Customer Centricity and Design Thinking

Here’s a quiz.

What do you find offensive in the following:

  • we should learn to empathize with our customers
  • we should clearly articulate the problem we are trying to solve for our customers
  • we should learn to generate many ideas in smart ways before jumping to one final solution
  • we should continuously trying to make our offering better and more relevant to our customers/stakeholders

Yet a framework based on these simple humanistic principles seems to be offending quite a few people. What is the big deal in it, some ask. Others feel it is too good to be true. What is it then? Is it too obvious or is it too difficult to implement?

There are companies that swear by it. AirBnb says design thinking saved it from going bust. Salesforce has seen its pipeline expand and order size increase after bringing in design thinking in its sales process. Many other companies are embracing it. At the same time some other organizations have tried and feel it doesn’t work in a large and established system.

There are legitimate criticisms to the framework. What worked against Design Thinking is that it became a buzzword, almost utopian in its commentary. It did not remain only a framework but was (and still is) marketed as the golden key to solving all kinds of problems. It cannot. As some experts have argued, design thinking will not suffice in solving complex problems in a rapidly evolving system. The designers should not unilaterally design for the customers or stakeholders in these cases. The stakeholders have to be involved in the designas well to make it adaptive to rapidly changing conditions. Some design experts feel it lacks the rigor and and expert critique to make it robust. The criticisms are becoming even more strident as design thinking seems to be peddled by anyone and everyone as the ultimate solution.

However, there is no denying that the articulation of this framework has made customer centricity, problem solution and process of innovation more accessible and democratic. It is not perfect, but definitely a step up from where most of us are. We can use it as a step by step guide to delight the customer — be it a customer of your products & services or your ideas. Wouldn’t your customer love being deeply understood and having a solution designed and refined over and over again till it completely meets her/his needs?

I have understood design thinking — after trying it in various projects — as a customer centric process and it is not easy to be truly customer centric for most of us. While some organizations and people have been customer centric for years (even before this framework was popularized), most find it difficult to let go of assumptions about what the customers think, feel and need. So, the first step of the process, of empathizing, itself is a big hurdle to cross. We can get caught up in the tools and structure of the process without understanding its spirit.

The principles may appear simple, but they are not simplistic. We have seen them being rejected at the outset by some organizations. They require a level of democratization, willingness to let go of our assumptions about what customers need and what is the solution we can offer. They require the leaders to be patient and open to experimentation. We have usually found it has takers in organizations where the leaders are inclined to look for innovative solutions, open to ideas from the ground and are willing to invest for the long term.

We just shouldn’t proclaim or expect it to do everything. Like anything else, it is just one of the many possibilities, like the ideas generated in step 3 of the design thinking process itself.

This article was first published in September 2019 on Linkedin.

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