Design thinking, the creative problem-solving approach that’s rooted in design principles, has made major inroads into business strategy recently. The data is clear that, on the whole, design thinking brings success for companies that employ it—but the only way to know for sure whether your business is getting the most out of it is to measure those successes.
Project managers and engineering teams talk about design thinking frequently, of course. But the theory has spread across departments, from building operations to marketing and right on up to the C-suite.
It’s an approach that pays off, and that’s what makes it popular. But design thinking is also unconventional, and by its very nature it questions the way things have always been done. That can make the successes of design thinking difficult to measure with the usual set of performance indicators.
As with any effort, measuring success also depends first on defining success. Businesses implement design thinking for a wide variety of reasons. Knowing what you hope to gain from a design-thinking approach will help you narrow down which metrics are right for your purposes.
Whether you choose to adapt traditional indicators like ROI, or develop a new system tailored more closely to your goals, here is how to measure your business’ design thinking successes.
What is design thinking?
Design thinking is a set of perspectives, procedures, and approaches that together form a uniquely innovative problem-solving strategy. The principles of design thinking came together over decades of research into “designerly” ways of thinking, i.e. the ways in which designers across a variety of disciplines collaborate to solve challenges and create.
Studying these designers and how they work revealed several common approaches to problem solving. These have since been refined and expanded into the modern understanding of design thinking. When design thinking advocates use the term today, they are typically describing a process that is:
- Empathetic to the needs of users, clients, and customers
- Iterative: taking lessons learned from each attempt and re-applying them
- Non-linear: in which every strategy can be employed when it’s needed most
- Solution-oriented: focused more on how to surmount a hurdle than on the hurdle itself
- Inquisitive: challenging as many assumptions as possible and refusing to take the framing of a problem as given
Design thinking encourages expansive research, unconventional analogies, and radical inclusivity to address the scope of a problem. With this wide range of information as a foundation, design thinkers brainstorm solutions and test them rigorously to narrow down the most successful strategies.
It may be clear at this point that there’s not much that’s rigid about design thinking. There are a wide variety of frameworks you can follow to pursue design thinking within your own organization, and they all differ on some of the finer details. But they tend to share these general strategies:
Envision the problem from a range of perspectives. These include the users of the product or service, and especially users whose circumstances differ from yours—for example, it’s crucial for architects to consider people who use mobility aids or wheelchairs when designing a space.
Users, however, aren’t the only stakeholders who are invested in the design of a product or service. Technicians who implement it, clients who purchase it, and even non-customers can present valuable perspectives on a product’s impact.
Using the knowledge you’ve gained, define the problem or question as rigorously and precisely as you can. In this area of design thinking, you distill insights from the broad research and investigation that you’ve done, and use it to shape the scope of your work.
Essentially, good old-fashioned brainstorming. Empathize expanded your view, and Define narrowed it again. Ideating should be another expansion, as you and your collaborators get creative and suggest strategies for solving the problem.
Identify the likeliest candidates out of your slate of ideas, and run with them. Create test scenarios, physical prototypes, simulations and digital models—whatever makes sense within your resources to test the practicalities of your concepts.
The process of prototyping will unearth more insights about the feasibility of some of your ideas, which you can feed back into the other parts of the design-thinking process. Remember, design thinking is intended to be non-linear. Any or all parts of the process can be happening at any time, or simultaneously.
Run your completed prototype and gather data. Collect your own, and validate it with other stakeholders. Find out what works and what doesn’t, and feed that information back into the process as you refine your plans further.
Design thinking is iterative, so every part of the process is designed to happen repeatedly. The information you gather progresses you toward your final result. Collectively, these five activities or points of focus encourage creative thinking, drive innovation, and generate high-quality end products.
“What gets measured gets done.”
You’ve unified your employees around the concept of design thinking. You’ve trained them in it, enshrined it in your values, and set its success as a business goal. But how do you hold yourself accountable for achieving it?
Measuring the results of any business decision is crucial. It gives you the tools to validate your strategy, to see where it needs adjustment, and to identify the steps that will produce the results you want.
But design thinking is deliberately disruptive. It challenges the traditional ways of doing things, and prioritizes unconventional strategies. Standard business metrics, created to measure efficiency, financial gain, sales conversions, and other concrete outcomes, can struggle where design thinking is concerned.
It’s clear that design thinking leads to success for businesses. So how do you capture its advantages? The answer could be an exercise in design thinking itself.
What does success in design thinking mean to you?
Start by laying out your goals for design thinking in your organization. Was your intent to create a better product or user experience? To create an environment where employees feel creative and empowered? To increase your financial gains?
All of the above are benefits of adding design thinking to your business, but understanding which aspect—or combination of aspects—you’re striving for will help you to shape the metrics you use to track it.
Also important is understanding why you’re seeking to measure the success of your design thinking efforts. It may seem like an obvious answer—after all, you need checkpoints to determine whether your efforts are working as intended.
But, in line with the Empathize skill above, you should consider who will consume the information. Will your data show business leadership the value of a design thinking strategy? If so, the information you collect will be different from what you would gather if your goal was to motivate or inspire your team.
In the end, the key is to collect enough information to define the problem. Knowing your goals will help you to pinpoint the specific behaviors or outcomes that drive them. Then, you can ideate on and test a variety of metrics—both for how well they represent the behaviors you’re interested in tracking, and for how feasible the data collection will be.
Execution-oriented and creativity-oriented metrics.
Because design thinking builds on processes that differ from traditional business approaches, it can be difficult to find existing metrics that map onto them well. In these cases, it pays to get creative.
The business metrics that many people think of first, like ROI, are what Royalty and Roth of Stanford’s d.school refer to as “execution-oriented.” These measurements focus on the final product of a business process, and typically reflect well on efficiency, speed, and financial value.
These execution-oriented metrics are not without their place, but the danger is that they can stifle a more creative mindset. Repeated iterations on a solution are not “efficient,” in the usual sense of the term. In-depth customer research and non-linear development progress don’t lend themselves to a milestone mentality, and it’s difficult to itemize the financial benefits they bring.
Instead, Royalty and Roth suggest, it’s important to construct “creativity-oriented” measurements that reflect behaviors associated with the design thinking mindset. If your goal is to develop a deeper understanding of customer needs, then you might begin tracking total minutes spent in conversation with customers, or the number of customer touchpoints per day.
If your goals relate to product development, then your metric might instead look at the number of iterations your development team has run through, or even each iteration’s Return on Failure (ROF).
You might track the number of new ideas generated, or the number of interdisciplinary solutions suggested (as a measure of collaboration).
Ideate, prototype, and test your success metrics.
Once you’ve identified the tools you will use to measure the success of your design thinking efforts, it’s time to put them to the test.
The principles of prototyping and testing apply to softer products like KPIs in much the same way that they apply to physical products. This can look like running out the logistical needs of your chosen metrics: how to gather and consolidate the data, and how to communicate it. You may identify hurdles, for example in your technology infrastructure, that require you to go back and ideate some more.
But once you’ve landed on a plan that you’re excited about, don’t hesitate to try it. Examine the data you collect and check it with your teams. If it’s showing you what you need to see, then you know you’re on the right track. If not—the root of design thinking itself is to take those learnings and then try again.
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