Design Thinking and CX: Part 2


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Design is a process that helps people develop systems that other people will use. This process can be applied to software, buildings, space shuttles, tea kettles and organizational structures. CX design is about applying design’s problem solving capacity to align a business to face its customers. It needs to work across channels, touchpoints and media – making it different from other fields. Software designers make software. Automotive designers make cars. CX designers enable experiences.

But no one owns this process. Its origins are ancient. Its effects are ubiquitous in the modern world and permeate every facet of our lives.

This is the second of a two-part story – about how this process came to be, how it works, and how it can be leveraged to build a better connection between a business and its customers. Click here to read part 1.

The design process is usually modeled as a linear sequence. But from our experience, that’s not how it works in the real world. In this model, the structure of the process – made up of the basic building blocks of discovery, ideation and testing – becomes less and less rigid. It’s not about following three steps in sequence as much as shifting focus from place to place; depending on the needs of the team and the types of questions they are asking. (Others have pointed this out too, for example, Tim Brown from IDEO.) Making the process work has a lot more to do with the diverse capacities and perspectives of the team than about a formalized step-by-step sequence of activities. Even the team itself isn’t static. Different people – the client, analysts, researchers, stakeholders, and sometimes the customers themselves – come into the process to offer their perspective when it’s relevant to the problem. 

Design Blocks diagram
Please click the picture for a closer look.

Research the opportunity, problem, context, culture, stakeholder and customer patterns. Use whatever research tools make sense for your context.

In much of the literature on customer experience design, there is an emphasis on problem solving. But there is a lot more to customer experience than solving for existing problems. In order to foster a great experience, a good first step would be to identify and eliminate known painpoints – but that in itself will not be enough to compete against other companies who focus on moving towards opportunities in the market, cultural or technological shifts, or to better satisfy a customer need. Worse still, it can be very difficult for companies and teams to align on (or sometimes even notice) real problems without substantial evidence being compiled first – leading to a chicken-and-egg question. You can’t start the research without identifying a problem, and you can’t settle on a problem area without research.

Our team uses a wide set of research tools, from ethnography and “voice of the customer” to online analytics and e-commerce performance statistics to build a deep understanding of the customer in the real world – identifying better opportunities to engage, but also building knowledge of the terrain. Our next article, titled “The New CX Toolbox” will feature a deep dive into our customer experience research methodology.

Develop conceptual approaches to realize the opportunity, to solve the problem, build better ways to do something, and foster a better experience for the customer.

Ideation has always been a sort of “black box.” The moment when the magic happens, out of sight of the client when a new concept comes out of all that knowledge. There has been a lot written about creative tools that can help spur this along – rapid visualization, generative approaches, free-association, lateral and visual thinking, oblique strategies, brainstorming – techniques to get a group to work up new, more diverse ideas faster. These techniques help to frame up new questions about the customer and their context or to gain a different perspective on an opportunity. I would like to say that these tools will be effective in the hands of anyone who has access to them, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. The success of all this comes down to the creative capacity of the team and its individual members in the end. I don’t believe that creativity is something that “some people have and others don’t.” I feel strongly that it’s something that is learned and it comes in a lot of forms. Many confuse drawing ability with creativity; a mis-conception that has kept many important points of view out of the conversation. Success here comes from being inspired by the group around you, the richness of the knowledge at hand and what you have taken from the people you have worked with in the past. The best approach is to build a team that makes up for each other’s blind spots, the more diverse the better, and let the group learn their way to a solution together.

Test your ideas on paper, in the lab and in the real world. Learn as much as you can from the test. Feed it back into the system.

The importance of testing as a part of the process cannot be overstated. In a perfect world, this is where the team should be spending the majority of their time. It is the only opportunity to make a mistake, learn from it, and improve on tactics without exposing them to the entire customer base. Still, it’s amazing how many companies fail in this critical step. So much emphasis is placed on research and creative that often this part gets downplayed, or worse yet, overlooked completely.

The key to getting this activity right is to prototype initial concepts quickly using simple, inexpensive means, and to let them fail. Then, feed the learnings back into ideation and discovery quickly to get new concepts. This is why the process is not linear; it needs to not only feedback on itself, it needs to do so unpredictably. In a recent project, we developed a simple set of prototypes that could be tested and modified very easily. The models were reworked on the fly based on customer input and observation, and quickly evolved into designs that delighted customers at a fraction of the cost of the original concept. But, they were nothing like what we imagined in the first place. Testing, ideation and research were layered on top of each other, not in sequence, to get a better result that we could not have anticipated.

The design process puts a different spin on the scientific method. It is a self-correcting system, where hypotheses come in, and validated research comes out – to be fed back in to inform the next round of new ideas. A CX designer’s role is one of keeping focus on how people, products and systems interact; using the process to explore new ideas before they are brought to market. Those ideas become the building blocks of brands because they will be the main touchpoints for customers. For that reason they can have a great deal of value to both the customer and the business.

The difference between CX design and all the other types of design (architecture, graphic design, service design, industrial etc.) is that a CX designer is not tied to a single medium. Architects work in construction, graphic designers work in 2D media, service designers create service systems, industrial designers work in manufacturing. But a CX designer works hand in hand with all of these professions (and several others) to create a holistic experience for a customer across all media and channels. This design thinking needs to be combined with analytical horsepower and fluency in business management in order to understand the financial impact of the work. It also needs to be mixed with a deep understanding of research methods to build an understanding of the customer, their preferences and patterns.


Sketching User Experiences
Bill Buxton, Morgan Kaufmann

Change by Design
Tim Brown, Harper Collins

Making Ideas Happen
Scott Belsky, Portfolio Penguin

This is Service Design Thinking
Stickdorn and Schneider, Wiley Press

Bruce Mau, Phaidon

In our next article, “The New CX Toolbox”, we will discuss these research and analytical methods in greater detail.

Download THE ART AND SCIENCE OF CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE – Lenati’s comprehensive look at the rapidly-evolving field of CX. It includes deep dive articles on state-of-the-art research methods, design thinking, business case studies, omnichannel strategy, digital marketing and analytics & measurement tools and many more.
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Paul Conder
Paul Conder, has a twenty year track record leading multidisciplinary teams, bridging the fields of experience design, interior design, product design and retail strategy. Paul has led research and design projects for many leading global brands, including Starbucks, Starwood Capital Group, Canyon Ranch, Lululemon, Telus, East West Partners, Philips Design Silicon Valley, and Vitamin Water / 2010 Olympic Games - helping clients develop brand-driven interior architecture, products and customer experiences. Paul is a principal at Lenati LLC, leading Lenati's Customer Experience practice.


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