Integrating Design Thinking into Organizations

July 6, 2020

What can your company learn from other organizations’ failures in embracing design? Embrace the best ideas from the experiences of thousands of organizations who have taken a shot at becoming more design driven!

Many now accept that design, in a broad sense, can boost any company’s shareholder value. Therefore, companies and public offices alike should be welcoming design. However, if your organization is like most, you’ll find that spreading the philosophy of design thinking is difficult, slow, or even counterproductive to becoming more design driven. Fortunately, there is no need for you to encounter all potential design-cultivation problems. Through a decade of experimentation of across various organizational contexts, we have accumulated plenty of empirical evidence from which we can learn how to succeed in design induction.

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Prominent consultants at McKinsey & Co. and bright Stanford and Aalto University researchers have recently published insightful research that helps answer the question: what makes an organizational transformation whose aim is becoming a design-driven company successful? These consultants and researchers have taken different approaches: consultants looking from the top down and researchers, bottom up. However, when you combine their two perspectives, you can get a pretty clear picture of the key factors you must manage to facilitate an effective design transformation. If you are a UX designer, manager, or executive who is interested in changing your organization, you’d better learn these lessons.

As a disclaimer, I admit to having long-term vested interest in the matter. A few years back at the ACM flagship conference SIGCHI, I gave a talk about a design-focused transformation that UX strategy—as we decided to call it at the time—had fueled.

View from the Top

McKinsey has invested much in design-related offerings and has already produced very interesting design analytics such as the Design Index benchmark tool and the design return-on-investment (ROI) measures they derived from it in 2018.

Now, equipped with over 2,000 data points from different organizations, McKinsey consultants have stated that only 10% of companies have reached the full potential of design. In all other companies, design transformations remain partial. Top managerial decisions about how a company approaches design transformation are often behind the failures to get design working for the benefit of an organization.

The McKinsey study finds that there are three major requirements necessary to the success of design, which are rarely found together:

  • Design leadership with real power, a budget, and a title to show for it
  • Holistic adoption of a user-centric development process throughout company operations
  • User-data and design-metrics savvy, through which Design can prove their worth using common indicators

The focus on design leadership cannot be overstated. The McKinsey report is aptly titled Are you asking enough from your design leaders? The point: an effective design leader is possibly the only person within a corporation who has full visibility into all aspects of an end-to-end customer journey, along with the motivation and power to improve it!

With these precursors, design investments can impact the customer experience by helping organizations to discover, design, and deliver better products. However, an organization can realize this product-based vision only through the transformation of the whole organization and when the appropriate design resources are available. This is the second finding of the study.

The third part is making design accountable and commensurate in terms of its output to other corporate functions. Designers need to earn their keep. Despite the creative and fun label that people attach to design, the numbers the company and its divisions rely on must ultimately reflect the importance and value of design. The key performance indicators (KPIs) and ROI calculations would probably need some adjustments to be applicable, but if design is ever to secure the respect and resourcing it requires for stability and maximal impact, we must do this.

Board the Design Train

Researchers from Stanford University, in the US, and Aalto University, in Finland, interviewed 110 UX designers, design managers, and leaders from nine countries. Their goal was to understand the frictions between design, business, and engineering in technology organizations. They discovered three obstacles to organizations’ assimilating design seamlessly and effectively, as follows:

  1. Ineffective cross-functional collaboration because of obstacles that uncooperative managers present
  2. The design-thinking training fallacy and superficial, unproductive introductions of design
  3. A lack of strategic guidance that fragments design efforts

The presence of one or more of these three obstacles emphasizes the need to drive awareness of and deep engagement with design throughout all departments of the organization. Strategic commitment is necessary to push design into all departments, strengthening even the weakest links. These researchers also present solutions to overcome the identified obstacles. Their suggestions are simple, but effective.

To improve collaboration, UX designers should actively promote every small, quick win that design achieves. They should also join meaningful transformation projects such as those relating to digitalization. We should avoid overly simplistic introductions of design. Although public, design-thinking workshops could boost awareness and inspire open-minded individuals to experiment with design, they are not enough to advance the transformation in the long term. You need design champions—skilled, motivated people who can help promote and defend all design-related initiatives.

Finally, to provide strategic guidance, an organization must have an adequate number of designers, design leaders, mentors, and ambassadors who can promote design and lead by example. Adding a design function and devising a UX strategy can move an organization in this direction—as long as their ideas carry over to other departments as well.

The Stanford and Aalto University scholars present their model of design impact using the concepts of wide and deep design capabilities. Deep refers to the extent of actual design expertise—shallow versus deep—while width describes how broadly design capabilities are distributed across an organization. A design-driven organization requires both deep and wide design capabilities.

Transform Design in Your Organization

According to these two studies, the formula for design success in a company requires all of the following:

  • solid, empowered design leadership
  • a network of design professionals
  • strong executive commitment providing external motivation
  • credible, tangible, quick wins providing internal motivation
  • an organization-wide commitment to improving the customer experience

When you put all five of these ingredients together, your chances of success are great. This is not to say that executing a design transformation is ever easy. It requires major investments in human resources and staff training and reorganizing work habits. How you can embark on this path through wise investment decisions is another story. It is important not to falter after making some progress. You cannot stop until all the necessary parts are in place, and a process and strategic commitment exist to keep them intact. 

Lead Product Designer at Qvik Ltd.

Adjunct Professor of Human-Centered Product Design at Aalto University

Helsinki, Finland

Lassi A. LiikkanenLassi has over ten years of experience researching, designing, and studying interactive systems, in the US and Europe, including more than five years in the Finnish design and development industry, helping medium and large enterprises design and launch digital services. His special focus is on using data throughout the design process. Since 2015, Lassi has organized an annual Data-Driven Design Day in Helsinki, which gathers hundreds of designers to learn about the latest developments in the exploitation of data and artificial intelligence in design. He has published more than 80 peer-reviewed journal articles and conference proceedings in the fields of product design, interactive technology, music psychology, and cognitive neuroscience. Lassi earned his PhD in Cognitive Science from the University of Helsinki and a Doctor of Science degree in Product Design from the Helsinki University of Technology.  Read More

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