How to Make Your Design Thinking Program Turn Into Something Real

Why do a large part of the design thinking projects in the corporate world never pass through the prototype phase? In recent years I’ve been involved with many design thinking initiatives. Many of them related to the development of new products inside large companies in industries such as finance, health, education and consumer goods.

Almost all of them were really exciting. Working in a collaborative team environment, discussing ideas, brainstorming, interviewing stakeholders and dealing with different situations and problems, most of the time very different from my everyday life. Some of those projects that I have been through were conducted by consulting companies, experienced with the process of implementation with this kind of methodology. However, I have been asking myself most of the time: what happened with most of those products? A big part of them I’ve never heard about again after the consulting company was gone and the project had ended. The result was often a beautiful prototype on a shelf somewhere. Why it has never happened if it was so cool?

Evolution

The design thinking methodology really brought a new concept of how to do things. Not long ago,there was a man, a product executive that had all the power. For some reason, he brought one new product or new features to be developed. That was it:

Product manager’s vision The product is built entirely Go out and find customers

Later on, an evolution came up when the concept of MVP — minimum viable product — arrived in order to avoid all the unnecessary spending of the formula above:

Product manager’s vision Build MVP Iterate and Pivot

However, there was still that one single product manager’s vision. How would it be possible that one extraordinary professional had all the information needed to succeed? For a long time it worked  a lot because there were big brands behind them, big budgets, and a lack of options for the customers. It worked for some, but most of the time it didn’t. Then Design Thinking was brought up by Robert McKim and David M. Kelley, from Stanford University. Kelley, founder of IDEO, the famous design solution company, came up with a methodology that simplified and rebuilt the vision of the product development that worked before:

Customer needs Build MVPs Iterate and Pivot

This methodology slowly reached a level where it was adopted not only by startups but also by large enterprises, helped by some of the many consulting companies, most of them filled with designers that deeply understand how to build a project like that anywhere.

When the problem arrives

Back to where I first started, the Design Thinking concept has reached a level where it really can address problems and help any organization reach the right direction for their innovation program.

I remember a few years back when a fellow in a marketing class asked me a question; “Where did it all go?” He was a senior digital marketing professional in a big automaker in the US. For some time he underwent a design thinking project created to develop the concept of a car for the future. They came up with good ideas and prototypes. Most of his interest in the project was the ideation process, where he would leave his office and work in a cool environment with different people and an interesting methodologies.

My idea back then was that things like that happened often in large companies with slow processes. It really does. However, back at work I’ve started to deal with that same problem. A design thinking process that was more design than anything else. It was fun to leave one’s everyday job to work in a creative environment with nice people, happy to talk about their everyday problems. For most of my collegues, participating in those forums were a relief from the everyday problems. A place to dream on how things could be different.

Lack of continuation

One of the most common problems, or the biggest one, that I’ve seen happening with these kinds of projects is that they lack of a follow-up. Most of them came up with cool ideas. Some of them not, so explored as it should be, but it was a start for a product that could be on the market someday. But that didn’t happen. One of the reasons is that design thinking as developed by some consulting companies is focused almost exclusively on design, on the first part of the methodology: empathize, define and ideate. The prototype came within the last hours of the day. There was no room for testing and absolutely no idea about how to iterate it or to actually turn it into a real product. It doesn’t matter if your project was well-designed. If your company lacks an innovation culture, there aren’t people and processes to see these projects through. It is vital that an innovation process is an everyday program for everyone, not only the people responsible for a specific design thinking project. That’s why it is easier to deal with design thinking in a startup environment.

If your company lacks an innovation culture, there aren’t people and processes to see these projects through.

Most often, the result of a design thinking project focused on finding new ideas to solve problems and create new products is a prototype landing on a shelf of a cubicle. After all, the sequence of this process is the real world, where things often get nastier.

Sweat and tears

It is very important that design thinking should be seen as a real project, with all it’s complexity, and not only a fun design program. Groups should really go deep into things like market fit, financial availability, competitor’s benchmark, and really understanding the customers. Remember the product manager “know-it-all” mentioned above? We have to do his dirty job as well. Most of it is not cool. There’s no ideation or empathy programs, but a sweat-and-tears process to create a product from zero, negotiating with stakeholders, looking for funds and getting lucky.

This next step, after the prototype—the one that is very hard to do—is what lacks most of the time in design thinking projects. You will hardly hit the bull’s eye with the first prototype. You will need a real product team working hard and focused on it to have a chance. Design Thinking is a tremendous methodology when applied in a full life cycle of a product. It is much more than a weekend retreat or a sideline project. It has exciting challenges everywhere, a lot like our everyday lives. After all, a design thinking sprint is only the first step on a long (and sometimes painful) journey. It can also be really fun and exciting, but in order to be that way you must really dive in!

By Alex Igor Sanghikian

About the author

Alex Igor Sanghikian is the Product Innovation Manager at the Albert Einstein Hospital in Brazil, one of the most important hospitals in Latin America and the world. Alex graduated in Communication, with a Masters in Marketing and MBA in Strategic Management. He has more than 10 years of experience in digital product development in segments such as health, financial and consumer goods. Alex helped to develop award-winning products such as financial and health apps, lead generation programs and corporate portals. He is always looking for learning experiences and sharing knowledge.

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