Design thinking starts with redefining the role customers play in your product strategy

To develop a customer-led design philosophy, companies must change its approach to improve collaboration with engineers and marketing teams.

Google the term “design thinking” and you’ll get around 1.5 billon results. It’s one of the most searched terms in business today as companies and marketers look to put the customer at the center of their product and CX design. And for good reason.

And yet, only a small percentage of companies today have implemented design thinking in a meaningful way – leveraging customer feedback to shape current and future product innovation.

There is a myriad of common challenges or gaps that impact a company’s ability to adopt a customer-centric or customer-led design philosophy. First and foremost, companies are often more obsessed with their own products and innovation pipeline than they are with solving the specific needs of their target customers.

Another common gap is the disconnect between the product design, engineering, sales and marketing teams, or a lack of shared vision for how customer insights and design thinking will be applied.

With that overview in mind, here are several key areas for brands to focus on as they look to successfully apply design thinking principles to improve product and customer experiences:

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a methodology for creating products, services and experiences where you put your target customer at the center of your development process. Set out to build a “minimum viable product” that solves for a specific customer need or problem, and iterate over time to improve.

While that all sounds great in theory, we’ve all experienced examples of products designed with no clear target customer or customer need in mind. Here are just a few examples:

  • New Coke 
  • Harley Davidson perfume
  • Google Glass

On the other hand, we’ve also experienced many examples of iconic design, where design thinking was successfully applied to shape a product or service experience and wow us as customers. A few examples that come to mind:

  • Google search 
  • The iPhone
  • Netflix
  • Airbnb
  • Disney theme parks 

All of these are reminders that the very notion of design thinking is about putting the customer at the heart of the process to generate relevant ideas and develop those ideas into better products.

Building better experiences

There are two specific areas where design thinking principles help achieve a better end result for the customer.

First, design thinking, when done properly, reinvigorates a brand’s understanding of customer needs – the key drivers of their choices or actions – in a way that data never could. The idea is to hyper-focus on the needs of your target customer and what they’re looking to accomplish.

This approach is based on the Theory of Jobs to Be Done developed by late Harvard Professor Clayton Christiansen, who’s seminal work around innovation, strategy and customers helped to reshape modern business strategy. The theory explores several key tenants needed to make marketing more effective and innovation more predictable by focusing on the customer’s “job-to-be-done” in a given category.

Using this framework, designers (and marketers) can hone in on very specific “jobs” they “hire” companies and brands to fulfill. This is more effective and actionable than broadly exploring customer needs. In short, it breaks the needs of your target customers down into specific parts that can better be addressed by new products and services. In that way, design thinking has enhanced the search for consumer needs and has produced outcomes that drive a better product experience.

Second, design thinking connects product designers directly with the customer. This, too, makes for an improved end result. Now, designers can hear, if not experience firsthand, the customer experience and be able to quickly integrate what they learn in that process into products that are more likely to succeed in the market.

No longer do designers have to wait for the marketing research and insights teams to relay critical customer learning or updates. Now, the design, product development and marketing teams are active parts of the process – listening to customers, observing, absorbing and iterating product ideas on the fly. Both of these areas are key for companies as they apply design thinking to create better products, services and customer experiences.

Common gaps and how to bridge them

For design thinking to be successful, it’s also vital that marketing play a strategic role in shaping the product strategy. Together with the design and engineering team, marketers should constantly be seeking out new data and insights to better understand target customers and put their needs at the center of the product development process.

And yet, too often, especially in technology companies, we see the opposite happen. The engineering team develops new products, services and feature improvements at a dizzying pace. In essence, trying to serve all customers rather than a specific set of target customers. Often the firm will seek out data that validates their existing approach (also known as “confirmation bias”), rather than taking an outside-in approach where customer data acts as the guiding light.

Design thinking provides marketers with the opportunity to participate in the product development process by ensuring that customer and competitive insights are included early on. It’s about maintaining an agile and iterative process where customer and market input informs the “minimum viable product” you develop.  And, it’s key to remember that the “minimum viable” bar is in the eyes of the customer, rather than internal resources or timeline constraints.

Product, service and experience design are converging. To embrace design thinking, companies need to shift their mindset, re-orient their efforts around the customer first. Making this leap isn’t easy. But, for marketers who have long yearned to have a more strategic role in product strategy, this new way of thinking provides a fertile opportunity to play a bigger role in the upstream process.

A great example is the Windows Insider Program, where Microsoft completely pivoted its customer engagement model and invited millions of “insiders” to participate early in the Windows 10 development process. This was a dramatic shift from the previous approach the company had taken with Windows 8, which was developed in almost complete secrecy, with limited engagement outside the Windows engineering team, let alone customer input, feedback or perspective. With Windows 8, Microsoft engineers built what they could – not what they should. 

With the launch of Windows 10, Microsoft dramatically changed its product development process. Marketing played a central role in the product design process, providing continual customer and market feedback, helping to define a discrete set of target customers and prioritizing major features. The Windows Insider Program further built on this momentum, applying community and customer feedback at scale.

“Engaging directly with our target customers early in the design process helped to demonstrate our renewed commitment to transparency and designing a product that was based on their unique needs and feedback,” says Jeremiah Marble, a Microsoft marketing director and one of the architects of the Windows Insider Program. “It also created a groundswell of early product excitement that helped make Windows 10 the fastest adopted version of Windows in history.”

At its best, design thinking is about crowd-sourcing creativity – seeking out input and inspiration from your customers and the community around you. It starts with a philosophy that the best products are created when you focus on the needs of your target customers and solving their problems, rather than designing products based on a company’s desired outcome.

Despite the obvious benefits of designing stellar products and services, realizing this goal is harder than ever given growing and ever-changing customers’ expectations. People today expect immediate gratification, instant access to content and information, and next day shipping when they shop online.

To better incorporate the customer and design thinking into their product development process, companies have to change how they approach product development and improve collaboration and communication between engineering, product development and marketing teams.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

Jeremy Korst is the President of GBH Insights, a leading marketing strategy, consumer behavior and analytics consultancy. In his role, Jeremy works closely with Fortune 500 brands and CMOs to solve marketing challenges, improve customer experience and create strategies for growth. Prior to GBH, Jeremy held CMO or senior executive roles with Avalara, Microsoft, T-Mobile, among other brands. Jeremy holds an MBA with The Wharton School of Business and lives in the Seattle area.

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