The term ‘design thinking’ will die a slow death by the year 2025. By then, design thinking will have become a new normal - a part of most organizations’ everyday talks, tasks and activities. The air we breathe. But why so?
Particularly in the Western world, most of us already own everything we need – a house, a car and the latest iPhone. We don’t really need any more material belongings. Instead of owning more stuff, most of us are seeking the way to a more meaningful life: Better relationships, more time for loved ones, health and wellbeing, less stress, a fulfilling job or heightened self-awareness.
The markets that companies compete on are ultimately made up of the needs and wants of people. As what people seek is becoming increasingly intangible, the role of new services is crucial to help people get where they want to be. This is why the world is turning into services. Companies are adapting, but slowly.
Beyond this, another major change in the last decade is that in order to succeed on a global scale, the services that companies produce must be top-notch. I mean really, really good. In the digital era, the best or cheapest alternative is often just one click away. This means that small local companies often face direct global competition, and must battle with the likes of Netflix or Facebook.
Over the last 20 years, the principles of design thinking have helped companies adapt to these changes and create concrete value through the design of new services that people like to use.
If I summarize how design thinking changes the way we work, it can be narrowed down to two things:
gaining deep understanding of peoples’ needs through empathy and
developing solutions by experimentation and prototyping
Yet, these two elements are completely new ways of working for most organizations. Many talk about empathy and experimential culture, but there is a big gap between talking and doing.
It’s important to understand that design thinking isn’t just a buzzword, but represents a much bigger change that is ongoing. Put simply, it’s about an extensive global shift in the way we work. In order to create necessary services, work life must adapt, and this change is already well underway. If you don’t believe me, flick through the increasing number of recruitment listings for service designers or familiarize yourself with the thoughts of companies such as Osuuspankki (In Finnish) and Kone.
The current design thinking hype might be a good thing after all. Because change is never easy, it’s even necessary that design thinking is being force fed to all of us – after all, it spreads the word, creates conversation and accelerates the change.
In 2025, design thinking as an “ism” will be relatively useless since the principles will have been integrated into organizations’ development and innovation processes. Some companies will do more in-house development, while some will rely on external help. Just like now. Yet the hype will be gone and energy can be directed towards actually changing peoples’ lives with services.
However, in 2025 we will need more people ready for this new way of development. People skilled in empathy that can uncover customer needs, people that can see the big picture yet extract the relevant details, people that can generate creative hypotheses from new solutions, and can design and measure experiments that impact customer and business value. And, naturally, do all this while at the same time leading change in organizations. These are the skills you need to embrace if you want to prepare for the future of work.
What will the buzzword of 2025 be? Since we don’t have to talk about how we work anymore, my guess is that we will be talking value-based design – how to bring moral and ethics to the core of development. Let’s wait and see.
I recently spent a week in Singapore meeting different government organisations and companies while on a speaking engagement at Design-week Singapore.
The knowledge level of most people I met was impressive. And those who weren’t so familiar with the philosophy of design thinking caught on very fast. They had encountered related articles or reports.
Indeed it seemed that Design thinking was – and is – on everyone’s agenda.
Despite this I was slightly puzzled.
There was clearly deep understanding and know-how. But anywhere I looked I couldn’t find any practical examples, show-cases or success stories. Everyone was excited and eager but…
Knowledge into action
Suddenly, I recognized this phenomenon. With one of my clients we jokingly diagnosed the company as a huge-headed genius with very little hands. This Mega-mind understands, analyses and conceptualises but nothing happens!
In such companies you frequently find talented good people who are frustrated. They know or at least have an educated notion what should be done but are can’t do it. Organisational structures, conflicting target setting, ill-defined work-roles and slowly changing attitudes put a stop to initiatives.
All of these challenges are big but the elephant in the room is the attitude-shift which isn’t happening.
It is safer to cut costs, drive effectiveness or streamline. They are proven tools but not expansive. And a dangerous path.
Finland vs. Singapore
In my native country of Finland companies’ depreciations have exceeded investments in the last 6 years. They are not investing! They are streamlining. I’m afraid it shows already in our economy.
Singapore is trying to activate its companies by government grants and other incentives to get firms to try design thinking in practice. Again referring to my home country I argue that that is not the way.
Companies concentrate more on qualifying for free money than actually on gaining the benefits of work being done.
Design thinking 2.0
If design thinking isn’t catching on then the way it is packaged and offered must change. Maybe for example service design as defined in the western market is not suited for Singapore. Maybe one should, instead of the current efforts concentrate on redefining the use of design thinking to such that there is natural grass-roots demand in the market.
Then you will have the show-cases. You will get the productivity gains and you will win in the market.
I have visited Singapore a few times in the past years. I love the place. Its energy, forward-looking spirit and its ability to mobilise large scale social reform fast.
Indeed I think that Finland would have many lessons to learn from it.
I am afraid however that when it comes to benefiting from design thinking Singapore might face the fate of the frog in a heating bowl.
The frog lies content in the water not noticing the temperature rising before it is too late.
I find that my line of work as a visual designer can be described as a balancing act between enabling positive user experiences and correctly applying a company’s brand and tone of voice. And although many other facets of service design could be described in a similar way, I’m approaching these themes from a user interface design standpoint.
A brand, in broad terms, is any set of qualities that set a company apart from its competitors. It stands to reason that a company that’s widely associated with positive brand qualities would want to protect its brand integrity, all the way down to the finest details.
Many companies have a set of brand guidelines that define how the brand should look, feel and sound in different contexts. To support consistent messaging about the company or service, brand manuals often document acceptable applications and usage of color, fonts, document layouts, images and key messaging.
Maintaining and monitoring acceptable brand applications is important, because brand identity sets the tone of a customer’s initial impressions and gives a brand its recognizability across different channels. A brand’s personality or identity helps build customer relationships. Visual signals establish differentiating factors and brand positioning. A digital service certainly needs to communicate the same values and ideas as the brand as a whole.
But once we start talking about digital services and user interfaces, building a positive brand image stops being just about staying visually on brand. Visual design for online services is not just about making a nice-looking page. In fact, overly harmonious and pretty might mean hard to figure out and lacking in meaningful visual cues. User expectations of how things should look and work need to be accounted for, and users have been trained by multi-million dollar companies like Facebook and Netflix to expect user interfaces that are easy to navigate and minimize friction between the user and their goal, especially on a mobile device. According to a Google research study, only 9 % of mobile site or app visitors will stay if they don’t quickly find what they’re looking for.
Reducing Friction to Align with User and Business Objectives
A large part of our perception of a brand stems from our past experiences with that brand. Google’s study shows that customers who don’t find immediate utility in an app or a website will not only move on, but 28 % will also be less likely to ever buy products from that company in the future. In 2014, Harvard Business Review explored ways to quantify the impact of customer experience on sales and wrote that repeat customers who had the best past experiences spend 140 % more compared to those with the worst past experiences.
28 % of users who don’t find immediate utility on a website will be less likely to ever buy from that company in the future.
On one hand this presents a challenge: anticipating users’ needs and presenting them with the right calls to action at the right time is difficult. On the other hand this is also a brand-building opportunity. According to Google’s data, 29 % of mobile users will immediately switch to another service if they can’t find the answers they’re looking for. Being that other, more nimble service can be a very cost-effective way to build up a following for a new service. Traditional branding activities are expensive and time-consuming. For a new service or a startup, there is no better brand experience than beating the competition at giving the user what they’re looking for, at exactly the right time, in an easy-to-understand interface.
Now, there is an entire field of expertise dedicated to reducing friction between the user and their goal on a website or within an app and increasing the share of users that reach a specific goal, and that’s Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO). Much of the methodology behind CRO could be thought of simply as means for improving user experience through giving the user what they need for as efficiently as possible — or before they even know they need it.
For example, to be able to quickly respond to user needs, the primary calls-to-action that a site or app provides should be prominent. It’s important to make room for these primary calls to action and to steer away from cluttering pages or screens with secondary content that might result in user confusion or drive traffic away from sales-generating activities.
However, identifying the key user needs and figuring out what form those key calls-to-action should take — how they look, how they’re phrased — is difficult to accomplish with just a designer’s intuition. In other words, it’s critical to have an understanding of how people use your service, because otherwise you’re just taking shots in the dark. Brand-building interactions shouldn’t be decided by a designer’s gut feeling or the highest-paid person’s opinion. That’s where CRO tools like page analytics, user research and A/B testing come into play.
In Service of the Brand — or the Brand Aesthetic?
Methodically testing different variations of an interaction flow or of individual page elements — headlines, value propositions, buttons, pricing charts, testimonials — is integral to generating more sales or leads without investing directly into more traffic. Good brand guidelines allow for enough leeway that as long as brand values aren’t being contradicted or users misled, you can try different color combinations, different copy treatments, different page layouts or a number of other factors that might affect the way users understand and experience the interface.
Outdated brand guidelines — or ones primarily designed for print applications, even if recent — might be at odds with conversion optimization best practices, or might even lead to usability or legibility issues in a digital context. An overinsistence on consistency across channels might likewise lead to problems when trying to optimize the user experience in each channel. For example, I’ve worked with visual identities that have been built around several primary colors, of which only one is meant to be used at a time per page. This makes sense in a PowerPoint or print context, but if a website has to be built in a way that avoids using multiple colors per screen, those colors can’t be used to convey meaning or to highlight important elements. This has the effect of making it harder for a user to identify key links and buttons. It also severely cripples a designer’s ability to test different approaches to conversion rate improvement.
An overinsistence on consistency across channels might lead to problems when trying to optimize the user experience in each channel.
Conversion rate optimization is a continuous effort, and means methodical testing and research to align a service better with its business objectives (or key performance indicators — KPIs). Done right, this translates to more efficient service for users. If this process is hamstrung by outdated or draconian brand visual guidelines, then a question arises: are we trying to serve the brand aesthetic or the business goals? If the brand guidelines prevent testing different solutions for reducing friction between the user and whatever our business model wants them to do, the brand guidelines have failed the brand.
Compromise is inevitable when designing services. Delivering the best possible outcome means knowing which compromises to make. An insistence on very strict branding consistency and guardianship across all channels can prevent testing highlight colors or easily scannable copy. An online service like a website or an app is not meant to define what the company brand should be. It should deliver on the best expectations the company’s customers have of the brand.