Design thinking: How to convert need into demand

Robbert-Jan van Oeveren

Reading time
3 min read

Jun 14, 2021

While the 20th century seemed to focus solely on the enterprise as an economic unit, the 21st century shows a shift in this focus. A shift towards a more customer-focused approach, where design is not the shiny layer around a crappy product, but a new way of thinking. This is my take how I look upon the role of design in innovation.

Design thinking: It just sounds so simple. Just figure out what people want and give it to them. But if it’s so easy, why don’t we see more success stories like the iPod, MTV and eBay?

Why is it so difficult to spot a need and design a response?

We’re not doing it the right way! In the traditional approach to market research, we would ask statistically average people to respond to a survey that asks them what they want. But Henry Ford already noticed that consumers are not able to express themselves properly when he remarked “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse”.

That’s why these techniques rarely come up with any important insights and are only useful for pointing towards incremental innovation. They will never come up with those ground-breaking, paradigm-shifting, game-changing breakthroughs that make us think ‘why didn’t anyone think of that before?’

So how do we come up with those breakthroughs?

First we need to put the customer at the heart of the organisation. Our sole purpose is to add value to his or her life. Secondly we should get out of the office and talk to real customers. And thirdly, we should find ways to truly understand their behaviour, because behaviour is never right or wrong, they are always meaningful experiences. Capturing these experiences allow you to gain a deep understanding of their needs and motivations.

If you take a look at the different levels of knowledge, you see that traditional market research focuses on the things customers say or think; explicit knowledge. But to gain a deeper understanding, you should observe your customers behavior. Then you find that there are so many more things they are not able to express, simply because they are not aware they are doing things that were not intended that way. When was the last time you chained your bicycle to a fence or hung your jacket on a doorknob? Do you think that the doorknob was designed for that?

And there are techniques to gain an even deeper understanding of customer behavior. Generative techniques help people to articulate the latent needs they may not even know they have. Tools like contextmapping, deep psychological research, cultural probes and maketools, enable customers to reflect on their own experience in order to become aware of their experiences.

So customers can be a very rich source of information, as long as you look further than the traditional ways of doing research. And of course, if you use these techniques right and come up with all kinds of fascinating insights, you have to translate these into products and services that will improve your customers lives. The design process is perfectly fitted for this task.

Of course it is a creative process of which the outcomes are unsure, but there are numerous ways to find inspiration and structure the process to get the most of it. In general it is an iterative process with different stages, which can be described roughly as insights – ideation – conceptualization – implementation. But in every stage you have to make choices and learn from them. If something doesn’t work, go back a stage and try again. Build prototypes early on, fail and go back again. Learn. Involve customers, marketers, engineers and managers in the process, they enable you to find problems early on and allow you to benefit from different types of knowledge.

So yes, design thinking can be a great way to achieve customer centered innovation and enable companies to really start adding value. Discover your customers tacit and latent needs and turn them into demand!

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