully, by sitting in a prototype car and wearing virtual reality headsets. Drivers can hold a real steering wheel and use switches in the physical world, which connect to their virtual experience. When they reach for the wheel or a switch, they feel it physically, and see it virtually as a beautiful, properly rendered virtual vehicle.[7]

TEST: ‘Try out high-resolution products and use observations and feedback to learn more about the user, and refine your original point of view.’[8]

Otherwise known as test marketing, soft launching, or just good old fashioned product testing. ‘Testing and learning’ and ‘Iterating’ are not new ideas, however the pace and scale at which this can be done has accelerated exponentially.

Unsurprisingly, Google are a company well versed in testing and learning in real time, for example launching their Android Operating systems and then refining it based on customer behaviour and the latest trends.

Crowd sourcing, real time diagnostics and the need for a single customer perspective has resulted in an explosion of ‘big data’ which can overwhelm the most analytical of Marketers. That’s why it’s so important to define WHAT you are trying to test.

So that’s Design Thinking – de-bunked. We believe its value lies in those sound marketing principles of customer empathy, defining your issues clearly, ideating cross functionally and testing and learning. 

For more information about how Brand Learning can help you use the principles of Design Thinking to help your business, please get in touch.

BRAND LEARNING: Inspiring people. Lifting capabilities. Growing organisations.


[1]Institute of Design at Stanford

[2]How IKEA Designs Its Brand Success: Forbes 10th June 2015

[3]Institute of Design at Stanford

[4]Institute of Design at Stanford

[5]Brand Learning research, 2016  

[6]Institute of Design at Stanford

[7]‘Ford Motor Company’s Virtual Reality Prototyping Reinvents Vehicle Design’:

[8]Institute of Design at Stanford