Six strategies to build a design culture

If you spent any time in the lab as a high school student you would have had the scientific method of problem solving drilled into you; come up with a hypothesis, run your experiments, and check your assumptions against the end results. But whether you were experimenting with plant growth, a baking soda volcano or the genetics of the fruit fly, it would have been unlikely that you would have considered how any of your test subjects actually felt.

Enter design thinking. Rather than being limited to testing an idea against a measurable set of results, design thinking is centred on the belief that the best solutions come from developing a deeper understanding of the people you want to help and designing solutions to the problems they feel most strongly about.


Bringing design thinking to bigger organisational problems

Design thinking has proved highly effective for decades, across many fields of expertise. In business, it has been used to shift the way consumers feel about every possible type of interaction and experience, whether walking through a supermarket, navigating a website, or going through the process of taking out and paying off a home loan.

Design thinking provides a better understanding of your customers’ needs, wants, actions, and experiences. It has been proven to be particularly useful in the early stages of a project, or where there is a high level of uncertainty, to avoid the pain of building the wrong thing. For that reason, there is growing interest in building a design thinking culture within a business – beyond the traditional UX and UI teams.

Used in this broader sense, design thinking is also proving to deliver greater business value. According to the Design Management Institute, design thinking-driven companies like Apple, IBM, Starbucks and Target are seeing 10-year returns more than twice that of the S&P 500.

But people cannot simply transition to design thinking overnight. Without a cultural and mindset shift across the business only a small fraction of the benefits can be achieved. An effective design culture needs to instead permeate throughout the entire business ecosystem.


Practical strategies to building and fostering a design culture

1.   Putting design thinking into practice

As for many aspects of culture, you can mandate design thinking as a company initiative but in order for it to be successful, the change must be made meaningful. Allow people across the business to discern the value from the new design culture by helping them understand how it can be applied in terms of their roles, responsibilities, and goals. Reinforce this with ongoing coaching, and exposure to practical experiments.

Once people have this foundation, the next focus is to ensure that everyone understands both the long and short-term strategy of the organisation. As your company’s design culture matures, teams that are empowered with this information will be able to make the right decisions faster, with a lower reliance on senior management that in turn will free your leadership up to provide important executive support and endorsement.

2.   Encouraging your team to develop a sense of empathy

We all have different perceptions and biases that influence how we view the world around us. But being able to see things from someone else’s point of view is core to making design thinking work.

Building empathy for “all” people affected by a problem or opportunity helps to move team members away from their personal predispositions towards more productive conversations. Without empathy, what ends up being built may not be what actually suits the needs and context of the people for whom you are building.

This means that empathy should be treated as an important business skill, like any other, which must be recruited for, and developed in existing teams, by:

  • Encouraging people to be consumers of your company’s own products.
  • Conducting regular interviews with customers and customer-facing teams, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to take part on a regular basis.
  • Embracing the opportunities created by VR and AR technology, ranging from trialling products in simulated ‘real world’ situations – to being immersed in the perspective of the people your company serves.
  • Creating and sharing customer journey maps to make entire experiences more accessible.
  • Developing deeper customer personas based on the insights derived from multiple sources.

3.   Bringing your people closer to the customer

Don’t fall into the trap of talking to your own people posing as customers. Involve real customers throughout the journey to test, as frequently as possible, starting with ideation, and moving onto opportunities where you can co-collaborate with prototypes.

Garter touched on this during their 2017 Symposium, where they emphasised the need for teams to interact with customers in their environment to observe their behaviour in context, in order to develop empathy and formalise initial product ideas.

Try asking yourself these questions:

  • Behaviour – what are they doing?
  • Motivation – why are they doing this?
  • Outcome – what are they trying to achieve?
  • Ecosystem – what is the network of relationships?

This will encourage your teams to solve for real customer needs and provide a true sense of context, rather than moving forward with inherently subjective assumptions.

4.   Simplifying the expectations of prototyping

A common myth is that a prototype needs to be a working version of the product, or it can damage brand perception. But a prototype can be in any format, as long as it allows you to sufficiently test not only whether it will be accepted by users, but how well the solution solves the problem.

Companies with successful design cultures regularly use extremely low fidelity prototypes such as paper sketches, storyboards or screen mockups with real users to understand how the solution compares to existing alternatives, and how likely customers would be to put in the effort required (in terms of time, money, or emotion) to adopt it.

The benefit of simple prototyping is that it can offer teams a faster way to validate their assumptions, without the work or investment that would come with more integration and development.

5.   Listening to each other is as important as listening to the customer

When taking on organisational-wide problems it is more likely that teams will include subject matter experts from a range of different areas, who may naturally struggle with the use of different language and when their knowledge is challenged with alternative viewpoints.

Create a culture where people are encouraged to ask questions, consider the answers, and play them back to ensure a shared or deeper understanding of the problem at hand. The use of external facilitators can be extremely helpful in removing bias and mediating discussions.

6.   Spreading the right behaviours across the company

An open-plan office is not enough to combat ingrained silos within your business. Promote the behaviours that are inherent in design thinking through:

  • Cross-department secondments
  • Crowdsourcing ideas
  • ‘Lunch and learn’ sessions for team members to share case studies where design thinking was the catalyst for success.
  • External thought leader talks and field trips to market leaders’ offices (in noncompeting industries) to inspire.
  • Building in time for teams to research, experiment and feedback the learnings.


An effective design culture seeks value in every respect

These strategies will help towards creating a culture of design thinking, one where your people are solving for how consumers feel as well as what they do – which is the first step in creating an emotional attachment with a brand.

For many organisations working to create a strong design culture is the next step in their evolution after adopting the agile philosophy.

A strong design culture ensures that greater user empathy, reinforced with targeted research and experimentation, is translated into more useful products for customers, and greater value for the company.