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Design Thinking and Digital Intent, Part 1

Selling UX

A unique perspective on service UX

A column by Baruch Sachs
June 25, 2018

These days, it seems that everyone is all about design thinking—scrambling to jump on this runaway train and ride it for what it’s worth before the next big thing hits. There are design-thinking classes and certifications from premier management and technology consulting firms. However, UX professionals who focus on delivering amazing user experiences to people have always been design thinkers—for very good reason. After all, everything we do and experience in life is designed. From the applications we use, to the way we purchase a cup of coffee, design is everywhere. These things don’t just happen. Product teams don’t just write and execute requirements. Business analysts don’t just dream up these experiences. We design them by following design principles and business strategies. So, by employing the same design strategies to real business problems, we are bound to be able to come up with better solutions.

Digital transformation is another popular term that describes the journey companies are undertaking today as they look to integrate digital technologies into every aspect of their business. These transformations consider people, process, organizational culture, the how, what, and why around the ways customers engage with their business. While every major company is engaging in digital transformation, their progress and maturity in this endeavor varies greatly. Throughout what are often multiyear transformation programs, they’re grappling with legacy processes, technology, and culture. As a result, many are still struggling to deliver tangible business outcomes. In fact, it is hard to find any company that will stand up and say, “Yes! We have reached the end of our digital-transformation journey, and we succeeded!” Why is that?

Digital Intent

Much of this struggle has to do with the fact that many of these organizations do not actually think about what I like to call their digital intent. Digital transformation is an important strategic undertaking that companies are pursuing at a frenetic pace. However, very few companies are linking their efforts to something tangible—more than just business outcomes or a business case or goal. A successful digital transformation must tie itself to larger intents than just outcomes.

Digital intent is very closely tied to the process of design thinking. Just as in design thinking we always ask, “How might we…,” a digital intent follows the same model. Here are some examples of digital intents:

  • How might we get from a culture of days to minutes?
  • How might we enable quicker decision making?
  • How might we reduce the number of manual touchpoints or interventions?
  • How might we increase resource capacity—for example, via hours reduced per task—and also lower risk—for example, by touching fewer systems?
  • How might we shift our workforce to doing more strategic work?
  • How might we shift our workforce to being more proactive and less reactive?

As you can see, all of these digital intents can ground an organization as they embark on their digital-transformation journey. When companies are solving large, transformational, and highly strategic business problems, they can address these problems through design thinking—instead of grabbing everyone, putting them in a room, and banging out the requirements. Design thinking lets them look at solving the larger problem in very different ways.

Why a Design-Thinking Approach?

People in both large and small businesses make decisions every day, but they don’t always make these decisions based on a digital intent and with a design-focused mindset. However, implementing design-focused thinking is exactly what the best companies are doing to gain a competitive edge. Incorporating design strategies always leads to better decisions.

If a company misses the big-picture experience, it often struggles in trying to succeed. For example, the CIO of a large organization embarked on a three-year journey to build a completely new system for customer-service representatives. Once the system was complete, this CIO noticed his reps were still using spiral-bound notebooks while on calls instead of the new system. Plus, they weren’t following the script the company was trying to enforce. That three-year journey was a bust. Had the CIO first endeavored to understand the needs of his users by observing them and listening to them and had he kept design in mind from the start, he could have avoided this costly mistake.

Another example that shows the importance of design—or the impact of its lack—occurred in late 2011, when J.C. Penney hired Ron Johnson—who was credited with the success of the Apple Store—as its CEO. Johnson very publicly left J.C. Penney after just 17 months at the company. What went wrong? The design changes Johnson had implemented did not speak to J.C. Penney’s core customers. He instituted a ban on discounts and introduced an innovative shopping experience in lieu of savings. It was a great concept, but for J.C. Penney customers, the thrill of the discount was the experience. Taking that away for what the company thought was a cooler design resulted in failure. The retailer has since struggled to regain its footing.

Good design can save and make you money. But how can you apply design to your strategic thinking? I’ll provide some key takeaways to help prevent these stories from becoming your own.

Knowing Your Users and Involving Them in the Design Process

For UX design professionals, the importance of knowing our users is a no brainer. We have been involving them in the design process all along. However, enterprise organizations have been slow to adopt this practice. This is not necessarily about recognizing that users are important, but more around how to stress their importance every day. Employing design thinking makes this easier. Your user base is one of the most important parts—if not the most important part—of the design process. As you can see in the earlier examples, as a result of not fully knowing their users’ needs, these large organizations took massive financial hits and had to conduct substantial redesigns to create something that worked. They failed to formulate the digital intent of their efforts and understand their core users’ behaviors to inform their design decisions.

Simply setting aside the time to think about what it is they are trying to achieve and centering on the user of a design solution is something many companies do not do, and it can cost them. Not all companies can afford to limp along for years because of design mistakes—as J.C. Penney has done.

In 2009, Kaiser Permanente came up with the 22 key experiences for a “Total Health Journey”—the primary moments of a patient’s care when going through their healthcare system. They implemented design thinking to look at everything holistically—from conducting traditional stakeholder interviews about care facilities, to studying how people reacted to the color of the carpets in their offices. Through this process, they determined their key user experiences and found specific, visual ways to improve them, dramatically enhancing the user experience. Understand your users, and you’ll reap the benefits.

Applying Design As a Continuous Process

Every designer is familiar with the frustrating question: “Why can’t you just fix this one thing about the design?” But this question is often posed too late in the design process to be of value. The problem here is that design is not a thing to be applied like a performance tune-up. Design is a continuous process that you not only apply throughout a project’s lifecycle, but need to embed in a company culture.

You need to think about design from an idea’s inception. When creating a new product, you must ensure the team working on that project includes a design expert. That person needs to be part of the core team, not an add-on during just the final stages of the project. For many companies, this might mean making a greater investment in design, but it also means that, during every step of the development process, your team can seek insights from someone who understands how to make the product the best it can be for users. Investing early in design means you can later reap bigger rewards rather than rush to fix things that have gone awry.

Avoiding the Copycat Trap

Another goal people mistakenly apply to design is “Make our product look like X.” Whether it’s the design of a competitor or just an innovative brand, in most cases, the design someone likes has nothing to do with your own business or goals. It’s just a cool thing they want to emulate. While there is nothing inherently wrong with finding inspiration from many sources, it’s crucial that you ensure the design people want is right for your business.

Consider what happened to J.C. Penney when they hired Ron Johnson. They wanted a cool design like Apple’s, but that’s not what their customer base wanted. They were not thinking of their digital intent and lacked a clear design goal.

Before you embark on any design-related project, you need to identify your core strengths and consistently drive your approach to designing and executing on your offerings to your customers. Design is one of the most important factors in bringing an idea to life. However, it is not the only factor that matters. You also need digital intent if you want to be able to tie design thinking to strategy and align it with the execution and realization of your next steps in seeking digital-transformation success. At the end of the day, digital intent is about understanding your customers and how well they enjoy using your product, application, or service.

What’s Next?

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll delve deeper into digital intent and how design thinking can help you to both solve an identified problem and also figure out what problem to solve and where to start. 

Senior Director, Technical Solutions and Global Design, at Pegasystems

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Baruch SachsWith over 12 years of experience leading and participating in successful efforts to improve user experience across various industries, Baruch has a developed a wide range of skills in the areas of interaction design, user interface development, and product management. For the past 5 years, he has developed and led the global user experience team at Pegasystems and serves as the principal end-user advocate for the Pegasystems Services organization in the delivery of user interface design and user experience to customers and partners.  Read More

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