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How Design Thinking adds value to your Digital Transformation

How Design Thinking adds value to your Digital

Design Thinking adds value to your Digital Transformation in three ways: rethinking problems, putting the customer first, and bringing focus in what to do.

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Design Thinking is buzzing in the market. Especially in the context of the creation of new digital products and solutions, Design Thinking has been getting more and more attention, and its use has not been limited to customer-centric or high-tech companies like AirBnB and Google. This is not surprising, given the fact that design-driven companies structurally outperform their non-design-driven peers, as illustrated by research by McKinsey. We believe Design Thinking can really make a difference in any sector, especially in the exciting digital era we are in today.

So, what is Design Thinking actually? First of all, there are many ways to explain and understand and apply Design Thinking, some more on-point and effective than others, and none of them tells the whole story. First and foremost: Design Thinking is an approach that helps with the balancing act of creating products, services and solutions that are desirable for people, viable for the business and strategy and technologically feasible, whereby desirability for people is always the starting point. Following that, we believe that there are three dimensions to Design Thinking that pretty much cover the spectrum of its application:

  • Mindset: The Design Thinking mindset is the glue of Design Thinking. Without it, the use of tools and processes becomes way less effective, if not ineffective (in some cases). First of all, the mindset should be empathic: focusing on understanding your users and their actual needs. It is also optimistic: in Design Thinking you think in opportunities, build on each other's thoughts and ideas (divergence) and synthesize these into a common understanding. Lastly, it is experimental: you learn by doing, using probes and prototypes to come to new understandings of human needs.
  • Process: We divide Design Thinking into five phases: Discover, Define, Ideate, Experiment and Evaluate. The process serves as a handhold in Design Thinking, but it is very important to note that learning-by-doing, customization of the process and loads and loads of iterations, make applying Design Thinking highly non-linear.
  • Toolbox: There are tons of available tools that fit the mindset and support the process (either coming from the world of Design Thinking, lean start-up, Agile, or UX design, etc.) and the only thing you need to do is to find them with Google. So you can start experimenting with them right away. However, as mentioned, the effectivity of using them is partly dependent on when, how and with what mindset you use them, and some tools fit specific challenges/stages of the process better than others.

You may already have noticed that a wide variety of interpretations of Design Thinking are possible, and with that a wide variety of applications. We believe that one particularly relevant topic can benefit from applying the Design Thinking mindset and its tools: your Digital Transformation. Of course we will not argue that Design Thinking will magically make all your struggles with this topic disappear, but we do distinguish three ways in which this approach can indeed add value to your Digital Transformation:

Rethinking problems

1 – Rethinking problems

People love thinking – and talking – about solutions. "You should buy this awesome new pair of noise cancelling ear buds!", or "Have you considered implementing a chatbot?", and "I know a start-up that develops drones that automatically clean your windows", may well be the first reactions your get when you are telling someone that you can't focus in your office garden, or that you want to automate a part of your customer contact center, or have the idea that your recent feeling of tiredness is the result of not enough sunlight entering your building. These all might be great solutions to your problems, but then again, they may not. There is even a chance that you haven't even mentioned what your actual underlying problem is – because why should you? You may not even know yourself what the underlying need is, or how to formulate it. Maybe you are just very tired, but never made the connection to sunlight as the underlying problem. Apart from the explicit needs you might have for clean windows, there are underlying needs called tacit and latent needs. Discovering and defining them is an important part of Design Thinking, because that is where you can really make a difference with customer-centric solutions. Since Digital Transformation is all about getting value from the digital possibilities you have, the question is: "who and what are we transforming for?". It is not about the solutions in the first place, but about the problems. Therefore: fall in love with the problems, not with the solutions!

This starts by not taking the problem for granted (which would allow you to rush towards the comfortable realms of coming up with solutions). In Design Thinking, you empathize with your users/customers and really try to dig deep into the actual problems they have. Various tools allow you to discover the underlying needs of your users (divergence) and define the needs of users that need addressing (convergence). That's what allows you to adapt to changing conditions, driving change that sticks, in your Digital Transformation.

Customer first

2 – Customer first

It is often said that we live in the age of the customer. What this means, is that customers nowadays are more informed than ever before and are more aware of the options they have. In the digital era a great customer experience is one of the most important differentiating assets a company can have. It therefore makes sense that it is included in most companies' corporate strategies, in one way or another. Failing to put the customer first – be it by not meeting their needs in your product offering, in the way you interact with them, or by focusing on solely creating business value and pushing technology – will result in customers going elsewhere. After all, your competitor is only a ten URL digits away. Besides, customers do not only look at your direct competition, but the experience they get when booking an Uber is what they also want when, for instance, going to a library. Always having the customer in mind when starting digital initiatives is therefore very important and is not limited to digital initiatives regarding new product or service offerings, or client-facing applications or channels. Even when transforming back-office processes you should bear in mind that your customers might be impacted, and also your internal customers, your employees, have an important role.

Pushing technology

While most companies have customer-centricity as one of their main priorities, in practice that is easier said than done. One way to get information about your customers is by collecting and analyzing tons of their data. Quantitative analyses can definitely help in measuring how people react to products and services. We have heard many success stories about how A/B testing can uncover the big impact on conversion rates small website tweaks can have. However, Design Thinking primarily focuses on the gathering and analysis of qualitative data. Putting your customers first is, in the end, all about truly understanding your customers by empathizing with them. Design Thinking provides a wide set of tools to gather, synthesize and analyze qualitative information, most notably observation and immersion techniques, storytelling methods, customer journey mapping, empathy maps, and personas. Adopting and learning the Design Thinking mindset empowers employees to, with help of the proper tooling and experience, really understand your customers and, as a result, create customer-centric products, services or (internal) processes.

Bringing focus

3 – Bringing focus

As digital possibilities are everywhere, it can be hard to define where to focus your digitization efforts. Sounding both logical and enticing, the 'let a 100 flower bloom' approach has been a popular approach for starting a digital transformation. In this approach it is reasoned that if you just start lots of digital initiatives, at least some of them should return value in the future. In practice, this approach might result in an uncoordinated proliferation of initiatives, some of which might actually be great ideas. However, due to a lack of attention and funding – you cannot fund all of the 100 flowers – or because it turned out that the problem that the digital initiative tried to solve wasn't actually a problem that needed solving – and hence didn't add any value – eventually all fail. That is not to say that crowdsourcing a problem within your company, e.g. as part of an innovation challenge, is a bad practice in Digital Transformation. As mentioned, we believe divergence is one of the key principles of the Design Thinking mindset and the power of your people will help you to generate options and find creative ideas. However, in order to apply the right focus, there are two very important things to always bear in mind:

Funding a 100 flowers
  1. Always start with the problem: As already mentioned earlier, Design Thinking is all about empathizing with your user – be it a customer or even an employee – and understanding their problems and needs. Focus on real problems that actually need solving, and not on some nice potential solution.
  2. After divergence, comes convergence: Endless cycles of diverging and converging. Convergence is usually painful. It is the point where teams start fighting because it turned out that they have different understandings of their user's problem. It is also the point where people have to painfully kill their darlings, their million dollar ideas, simply because choices need to be made and other ideas turned out to be a better fit to the needs of the user and will deliver more value in the end.

Design Thinking tools can help you explore and define what really matters to your users and support teams in focusing on the right products and services for these users, thereby helping you in defining your digital roadmap, including what technologies might support this journey. The KPMG Pillars of Customer Experience Excellence can help you define your future customer journey and the experience that comes with this. With a Design Thinking approach, that helps you to translate this future experience into concrete opportunities and technologies, a roadmap as part of your Digital Strategy can be build.


Design Thinking adds value to your Digital Transformation in three ways: first, it helps in rethinking problems, to ensure your solutions solve the right problems; secondly, it helps you to always put the customer first, which is a key strategic differentiator in the age of the customer; and finally, it helps you to focus on the right problems, solutions and technologies, and thereby supports you in setting up your digital roadmap.

As we mentioned earlier, those who venture into a digital journey will face many challenges, and Design Thinking isn't going to help with all of them. However, by applying Design Thinking in our collaborations with clients, we have already experienced how the Design Thinking mindset and tools can support guiding a Digital Transformation, focusing the efforts of you and your colleagues, and accelerating the right change in a more customer-centric way.

For more information on design thinking please contact Karin Smorenburg or Geert Kriek.


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