Design Thinking Applied to CRM


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How Design Thinking Aids Customer Strategies and Customer-Centric Business Models

Design thinking is nothing new, however, it is relatively new to enterprise applications. The cognitive design practice driven by organizations such as IDEO has heralded design innovations such as the computer mouse, ergonomic keyboards and a plethora of innovative objects. Organizations such as the Stanford and IBM have since built upon design thinking principals to create frameworks for highly complex projects and enterprise applications.

Design thinking is an evolutionary (iterative), human-centered design and problem solving method that applies deep empathy for users and collaboration among a broad team. Instead of designers working alone, they team with other stakeholders which makes the process symbiotic with agile methods.

But how’s this really different from what we’ve been doing?

Design thinking is an alternative method of problem solving that focuses on how to achieve a human-focused goal (often in the form of a better future situation) as opposed to how to solve a discrete problem.

With enterprise software and CRM applications, software design tends to follow feature creation and be applied near the end of the software development life cycle. It also follows more of an analytical or scientific method whereby a problem, scope and parameters are defined and designers or problem solvers follow a fairly linear path to find an acceptable or optimal resolution in the shortest time frame. Design thinking doesn’t try to constrain scope and isn’t so linear. In the normal course it can take frequent unplanned back steps or circular paths. Steps can occur simultaneously and be repeated. This lack of progressive progress can come as a shock to project managers not in tune with this approach.

Another big difference is that design thinkers use both divergent and convergent thinking to expand ideation and possible solutions. Divergent thinking creates a more expansive solution set of ideas and alternatives to be explored. Convergent thinking focuses on getting to the optimal or correct solution. Design thinking begins with divergent thinking in order to get more perspectives and options, and then applies convergent thinking to narrow to the ideal solution. A primary benefit of this approach is that it is encourages nonconformist thinking, defers judgment and is more likely to uncover an “a-ha moment” that will identify a powerful advantage or benefit that would otherwise not have surfaced.

Design Thinking

Instead of a traditional software design approach which applies an engineering mindset first, and then turns to design near the end of the process when considering the user interface or other aesthetics, design thinking keeps design front and center from beginning to end and is much more focused on the user’s experience.

Here’s the synergy with CRM.

The balance of power in commerce is shifting from sellers to buyers as customers are more connected, informed, empowered and demanding. To respond, business leaders are turning to new customer strategies such as customer experience management and even wholesale company transitions from product centric to customer centric business models. At the core of these shifts lies the customer, and the challenge for business leaders is how to engage and solve for the customer. It’s an ill-defined challenge and will require new thinking and problem solving that is less quantitative and more focused on human behaviors and inventing a new future. Design thinking is uniquely suited for the challenge.

How Design Thinking Aids Customer Strategies and Customer-Centric Business Models

Design isn’t just utility, usability or the streamlining of a user interface. Good design solves a problem with a result that achieves an emotional reaction. This is powerful in business as we all know that people are emotional and buyers make buying decisions based on emotions.

Consider this further from a CRM perspective. The road to CRM software success is littered with failures. Poor CRM strategies and failed user adoption are legendary. CRM goals based on functionality and designed in a company vacuum generally result in a minimal viable product (MVP) that limps along as a customer data management application. Design thinking applied to CRM offers a unique opportunity to achieve goals important to users and customers, secure much higher CRM software utilization and actually lead to business outcomes derived from improved customer engagement and relationships.

But to get there, you need a design thinking approach.

I’ve seen design thinking methods with as few as three steps (empathy, creativity, rationality) to as many as seven stages (define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, and learn). Design thinking remains a nascent movement in the enterprise software market so I’ve found it helpful to understand common constructs and leading frameworks.

Common Constructs

Design Thinking Contructs

Moving from constructs to frameworks, there are two recognized authorities whereby one builds upon the other for enterprise software success.

Stanford d. school Design Thinking

The Stanford d school approach follows a five step model highlighted below.

Design Thinking Stanford dschool

  • Empathize: This step is intended to understand the experience for whom you are designing. Empathy starts with identifying the as-is situation, difficulties and what it would take to delight users. Begin with active listening and observations, resist the impulse to interrupt or offer advice, and then apply a variety of engagement methods go get users to talk, tell their stories, identify their needs and discover their emotions.
  • Define: Apply the empathy insights to develop a point of view (POV). Frame the problem, preferably in a model that can be defined and refined with continued learning.
  • Ideate: Brainstorm and hypothesize a broad spectrum of possible solutions. Start with a blank slate and without preconceived ideas. Apply divergent thinking. Go beyond the norm. Creativity is prized and no idea is too outlandish. This is also a visual step so white boards, flip charts and post-it notes are the standard tools.
  • Prototype: Visualize your POV and ideas using storyboards, PowerPoint, video or mocked up software. Make the prototypes tangible so that the intended experiences can be easily shared, grasped and enhanced. The results of this step should substantiate or revise what you learned at the empathy step.
  • Test: Share and assess your prototype with users to get feedback and see what worked and what didn’t. Sometimes you can test alternative prototypes using A/B or multivariate testing. Test results provide more insights about the user and their desired experience. Your test results are more likely to lead to a repeat of the process than complete the cycle.

To learn more, take the Stanford online crash course in design thinking.

The IBM Design Thinking Approach

IBM is a thought leader in design thinking for the enterprise. IBM Design Thinking is a problem solving approach to creating and delivering great user experiences. It builds upon the Stanford d. school approach with what it calls Hills, Sponsored Users and Playbacks.

IBM Design Thinking

  • Hills: Hills clarify missions. They bring vision, strategy, focus and continuous progression to what users want. They invent the future by concentrating on the ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘wow’ that lead to predictable business outcomes. From a CRM perspective, it’s the “wow” that makes or breaks the company’s customer experience success.
  • Sponsored Users: These stakeholders enable the outside-in perspective and help design thinkers find out what people or customers want but don’t have. They impart and confirm the specific experiences that real users, not imagined users, want and will reward. They provide the insights for what users say, think, feel and do.
  • Playbacks: These are visual illustrations directed to stakeholders and showing how the experiences will be delivered. They bring experiences to life by making them visual or tangible. Playbacks solicit collaboration, feedback and alignment to refine and repeat. They focus on the story (vision, intent and outcome) and not features, functions or user interfaces.

My Point is This

When you build a house, you don’t talk to the plumber first, you begin with the architect. When you build for the customer experience or a customer centric business model, you begin with the customer.

More empowered customers are more demanding. The last best experience that anyone has anywhere becomes the expectation for the next experience they want everywhere. To respond, businesses must become customer-centric, supply products that customers want and deliver consistent, rewarding and memorable customer experiences – all objectives that benefit from an evolutionary, customer-centered design and problem solving approach that applies both broad collaboration and deep empathy for customers.

Design thinking is a change in focus from product science to people science. In a CRM context this changes the outcome from company-centric CRM software that is feature rich but cumbersome and seldom satisfying to users or customers, to CRM software that is simple, intuitive, rewarding and designed to satisfy both users and customers. Only when customer objectives are included in CRM design will CRM software better satisfy customers and grow mutually beneficial customer relationships.

Every business interaction leaves a customer experience. Whether you design for the optimal customer experience or leave the experience to chance will determine the likelihood of your success in satisfying customers who are more connected, informed, empowered and demanding. End

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Chuck Schaeffer
Chuck is the North America Go-to-Market Leader for IBM's CRM and ERP consulting practice. He is also enjoys contributing to his blog at


  1. Thank you Chuck. This is, by far, the best CRM post I ever read so far. I particularely like “The last best experience that anyone has anywhere becomes the expectation for the next experience they want everywhere.”

    Besides, before the marketing’s 4P, we should focus on the 3W: Who? What? Wow? 😉

    The only thing I would add is the main challenge to establish this customer-focus mindset is to migrate the product-push culture of the majority of companies in an design-pull culture the digital environment impose. With internet and the ever evolving choises available, the power are in hands of buyers; not sellers.

  2. Thanks for your comment Luc. You are spot on with regard to to biggest challenge. Becoming customer-centric isn’t achieved with a slogan or tag line, it requires a change in culture which must exist from the bottom to the top of the organization. As you say, the power lies with buyers. The rise in the transparency of vendor products, services and criteria buyers apply when making buying decisions is going to change the phrase caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) to caveat venditor (let the seller beware).


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