The challenge for ferreting out value from the market out of ideas is to systematically generate and keep releasing them. However, how to bring that much-needed discipline is an issue. It seems that Design Thinking for managing ideas offers us a solution. It offers empathetically generated ideas for releasing them as successive bursts of thrust in synchronization with key factors affecting the timing.
Over the last 30 years, we have been witnessing human-centered design and the rise of design-centered business management. It has given birth to design thinking. Besides, it found a place in academic literature through the first symposium on Research in Design Thinking. It was held at Delft University, the Netherlands, in 1991. Subsequently, to showcase the design process, based on design methods and design thinking, IDEO design consultancy emerged. In fact, IDEO came into existence by combining three industrial design companies. Besides, the 21st century’s dawn witnessed accelerated interest in design thinking. It has led to numerous academic programs, advisory services, and Innovation strategies. One of the notable such institutional initiatives has been Stanford University’s d.school for teaching design thinking as a generalizable approach to technical and social innovation. Besides, can we use Design Thinking for managing ideas systematically?
However, is Design Thinking new? Can design innovation succeeds without the support of technology innovation? Is Design Thinking the last step of Product innovation to give the final touch of look, feel, and usability?
Get the job done better–underscores the importance of Design Thinking for managing ideas systematically
Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process for generating and refining ideas for having the most appropriate match between the innovations and the target purpose to be served. It involves five phases—Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. This iterative process keeps reducing the gap between initial ideas and the most appropriate ones for serving the purpose. Although, Design Thinking appears to be a new concept, but its history appears to be very long—as long as the human race.
Human beings are after technology ideas in innovating products to serve their purposes increasingly better. In making products increasingly better, they focus not only on functionality but also on the ease of use and the look. This has been an inherent ability of human beings. In fact, they have been practicing design thinking since the preindustrial age. However, in the preindustrial age, our ancestors used to rely on the art forms of knowledge and intuition in practicing design thinking.
Along with the advancement of industrial revolutions, design thinking also kept improving. The primary underpinning of such improvement has been in developing scientific knowledge for engineering human-machine interfaces. For example, the application of psychological and physiological principles to the engineering and design of products, processes, and systems has scaled up the ability to make products increasingly appropriate to serve our purpose. For example, the angle of inclination of the chair’s backside significantly benefits from such principles. Or, what should be the optimum size of handheld communication devices to make them suitable to most people. Often, the trial and error approach of modern Design Thinking fails to reach such optimum design specifications. However, once the trial and error-based experimentation approach is linked with the underlying science, a scalable path of Design Thinking opens up.
Historical Examples of Design Thinking
Evidence indicates that Greek civilization in the 5th century BC used ergonomic principles to design their tools, jobs, and workplaces. Besides, Hippocrates’ description of how a surgeon’s workplace should be designed and how the tools he uses should be arranged is an early manifestation of Design Thinking in workspace design. Ancient records also suggest that the early Egyptian dynasties made tools and household equipment that illustrated ergonomic principles. The continuation of this practice led to the formation of “occupational medicine” in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Notably, Bernardino Ramazzini was one of the first people to systematically study the illness that resulted from work—followed by “time and motion study”.
During World War I, the focus of aviation psychology shifted to Design Thinking in aircraft design. In particular, the design of controls and displays, and the effects of altitude and environmental factors on the pilot got the priority in design exercises. Subsequently, the design of equipment had to take into account human limitations and take advantage of human capabilities started gaining importance. The decision-making, attention, situational awareness, and hand-eye coordination of the machine’s operator became key in the success or failure of a task.
Design Thinking for managing ideas demands a strong linkage with Technology
Design Thinking demands us to empathize with target users’ needs, define problems, and ideate solutions. However, the implementation requires technology. Therefore, there is a strong linkage between emphatic ideation and technology progression. For example, Steve Jobs felt empathy for customers’ pain using the small screen of mobile phones to read e-mail or browse the Internet. Such empathy led to the ideation of a keyboard-less multitouch user interface. However, the technology was not mature enough to implement ideas. Hence, Apple had to go out and acquire basic technologies from the outside and kept refining it for a couple of years. Moreover, Apple had to enhance complementary technologies such as underlying core processors and graphics to support the implementation. Therefore, in the absence of strong technology capability, Design Thinking alone does not meet the objective of implementing empathetic ideas.
There are many more examples. For instance, since Edison’s innovation of the first light bulb, there has been empathy for making the light bulb more efficient and durable. But the technology was a barrier. Of course, the steady progress of filament technology helped for incremental advancement. Subsequent inventions of fluorescent and LED technologies have enabled to make light bulb innovation more human-friendly. Similarly, human beings have been suffering from pollution caused by automobiles. But technology limitation was a barrier to coming up with more compassionate innovation. The advancement of battery and fuel cell technologies is opening the opportunity to roll out more human-friendly automobile innovations.
Hence, Design Thinking should lead to technology assessment, forecasting, acquisition, and advancement. It should be the core process for the management of ideas, technology, and innovation.
Design Thinking for managing ideas requires synchronization
The basic purpose of innovation is to make products increasingly more appropriate for the customer to better serve their purposes. However, technology limitations do not allow us to implement all of those empathetically generated ideas. Besides, some of the ideas that designers compassionately generate do not fall within customers’ preference space. In certain situations, infrastructure also does not allow the execution of the product features around those ideas.
Fortunately, technology, customer preferences, and infrastructure have been evolving. Such evolution is offering progressive path implementation of an increasing number of empathetic ideas. Often, having the synchronization of ideas with those three key factors is critical to succeeding in innovation. For example, being a latecomer in the portable music player industry, Apple became successful with iPod. Primarily due to the fact that Apple pursed those humanistic features of iPod design at the right time. At a point when there was a synchronization between those ideas and underpinning factors.
As a matter of fact, every product is going through an evolution of making them increasingly more suitable for the Jobs to be done. Starting from the light bulb to smartphone—the list is endless. As explained, the underlying factors such as i. technology, ii. customer preferences and iii. infrastructure are determining the suitable timing of the release of their successive better versions. Hence, the idea management strategy could be around practicing Design Thinking, emphatically ideating, accruing technology capability for implementing those ideas, and releasing successive better versions while maintaining synchronization with customer preferences and infrastructure.
Idea management for making entry into an existing industry
Idea management around Design Thinking is also an effective strategy for making entry into an existing product. Sometimes, incumbent innovators failed to take advantage of technology’s progression, changing customer preferences and unfolding infrastructure for rolling out next versions—having more empathetic features. However, such failure of incumbents creates the opportunity for a new entrant.
For example, Apple took this advantage to make an entry in both a portable music player and mobile handset industries—with iPod and iPhone. Similarly, Sony took advantage of Transistor technology to create an entry in Radios and TVs. Besides, Tesla has been on the journey of being a strong automobile maker. Hence, design Thinking should be more than the last leg of giving fine aesthetic touch. Instead, Design Thinking for managing ideas systematically should be the core capacity to succeed in the innovation space.
Hence Design Thinking is more than just improving the look or feel or making industrial products more usable. It’s rather at the core of rolling out increasingly empathetic innovations for serving human purposes better. Hence, Design Thinking for managing ideas systematically appears to be a key area for sustaining innovation and making a new entry.