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Design Thinking, Entrepreneurship, Marketing
Do you ever wonder how creatives at ad agencies come up with new ideas on a daily basis? What type of brainstorming processes do they use to stay relevant to attract the viewers’ attention? At its heart, this overused buzz term is essentially that really focused, results-driven sister to daydreaming. Brainstorming generates ideas, challenges conventions, and brings about new perspectives to the status quo. 
This is usually the best part of the design thinking process. Everyone involved in the project gets together to harness their diverse viewpoints, knowledge, and interpretation of the research. The team is one supercharged brain of collective intelligence. Now it’s time to unleash their ideas through a structured and repeatable process that drives creative thinking around your users to create more value for your company. Successful sessions should produce multiple options to look at, and from those, you will be able to select a few for further exploration. 
While it might seem logical to jump right into brainstorming when presented with a new problem or challenge, the pro’s know you can’t start the game until you’ve warmed up. This is why we’ve talked about How To Start Journey Mapping and Understanding Users Through Interviews in previous articles because they lay the groundwork in your mind to prime it for idea generation. You have probably noticed that when you are Journey Mapping or conducting Interviews, ideas have already started flowing. Now is the time to focus those ideas and harness them into truly productive thoughts that can go on to become viable concepts.
If you have the right research groundwork laid out, brainstorming becomes the Goldilocks equation of creative thought; too early in a project and the ideas are underdeveloped and uninformed, too late in a project and momentum has stalled or information is stale and the world has moved on. Unfortunately, too many executives and founders rush into execution with what seems to be the easiest solution in hand without brainstorming based on the collected knowledge that can guide ideas and flag potential pitfalls. 
Starting at Zen
Clear your mind, block out the distractions and focus on your breath. Buddha taught about the philosophy of Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action. This is the ultimate goal of every marketer, so how can we take this and apply it to brainstorming? It’s all about using the right mix, processes, and structure to generate user-focused, research-backed ideas and prevent the whole exercise from becoming a potential idea bacchanal.
Only those involved and immersed in the research and data should be in the room, at the start. If there are stakeholders who will eventually need to sign off on part or all of the project, or you need them to support an idea, bring them in later on in the process so that you establish the right conditions for the later stage idea refinements that come along. This will also give them a chance to have personal involvement in the idea generation so if they need to sell it up the chain, they now have a personal stake in it.
In advertising, we would normally have three to ten people involved – usually the Account Director, Art Director, and Copywriter. Then Strategic Planners, Media Planners, Creative Directors, Production Managers, and other creative teams would join as needed and based on the scope of the project. For small businesses and startups, it’s best to rely on the company leadership to drive the process.
It is also possible to conduct a session with a few wild cards thrown in. Customers, impartial third-parties, the accounting division… anyone that the team has identified who could provide additional value based on their experiences. Cross-pollination can produce wonderful ideas, the key is to keep the group small. Get a large group together and it becomes a party with ideas flying everywhere and eventually the goals of the session end up passed out next to a keg. 
Agencies usually have small, whiteboard walled rooms for brainstorming specifically to keep the groups small because they know that multiple small group sessions produce more value than one big group in one session.
Before the group starts, everyone needs to agree on two principals. First is, ‘what are we solving?’ Second is that everyone adopts the mindset of a creator, not a critic. 
Everyone should know why they’re there, so agreeing on ‘what are we solving’ should be pretty obvious. But with a brainstorm, our minds get pulled all over the place. Writing the goal at the top of the page will ground the session, and help anchor thinking. This is a good time to write or post key elements from the creative brief, or problem at hand as well. These little management aids can help the team refocus their thinking when they inevitably get pulled down a rabbit hole. 
No tearing down of ideas, only structured blue sky thinking is allowed. This is all about turning the little critic inside each of us off, and only listening to the dreamer. In this case, the educated, goal-oriented dreamer. To help keep this on track, simple ground rules should be applied to everyone:

    • Don’t judge
    • One speaker at a time
    • If you see a good idea, build on it
    • Everyone is equal 
    • Show sketches, mind maps, whatever
    • Don’t engage in oneupmanship 
    • Have fun
Rewarding courage is one of the most important approaches in creative brainstorming. Encourage your team to take big leaps with their ideas. If it sounds crazy, it just might work. So don’t be scared of thinking beyond the norm, foster the right type of courage in your team so they are comfortable pushing their perceived boundaries. This could just spark your company’s next big thing.
If only we could jet away to live with our users and brainstorm around their lives. So in place of that, it’s best to create an environment that has all the right stimuli to elicit new ideas from the team. 
When you’re preparing for the session, not only is it good to have key lines from interviews, completed Journey Maps and vision boards lining the walls, it is important to have designed the right framework for the session as well. This includes using the right triggers to spark ideas, but keep them within the right box. Basically, this is structured blue sky thinking. Good triggers define the box you’re working within and they focus energies to a specific area. 
Building triggers off of ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions can help free your mind, then pad it with the right structure to effectively generate successful new concepts. To help build out effective triggers, consider trying some or all of the following approaches:

    • Use catalyzing quotes or stories
    • Challenge assumptions
    • Push the boundaries
    • Switch roles between team members
    • Look at trends
    • Put yourself in the user’s shoes
    • Think to the future, then look back
The session is almost ready. Now is time to prep for your role as the session leader by figuring out how to effectively run it. Keeping everyone motivated, confident and on time are the critical functions of the leader, but the actual tactics for how the session is run is up to you too. 
Steve Jobs had a famous technique that was derived from what his friend Lee Clow, the legendary Creative Director at TBWA, Apple’s longtime advertising agency. Everyone in the session would fill the walls with great ideas within a set timeframe. When the time was up, all but three ideas were taken down and the process was repeated. Again, all but the three strongest ideas survived on the wall. After five sessions, the ideas left standing lived to leave the session and move to concept development. This is the technique the team here at Method uses primarily, all taught to us in our junior years in the big agencies.
Quick detour to talk about Apple, Jobs took this process one step further, and it’s not for the faint of heart. When the session was done, and the teams went off to develop the concept and then ultimately the product, he was known for outright rejecting the final product when it was presented. He would send his teams back to the brainstorming session stage and restart, throwing out everything they had done before. If it wasn’t for this process, the first iPod would have looked like the Zune, and if you’re asking what is a Zune, that just shows how well that product was designed.
Back to our brainstorming process, we’ve just completed five rounds of ideation. The first round tosses out the low hanging fruit that has kicked around the team’s heads for a while. Once the clutter is gone, then new ideas start to form. Once the easy new ideas are out, the team is now really thinking through the triggers, the research (stimulus in the room) and goal(s) to dig deeper, not being satisfied with the easy answers. By the time the team has mined their minds, the ideas generated will have depth, backed by knowledge and will be unique AF. 
This approach can be done out loud, with one writer recording the ideas on whiteboard walls, chart paper, sticky pad, index cards, whatever can be stuck to a wall that everyone can easily read (ie: use markers and write LARGE). Or it can be done in a quieter version where everyone has their own marker and index cards and they write out ideas within a couple of minutes per round. The main goal is the collaborative conversation that is generated once the ideas are on the wall and the team is able to build upon them. 
Using this proven tactic builds the team’s confidence in one another and ensures that the one loud extravert doesn’t end up dominating the process. It has the effect of breeding competition between team members that gets the creative ideas flowing from some of the most unlikely places. 
The last consideration in managing a brainstorm session is the timing. Keeping everyone on pace, keeping momentum and staying on track. You’re essentially a creative referee for your team monitoring the time between rounds so people don’t get burned out trying to generate new ideas. If the session runs too long it can have a negative effect causing people to feel anxious and ultimately releasing their inner critic. Switching between quiet and loud rounds can keep stimulation up, as can changing the view. Literally, switch rooms or go outside for fresh air halfway through the session can provide a much-needed shot of creativity to the process.
Mental fatigue will inevitably arrive, but if you’re prepared for it through savvy management you can keep it at bay longer and help foster some really incredible ideas. 
At this point, you and your team have generated 50, 100, 200+ possible ideas and/or solutions. There should now be two or three killer ideas left standing that are ready for further exploration. It is important to remember at this stage the ideas are not full concepts yet, nor have they identified what resources and methods will be required to execute them. Sure, you have a rough idea of what comes next, but it’s important to make sure the follow-through is done correctly. 
The ideas have the potential to become concepts, but as they stand right now they are simply raw ideas that haven’t been fleshed out. You wouldn’t want to stake your company’s next marketing campaign on a raw idea, there are simply too many unknowns and untested assumptions at this point.
Ideas need to move into the Concept Development stage now, where they are tested against assumptions and the unknowns. This is accomplished by small teams (we use teams of Art Directors and Copywriters) after the brainstorming sessions are complete. Their task is to research the unknowns and start testing assumptions while tweaking the idea to fit the current realities. From there, the right resources, tactics, and methods can be deployed to see the idea through execution.
This is the creative advertising secret sauce. How we come up with killer ideas, regularly and at scale. 
Final Thoughts
To give you an idea of the volume of ideas that are generated by the creative pros in the ad world lets consider the elite level of brainstorming used to create new campaigns for one of the most heavily marketed brands of all time, McDonald’s.
If McDonald’s runs a new campaign monthly, in every region across the globe, that is over 119 different campaigns running at once. Each region has it’s own unique creative campaigns, which would represent over 1400 different sets of ideas that actually make it to production, globally, every year. Now, remember that this brand has been producing this sustained level of advertising for decades. Understanding the process that creates this volume of ideas paints a picture of the challenge ad execs face when creating original, unique creative content.
For every winning idea that becomes an ad, about 50 other ideas have to be born, then quickly die. Globally, just for this brand alone, that equals over 70,000 creative ideas generated yearly. So when you think about Mad Men, Don Draper and all the cool kids working in advertising, you can now see behind the (faux) glamour of the job and understand the mental Olympics that occur every day to keep the ideas coming. Now that is truly Design Thinking.

Design Thinking, Growth Hacking, Marketing
Talking is one of our most primal and basic functions, yet when presented with an interview or data on a computer screen, more and more people are choosing the impersonal interaction.
User research has always held a high place within design but it now has come to the forefront with more people competing for customer attention. While a number of user insight approaches exist such as A/B testing, heat mapping, and expression tracking, these all tend to get overly complicated and are better suited for later in the design process. They also rely exclusively on technology to solve a non-technical problem that is understanding what your users feel.
With so many alternative research methodologies, why bother actually talking to your customers at all? 
Because people inherently don’t trust a screen but will open up to an empathetic stranger in a matter of minutes. The need for interviews stems from the complex nature of people being people and the fact that we can’t always be defined by numbers or predicted by patterns. 
Forget Your Assumptions; YOU ARE WRONG
Research methodologies were born out of the sciences, they were designed to provide validation on hypothesis, concepts, ideas, and statistics. Due to this, most questions result in ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers which provide a direct response to the hypothesis but do not explore the emotions or journey that got the user there. Unfortunately, the answer to ‘why something works?’ is then based on a pre-determined combination of prior knowledge, demographics, and psychographics. Interviews, on the other hand, have the flexibility to be structured in a way that makes no assumptions and goes to the heart of what the customer is actually feeling.
During customer research for our stock 3D model company, we assumed that artists were purchasing stock 3D models to simply fill out their scenes. That stock models were not core elements of their designs. Through a combination of in-depth conversations and literally sitting at their desk asking questions while they worked, we learned that our customers weren’t using stock to simply fill out backgrounds, but as critical components of their designs. The majority of customers were actually using stock models as ‘mostly’ complete skeleton of their project, then modifying it to meet their requirements. We had been aware of this use, however, the research data we had showed that this wasn’t really a big use scenario. It wasn’t until speaking with 3D artists that we learned that the existing academic data we had was entirely superficial and didn’t really understand the job that 3D artists do every day. 
During these conversations, it was revealed that since we weren’t the only platform for our customers to purchase 3D models, they would open multiple browser tabs to look at us and our competition. They would then search all platforms and buy the 3D model that was the closest to their needs. Our assumption was that they searched one site at a time and hunted around, spending quality time in our store. In hindsight – should have been obvious – we were blinded by our assumptions and missed something that helped us rethink how we shared our product offering – from site design to marketing positioning.
Fill in the Knowledge Gaps
One of the great advantages of in-person interviews is that they enable you to discover things about your product that you didn’t know existed, or was needed. This can come from suggestions by the user, from you discovering new lines of inquiry during the interview and sometimes even when the user misunderstands a question. Discovering something that you aren’t looking for it is part of the conversation that always brings a new perspective and avenue for exploration every time.
Users = People
Interviews can be really hard on your ego, especially if you have staked your hypothesis on your assumptions. This is because your assumptions are about to be tested. You are now able to check if the personas you have created are actually representative of your audience or if you are introduced to a new group of users who you hadn’t considered before. You are able to connect with these people and understand the challenges they face not just with your product but also in their life. This is where empathy comes in, to make the emotional connection between your offering and the user’s problem. Ultimately, it enables you to better integrate your product into their lives.
So if interviews can reveal far more intent and understanding than other research methodologies, why aren’t more people conducting user interviews and why do most interviews end up being a waste of time?
Assumptions Instead of Goals
One of the biggest mistakes made while planning a user interview is not defining the purpose of the talk. Without clarity on why you’re talking with users, the whole exercise turns out to be futile as there is no set direction and it ends up becoming a generic mess of nothingness. You’re not a reporter doing a human interest story, you have a specific reason for requesting someone’s time.
There is no need to get into the weeds here, you just need to define the problem that you are trying to solve. If you can’t put it in a single sentence then you should probably keep refining it, because everything you do after will have to be validated by whether it helps you reach the stated goal.
Less Specific, More Open Ended
When you have your goals clearly defined and expectations established, it’s now time to develop the framework of the interview. There is no need to develop a detailed set of questions as these will add too much structure to the conversation which can choke off spontaneity and new discovery. While this sounds unstructured (it somewhat is), the worst thing you can do is to wing it; it doesn’t work. You eventually end up losing track of what you needed and everything looks like a great insight, it is only later that you realize that nothing of value was gained from the interviews.
The interview framework should be divided into sections based on the main questions that need answering and it should include follow-up questions to enable you to dig deeper into the ‘why’ of your user to understand what they’re feeling. Using a defined framework and accepting an unstructured approach that will be contained within the established framework will open more doors to insights you and your team might never have thought of.
Striking Balance
While it is important to get to the bottom of why something works/doesn’t work, you really don’t want to annoy your user by asking a follow-up question to every answer. You’ll need to strike the right balance between getting to the core of something and getting thrown out.
During your interview, it is inevitable that you will have the realization that you missed something of real importance. This makes adaptability a very important tool; you need to be willing to throw out the framework and explore this new revelation. As we discussed with Journey Mapping, you can treat the first few interviews as trials and revise the framework based on the feedback. This will not only help make the framework more complete but also help structure it based on the flow of the conversation.
While we all agree on the value of these user interviews, how do we get users onboard to spend their valuable time talking to us about our products?
Proving Value
Sadly, design isn’t a major concern for society, most people don’t really think about it until something doesn’t work and then all hell breaks loose. There isn’t enough time in an interview to educate the user on the design thinking process and quite frankly, they probably don’t care. However, what needs to be done is to convince the user that having these conversations results in a better product for them. The user only needs to understand that since they are the ones using the product, they are the best people to suggest how to improve it.
Establish Rapport
A conversation would be useless if the user doesn’t open up and answer the questions candidly; a disengaged user will give answers that they feel are the most unlikely to generate follow-up questions. To start, you’ll need to ‘warm up’ the interview by starting with general lines of inquiry about topics the customer is comfortable talking about before you jump in and make it about your product. This will ensure that when the ‘why’ questions approach, the customer already has the momentum going for them.
Keep Focused
It is easy to lose focus during these interviews because external distractions can come up and the fact that the customer might go off on a tangent can easily pull both of your focuses away. While this can be great to develop a better overall understanding of the customer, spending too much time on non-core issues is counterproductive, it could even dilute the research.
As mentioned with Journey Mapping, have two people conduct the interview along with audio and video recording. This way one person can lead the conversation giving the customer their full and undivided attention while the other can take detailed notes. In case of a single person, it’s best to allow the recording equipment to keep track of the conversation while you lead it, building the rapport and learning about your user’s problems.
Final Thoughts
While interviews are a great way to gain insights, without proper care and attention they end up being a gimmick and a waste of everybody’s time. Interviews are a design exercise in their own right and they should be treated as such. So instead of just conducting interviews next time, design them.

Design Thinking, Growth Hacking, Marketing
Imagine being the proverbial fly on the wall watching your customer’s journey from recognition of your brand, through research to contact and ultimately purchase? What would that journey look like? What types of ‘a-ha’ moments would you hope to uncover?
Journey Mapping is taking the hypothetical customer journey and plotting it out in a flow-chart, Gantt chart or another visual format. This map envisions the actual journey, documenting touch-points and areas of friction. It can also envision the ideal journey, identifying an existing area of concern to provide an overall smooth experience. 
Regardless of the approach, plotting a customer’s journey with your product or service forces you to focus on your customers, and not on your company. When you map their journey, you’re walking the mile in their shoes, feeling the highs and lows associated with your brand and getting a better understanding of your customer’s experience.
Creating the Journey Map is a critical component of Design Thinking. Taking the trip and documenting the existing customer experience to feel what they feel will help you generate informed ideas when it comes time to brainstorm solutions or new opportunities for them. 
The number one reason great ideas fail is that we misjudge what the customer wants. One of the best ways to remove this uncertainty and reduce the risk is to develop a map that gets you as close as possible to your customer’s lives, to their problems and their frustrations, as you seek to understand how your brand can create value for them. 

How To Do It – A Designers Guide For First Timers

1. Select Customers That You Want To Understand
Spend time investigating the context in which they’ll be interacting with your brand, and how you contribute to their overall picture at that moment. Looking to secondary data is a good start, before actually engaging with real customers. Blogs and websites can be a great source of information to learn about the world surrounding your customer and give you a better understanding about the context that your brand lives in, and will ultimately interact within.
2. Sketch The Hypothetical Journey
This is the first map you’ll draw, albeit a hypothetical one. This is your opportunity to outline how you think your customer’s journey goes. Be sure to cover all the steps in the journey beginning to end, and not just the ones that your brand is involved in (ie: If you’re selling an app on the App Store, the journey probably started with a need, then a search, then a visit to the App Store, all before your brand was introduced).
3. Interview time
Select a small group of customers or prospective customers (usually 12 to 20, but less isn’t necessarily bad) representing a range of demographic attributes that you’ve already identified in your marketing strategies and business planning. This will give you a range of experiences to draw upon which can help challenge your hypothesized pencil sketch Journey Map. 
It’s time to conduct interviews. However, these interviews are far different than the traditional focus groups, as they are conducted one-on-one and reject the herd mentality when answering questions. With these interviews, you’re going to go (physically) where the customers are interacting with your brand, and joining them on their journey not only observing them but talking about their journey as they experience it.
Initially, interview two to five customers. These first conversations allow you time to practice your interview techniques, but also to refine your questions and approach. What might have felt like the perfect question internally, might turn out to lead the conversation nowhere. When you are fine-tuning the questions, you can easily find the focus points on the emotional moments of the customer experience, which will provide the strongest data for your team to analyze. 
Using your hypothetical Journey Map, ask your customer to take you through their journey while comparing it to your notes. Be sure to dig into the details so you are getting an accurate picture of their steps and getting the kind of data you need. Sometimes you’ll even need to keep digging in order to get your customer to truly reflect deeply on their thoughts and feelings. Remember not to accept superficial answers, they won’t do advance anything.
Lastly, it is important to conduct the interviews as a team; one person taking notes while the other conducts the interview, thereby giving the customer their full, undivided attention. 
4. Moments Of Truth
The interviews are complete, you’re sitting on a pile of data, now it’s time to uncover the truth. This is an intensive, deep dive, of sense-making. By summarizing what was learned in each interview on a single template, then identify the key emotional moments of each interview, you can start to plot out what your customers are feeling. Taking these key emotional moments, writing them out in large print, then sticking them on the wall, you and your team can start to see the bigger picture and identify themes across all customers. 
5. Study The Themes
Now that you’ve identified the core themes, its time to uncover and identify a number of new dimensions that are usually physiographic, rather than demographic, that will help you reveal the difference in your data. To help make sense of all this, try using the list of Universal Human Needs, compiled by the Centre for Nonviolent Communication, for generating the key points and needs from your customers. 
6. Map The Journey
Armed with your data, the emotional needs and wants of your customers and the understanding of what they go through, it is time to build the Journey Map of your customer (or for each persona if you are expanding your research across multiple customer types). The map should reveal its own set of high and low points. These pain-points represent the most valuable innovation opportunities for your customer – this is where you make their life better! 
Journey Mapping is a whole different monster from traditional market research tools like focus groups and surveys. Marketing leaders trained in those methods are often suspicious with the findings from Journey Mapping interviews because of the small number of subjects and versus the large nets that they are used to casting. However, the small sample is a deliberate choice (and not only because it is more economical for startup businesses), because the data gathering is much more deep, personal and emotionally focused. The process uses observation and intensive interviews in real-time while the customer is in the middle of the experience and the interviewer walks with them through each part of the journey asking questions as they go along. 
Final Thoughts
Like all tools, there is a time and place for Journey Mapping and it must be remembered that it does not produce statistically significant results that a corporate auditor can review; it doesn’t “prove” anything. Instead, it sparks creative thinking about the unmet needs of customers which are often inaccessible using traditional market research methods and larger sample sizes. The aim of Journey Mapping is not to produce a set of statistical data, but to produce a new set of hypotheses for testing. As such, Journey Mapping is another iterative tool in the Design Thinking toolkit that pushes companies to engage their customers to really understand their experiences, and design better solutions for them.

Design Thinking, Startup
Being a designer is a dream for many. Full days creating beautiful pieces and stunning interactions. This is great for members of a design team, but it’s only the beginning for a design leader.
We’ve all seen agencies and studios promoting their skills and why they ‘know brands’. But once you look a little deeper, it becomes clear that most don’t really walk the walk – and worse, are posers copying designs and reselling them as their own original creations. While businesses are in the midst of a tectonic shift towards user experience and good design, understanding and finding the right type of design leadership for your company is critical. 
Design Thinking is here and with it comes the need for design leadership. With this, the question arises; what makes a great design leader? Here is my take on the qualities that shine through.
1. They see simplicity
Great design leaders can see problems stripped down to their bare essentials, understanding what matters and what is superfluous. They find simplicity in everything from experiences, packages, products, collateral, interfaces and methodologies. Ultimately, design leaders establish simple processes and encourage their teams towards the solutions. 
2. They know process wins arguments
Having the vision to establish creative methodologies, then developing the processes to support them is critical in separating great design leaders from everyday designers. They understand the differences between processes like Waterfall, Agile, Sprint, Scrum, etc… and have the ability to switch between them based on the project. Ultimately this will help elevate your company’s Design Thinking approach as a whole. 
3. They actually know what makes up a brand
Lots of people talk about how they know branding, yet only a fraction of them actually know what they’re talking about without the use of buzzwords. A great design leader sweats the small stuff to understand things like: 
• How a service is delivered
• How a technical product works
• How a user interacts with an interface
• How a brand becomes relevant to its buyers
• How to use innovation to solve a problem or when to innovate a new solution.

Great design leaders know brands, and more importantly, they know how to give a brand meaning. They know how to create experiences, how to be relevant and how to execute on these to bring the whole brand package together.
In every company, every touch-point has been designed. It is the responsibility of the design leader to connect the dots – to create a seamless experience that stretches from the products a company puts out into the world right down to the employee onboarding process.
4. They get empathy
Listening is a lost art, but one that great design leaders have honed in on and have learned to perfect. They ask questions, inquire and inspect. They know how to assemble great teams to compliment their strengths and those of the company at large. With the right team in place, they’re able to inspire and guide them to success. 
They laugh and cry with their team, and get their hands dirty all the time. One of the most important aspects is their ability to critique the work and not the creator. Being able to provide clear, constructive feedback enables the team to create even better work, while avoiding the built-in sinkholes of critiquing someone’s art.
5. They are futurists
Great design leaders are thinkers, always dreaming and creating solutions to today’s, tomorrow’s and next generation’s problems. While they are solving today’s problems, they are thinking four steps ahead to how their solution will impact future iterations and making necessary adjustments to minimize impacts to come.

Design Thinking drives innovation, as we discussed last week in a similar post. Design solves problems, and strategic design connects the right problems with the right solutions. Great design leaders know how to make this happen, they are probably sitting in your office right now. Maybe it’s time to tap their shoulder to learn how they would solve your product problems. 

Want to learn more about how your company can benefit from an experienced creative professional? Click below to set up your 30-minute consultation. We’ll sit down and work through your branding, marketing, or creative materials to find where you need some work, and offer our suggestions.

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Design Thinking, Growth Hacking
Design is in the C-Suite. So what happens now?
The cheers can be heard from art school classrooms, from behind drawing tablets in design studios and in long forgotten cubicles occupied by internal creative teams living in corporate purgatory. Design has won, it is now at the boardroom table. What will smart executives do with this opportunity? Design leaders are ready to introduce the world to Design Thinking. You know, that inherent, natural, gut-driven process that creatives ‘just get’ and take for granted? This process has finally been plotted out, studied, reviewed, processed and found to be one of the magical markers of success. 
So what do you do with it? How can companies get that critical advantage when design is no longer their competitive advantage, but another barrier to entry? Today, I’ve tackled five key ways companies can adopt Design Thinking, and offered possible solutions to get the most out of them.
1. Innovation is driven by Design Thinking
Over the past decade, we have witnessed the vast majority of consumer-focused companies embrace design thinking to not only improve their user experience but to also drive innovation. It has become so critical that Fortune 500 companies are now reporting that it is one of their top three priorities. By adopting the processes pioneered in the creative industry companies can reap the benefits of iterative rounds of ideation, stripping an idea, concept or process down to its purest form and analyzing and modifying it.
Steve Jobs infamously sent his designers back to the drawing board after designing and prototyping the first iPod – a design that any other company would have launched on the spot – Jobs knew that this design was what the world was expecting, so the team stripped it down further, to what we now know as one of the greatest industrial design pieces of modern time.
Innovation is born from a strong, data-informed cycle; user experience informs design, that drives innovation which responds to user experience.
Solution: If you have not embraced Design Thinking, start today. If you have but it has failed to take hold, it’s time to re-evaluate your processes to find the right implementation.
2. User experience is at the core of Design Thinking
Historically, there have been clear distinctions between design disciplines; industrial = 3D, graphic = 2D, interior = inside spaces, and so on. With the advent of digital design, industrial and graphic have blurred. Throw experiential marketing into the mix and now architecture, interior design, industrial, graphic and UI design have become one large melting pot all focused on delivering exceptional user experience. 
Smart companies are investing heavily in building design-driven customer experiences, and we’re just getting started. Consumers can expect UX designers to work their magic into all facets of the consumer and the corporate world in the years and decades to come. 
Speaking on why design matters is Daan Roosegaarde, Founder of Studio Roosegaarde, “design matters because it is about triggering curiosity, it’s about thinking about the future.” With so much focus and attention on user experience, it’s clear that design will slowly eclipse more traditional marketing efforts. Roosegaard continues, “design has never been about a chair, a lamp, a table. So how can we use design to improve technology, to improve life? For me, this is the essence of design” 
Solution: Start filling your teams with UX designers, even if they don’t seem applicable to your product or service. The value they’ll add in their thinking could change the entire narrative.
3. Design Thinking isn’t a trend, it’s a driving business principle
Business is built on best practices, trial and error, risk taking and above all, innovating to stay relevant. At the core of this is Design Thinking. “I think the need for design is something more and more executives are starting to understand,” says Derrick Kiker, Partner, McKinsey & Company. “It became something that wasn’t around the art of creating beautiful things, but around developing something more fact-based, around what the people like, what do they need. What is going to complete experiences for them”
While the C-Suite has always (sometimes begrudgingly) understood that their customers are at the core of their business, the focus has only recently come around to understanding the customer’s experience with their product or service. “Depending on how you place a device, the instructions, and how the thing unboxes and presents all the information; if it’s not done the right way, you get people who fail to use the product correctly” states Ernesto Quinteros, Chief Design Officer at Johnson & Johnson. By giving customers a complete experience from the moment they open the box, through the lifecycle of the product, understanding how people use and experience the product is paramount in building brand evangelists. 
Solution: Weigh different Design Thinking methodologies and apply the right one for your business.
4. The demand for design leadership will continue to grow – hire now
There is no question that with the business world adopting Design Thinking and design leadership as part of its core ethos, that the demand for Design Leadership will only continue to grow. Consistently, hiring managers report that finding candidates in high-demand talent pools is their top challenge. Design thinkers, user experience gurus, design leaders, and design strategists count among the most in-demand roles today. 
Using Design Thinking to parse all the data is also a major factor in the success of design leaders, as is witnessed by a recent LinkedIn global recruiting trend study. The role data plays in Design Thinking cannot be overlooked. It is critical for any company to develop, SME or enterprise, data-driven design leadership to continue to innovate and stay relevant to their customers. In the past companies could compete in the ‘burger wars’ – selling near-identical products, mediocre design, and a fight over price and territory – but the future will be owned by companies differentiating themselves with good design and fighting other companies through great design. The competitive advantage will be won through internal design leadership, not just user experience alone.
Solution: Give designers positions of power.
5. Real design leaders are hard to find
The best design leaders are already out there. Senior designers who cut their teeth in advertising agencies and design studios alike who toil over client briefs day in and out. Others have moved over to the corporate side and are leading internal creative teams. The reality is that the talent is here, and probably sitting in your office now. The question is, have you as a leader, harnessed them yet?
The best design leaders tend to keep their heads down and create astonishing things. Those that are most boastful tend to be juniors (design leaders are senior, directors, executives with decades of experience) or simply posers looking to talk their way into a ‘cool’ job.
True design leaders understand that “this is an opportunity for you to demonstrate to people on the ground that you care about them, the way that you create gives them dignity, “ says Mokena Makeka, Founder, Makeka Design Lab. “You’re already beginning to elevate people’s conscientious and helping them to get out of their circumstances, encouraging them and showing that you believe in them. This is why I believe good design is a human right.”
Taking that understanding further, the quiet, focused design leader knows that “a large part of design is just the ordinary grunt of making the burden of being a human being on this planet a little bit more pleasurable.” With ideas like this, and a passion to unleash their creative way of thinking upon the world at large, it’s no wonder true design leaders are sought after far and wide. 
Solution: When contracting a recruiter, ensure that they have creative recruitment abilities. Better yet, grab one of your internal creatives, or someone from your agency to sit in on interviews and meetings to get their professional opinion.
Closing Thought
While we’re in the early stages of Design Thinking, agile companies have already started to reap the rewards of enhanced, data-driven user experiences. As every designer knows, great design starts with the user, not the sketch pad. 

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Design Thinking
As all designers know, great design doesn’t start with specs, but with the user. How will they interact with their creation? What type of look, feel, emotion, response should the design evoke? While the final products that designers create ultimately become the consumer face of a company, design has always lived its life in middle management, rarely straying into the C-Suite. As all designers have experienced before, when it does finally make it to the executives, decisions are informed by gut versus user data and design leadership (or worse yet every designer’s nightmare, when the CEO says, “My daughter likes red. Can we make it red?” …for a clean water campaign logo). 
For the long-suffering design community, validation on what we’ve known all along has come in the form of a McKinsey & Company study into The Business Value Of Design. You can read the whole report here
Others have studied the business case for design in the past, but as senior business leaders know, when McKinsey says something, the global titans listen. The authors of the study (Benedict SheppardHugo Sarrazin, Garen Kouyoumjian, and Fabricio Dore) analyzed more than 2 million pieces of financial data. 100,000 design actions – which they describe as focused tests to make design a central pillar of a business – for 300 publicly listed companies over a five-year period. The team uncovered that the companies who believed in design and had embedded design processes and principals generated 32% more revenue and 56% more total returns to shareholders. This was evidenced across three global industries: Consumer Packaged Goods, Banking and MedTech. 
The paper consolidates design into four key themes that showed the strongest correlation with financial performance. They are:
1. Analytical leadership
2. Cross-Functional Talent
3. Continuous Iterations
4. User Experience


Image courtesy of McKinsey & Company 
The companies that focused on each of these themes in unison scored high in the rankings. The businesses that found themselves in the top quarter realized increasing revenues and returns when compared to the bottom three quarters, more amazing yet is that the differences between the bottoms three quarters was negligible. Basically, for design to effect the bottom line, the business must commit and excel across all four themes.
Amazingly, over 40% of the companies involved in the study did not talk to their customers at all while developing products and prototypes. Which is really mind blowing considering the time designers spend researching their users, talking to them and understanding how their designs will be utilized. Additionally, a little over 50% of the companies involved admitted that they have no objective way to assess or set targets for the output of their design teams.
While I fully agree with the four themes identified, I want to provide some additional colour from the mind of a designer.
1. Analytical Leadership:
Lately I’ve noticed a marked increase in design that is based on “looking cool” versus built on a rationale, or quantitative proof and analytical approach of a business. In art college, our professors continuously hammered home that if we couldn’t rationalize our work, then it wasn’t ready to pitch. However they also admitted that designing something great and shoehorning a rationale after was perfectly acceptable when presenting to clients. I feel they have been doing the design community a major disservice with this advice.
As we’ve all heard, and what EVERY senior executive knows, “what gets measured gets done“. I truly hope that the voice of McKinsey starts to move the metrics that matter in the C-Suite from being shareholder-centric to more user-centric. For design to flourish, the C-Suite requires a more balanced combination of bold and humble, analytical and creative, empathic, explorative and methodological people. It requires a leadership team that is appreciative of all these differences and knows how to leverage them.
2. Cross-Functional Talent (and Collaboration):
Collaboration with the many stakeholders within and around client organizations is fundamental to a successful design approach. I couldn’t be happier to see that the team at McKinsey, their readers, clients and the hundreds of business leaders who filled out their questionnaire, recognize this as well.
Cross-functional collaboration is growth, cross-functional collaboration with a shared user-centric vision and integrated design methodology is hockeystick growth.
3. Continuous Iterations:
Incredibly, McKinsey discovered that over 40% of companies don’t involve customers in the early stages of development (I really can’t let this one go, it’s so baffling). Clearly, these companies are missing out in a major way. It actually slows down product development, increases revisions and misses early opportunities for identifying the right solution for unmet customer needs. We all know of startups that failed because the focused on what they want versus what the user wants.

The authors also turn their focus to the Lean Startup methodology which emphasizes that companies, “invest their time into iteratively building products or services to meet the needs of early customers, they can reduce the market risks and sidestep the need for large amounts of initial project funding and expensive product launches and failures.

In my experience, many startup businesses struggle with the tsunami of ideas generated in brainstorm sessions. The issue is: people are working hard to do a lot of right things fast, but fail to understand and align on what are the right things to work on.
4. User Experience:
As designers, we have a passion for tinkering with our tools, playing in our minds and our particular methods of production. Just like designers, companies are proud of what they produce and do, and these are all good things. What happens though is that we both lose sight of the user while we play with our tools and products. As such, the focus needs to shift toward the user experience across channels and vertical. However a focus on the user experience alone will not create impact.
The user is a person, one of many who will interact with your piece. They are a human, a customer who over the lifecycle of your product is as much a co-creator of value as you are when designing it. When all these perspectives come together, the complete saturated picture comes into focus. It is at this point where the full idea of the user is ready for its place in the light, informing strategy, vision, implementation and delivery of value.
Ultimately, user-centric design is this: If you’re focusing on designing for looks only – the superficial – then you are approaching it incorrectly, and your design will fail to realize its full potential.
Wrapping It All Up:
At the end of the day, McKinsey does the design community a huge favor with this research. Demand for design will increase with the promise of a positive impact on the way people live and work, and the accompanying competitive edge and growth that companies strive for.
I’m excited to see how companies digest this data and hope to start seeing more Jony Ive’s popping up at SMEs, Fortune 500 and startups alike. Apple (and Jony) really helped pave the way, but so many companies were afraid to take the leap as so much of Apple’s winning design was attributed to Saint Jobs. With real data on how design can drive business, there’s no excuse for companies to overlook its fundamental place in the C-Suite any longer.

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