Design Thinking for Developing Innovative Communication Strategies

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Design thinking is a process for practical, creative resolution of problems or issues that looks for an improved future result.  It is the essential ability to combine empathy, creativity and rationality to meet user needs and drive business success. Unlike analytical thinking, design thinking is a creative process based around the “building up” of ideas. There are no judgments early on in design thinking. This eliminates the fear of failure and encourages maximum input and participation in the ideation and prototype phases. Outside the box thinking is encouraged in these earlier processes since this can often lead to creative solutions.

As the principles of design thinking have largely been used to help companies reinvent their innovation processes to develop compelling and transformative products and services – there is much that marketing and communication professionals can derive from these basic principles to support the creation and design of influence strategies to shape market conversation and ideas to advance the competitive positions of their companies.

I recently touched on this in a post on thought leadership.

Vanessa Meimis rightly states, that whether it’s called design thinking, lateral thinking, right-brain thinking, systems thinking, integrative thinking, futures thinking, it is rooted in a capacity to understand the world and our relationship to it, and within it, in a different way.

Tim Brown from IDEO suggests that the process of design thinking provides approaches to solving problems in very creative and innovative ways. Instead of making the best choice from existing alternatives the idea is to create new alternatives.

It all starts with asking the right questions followed by getting active participation by the community. 

New alternatives and new ideas required in times of change

As I have written many times, social media is one of the most disruptive forces that industry (as a whole) has faced since the advent of the Internet – as every business has to adapt and accept it’s role and responsibility of being a media company.  Business leaders as well as marketing and communication professionals are challenged to adapt to the new realities that not only support their companies to compete today…but to compete and lead in the future…under a new set of rules. 

The intersection of social media and design thinking

Social media has evolved to become a very powerful medium for people to channel emotion, context and experience.  It is a human driven media that is and will continue to transform society through new information delivery and consumption models, new commerce models, and relationship management practices – beyond boarders.

Connecting this to design thinking, Vanessa Miemis provides a great perspective:

Design thinking is a “human-centered approach,” and for me that means truly getting down to the core of what we think it means to be human, of what it ‘should’ look like, and how we want to experience life. When we see the word “design,” we may immediately think of just products made by a snooty designer; items we see displayed at a museum that bear no resemblance to something we’d find in our home, artwork that makes us somehow feel stupid because we don’t understand why it’s so special, or architecture that is said to make “a statement” but feels completely alien in the way it impacts us. That is not the same design that is being proposed by design thinking.

By shifting the perspective and mindset as to how we create marketing and communication strategies (following designing thinking principles), we can deliver significant value to our companies – by better connecting the customer or relevant stakeholder to the business.

In this regard, the process of planning and critical thinking is perhaps the most important element to develop effective and innovative strategies. John Bell offers a perspective the skills and tools that communication professionals must poses to support this process. 

In many ways, marketing and communication professionals have historically been driven by an imperative to plan and execute around the problems of yesterday/today (event based) with focus on tactical execution to deliver quick results. 

A mistake that is often made is the overt focus on the near-term or past issues – where results are short lived and devoid of alignment to long-term strategic business requirements to ‘create’ opportunities and influence sustainable competitive advantage.

I assert that design thinking is a great framework to help facilitate a shift in thinking and planning for marketing and communication professionals – as it almost forces a strategic shift in  perspective from looking at the ‘challenges’ of today and current approaches to solving ‘these’ problems to a mindset of looking at the ‘opportunity’ of tomorrow and beyond and new ways to create advantages.

How do you architect the transformation or redefine the problems of today to the opportunities of tomorrow?  If you figure this out…you are in a great position to create strategies that will have high impact for your company (assuming that products and services are also aligned).

Bruce MacGregor from IDEO offers some key principles that make designi thinking work.  I have taken the liberty to ofer new thoughts to the principles (with the exception of the last which is attributed directly to Bruce):

Insight driven. In a world where social business is defining new rules for companies to compete, it is critical to be open to ideas that are not your own and be comfortable enough to apply them to what you do to generate competitive advantage.  Embrace employees, customers, partners, industry thought leaders and influencers to gather insights.  In many ways these are the same audiences that companies need to support, endorse and evangelize the outcome of the design process.  It is critical that you identify the needs and input from all stakeholders in an effort to design programs that connect with them – as people. 

Synthesis. The ability to identify patterns and potential opportunities through analytical reasoning and assessment is critical to identify new and complete ways to address existing problems that create future opportunities. Often, good synthesis results in a clear perspective based on the interdependencies, supporting elements, and human interactions within the systemic solution – to simply connect the dots.

Experiential. Experience is perhaps the most important part of social media that business leaders must understand and appreciate. Experience is real.  It is tangible.  It is the result of what people feel, see, touch, hear, etc. As you look to design marketing, communication and influence programs in a world of social business – you must make it experiential. In the end the goal is to motivate people to action based on value.  In many ways, value is relative to how you help people be more productive, smarter, connected, successful, etc.  Align your programs to the right value and use social media to connect to the individual and will you win.

Optimism. To create anything new requires a passionate belief that there is a better way.  Lots of people will tell you why your idea will not work.  It is worth listening to learn, but it is important to always be looking ahead to what is possible. Traditional methods for predicting success rarely work with new to the world ideas.  This is when it is important to use your experience and intuition to make the best choices to move forward.

Starting from a basis of these principles, the steps for design thinking are widely known to have seven formal stages: define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, and learn.  I have again adapted the below for the purpose of this post.

Within these seven steps, which provide the very foundation of design thinking and the innovation that delivers the value through these processes and regime problems can be framed, the right questions can be asked, more ideas can be created, and the best answers can be chosen.

Define
• Decide what issue you are trying to resolve or opportunity you are trying to create.
• Agree on who the audience is (e.g. industry, geography, role, etc).
• Determine what will make the project/effort successful.
• Establish a glossary of terms (if needed). Often times people debate to find that they never really disagreed in the first place. They just looked at words/issues/phrases through a different lens.

Research
• Review the history of the issue; remember any existing obstacles
• Collect examples of other attempts to solve the same issue
• Note the project supporters, investors, and critics
• What are the pain points or challenges of the audience?
• Talk to your end-users, that brings you the most fruitful ideas for later design
• Take into account thought leaders’ opinions

Ideate
• Identify the needs, motivations and decision process of your end-users
• Generate as many ideas as possible to serve these identified needs
• Log your brainstorming session
• Do not judge or debate ideas
• During brainstorming, have one conversation at a time

Prototype/Design
• Combine, expand, and refine ideas
• Create multiple drafts
• Seek feedback from a diverse group of people, include your end users
• Present a selection of ideas
• Reserve judgment and maintain neutrality

Choose
• Review the objective
• Set aside emotion and ownership of ideas
• Avoid consensus thinking
• Remember: the most practical solution isn’t always the best
• Select the powerful ideas

Implement
• Make task and role descriptions
• Plan tasks
• Determine resources
• Assign tasks
• Execute

Learn
• Gather feedback from the consumer
• Determine if the solution met its goals
• Discuss what could be improved
• Measure success; collect data
• Understand motivations and create incentives to help adjust design and influence behaviors

Below are some great posts that I have found that inspire further thought:

Next up is a discussion on the leadership imperative required to create the environment for innovation and design thinking to actually work.

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