The Digital Agency Network’s design thinking conference brought together some extraordinary design leaders and executives from some of the United States’ largest companies and the best design houses available. A set of ten learnings about user-centered design emerged from those conversations.

  1. Go Out and Listen. Not them, but you (and them) go into the market, to the stores, to the homes, to the offices, to the automobiles, and talk with people…in person. Great design does not come from analyzing data in the office, it comes from generating it.
  2. Don’t Teach, Apply. A failure point is attempting to teach design thinking in the abstract. Get on the court and apply it to real problems. Once you get that first win, it can be a powerful snowball effect within your organization.
  3. Empathizing Can Melt the Naysayers. To sway the naysayers, use design thinking methods and go listen to them. Get their experience, and have them experience being heard. There is considerable power in empathizing with naysayers of design thinking; this will help you to design a game plan that transforms them into believers.
  4. Squad Up. Be on the lookout for people who think differently, and then go become their buddy. The pair of you then double, triple, and continue to multiply by seeking out other cross-functional partners in your organization to build momentum and organizational buy-in. Also, find someone like this who’s an executive and get them to be your champion.
  5. Get Formal to Be Seen as Legit. Look, organizational structure means different things in different places, but nearly everywhere a committee, team, or (eventually) a group or department is ‘a thing’ in a company. When getting set up, help make your squad more legitimate by building a cross-functional innovation steering committee… and go to work on a real business problem that people outside the team care about.
  6. Measurement Matters. Find ways to measure design thinking initiatives; integrate results from design thinking efforts with your innovation metrics dashboard. Business dashboards should span beyond financial metrics. Create KPIs for design thinking, e.g., the number of customers spoken to, the number of prototypes tested, etc. The measurements help tell the story that this is real, robust work.
  7. The Person with the Prototype Wins. This is a mantra of the user-centered / design thinking world for a reason. Keys to this: don’t let perfect get in the way of good. Now-and-clunky is better than later-and-refined (since the prototype is never going to be the end product anyhow). In a meeting where someone has an idea and someone has a prototype, ten out of ten times the latter person will get the attention.
  8. Empathize Inside and Outside. In design, people are more committed to what they help build. Moreover, you will need advocates. If you’re not getting hands-on feedback and sharing from your internal business colleagues, you’re likely setting the table for organizational disappointment. If you’re on an innovation team that hands-off concepts to a business team, conduct empathy mapping with the people on the team to understand how best to hand off a minimally viable product in a way that that team can–and will want to–commercialize.
  9. Keep the Problem #1. In many organizations, what moves center is ‘how’ versus what. In design-thinking and user-centered design, keep the problem as the main thing. Write the problem statement on the wall in a huge way, build it into stickers for people’s laptops, or do something that keeps it in front always.
  10. Get Out of Your Swim Lane. Your day-to-day work and colleagues are fantastic in many ways and go spend time with other people in other places. Go see colleagues in other departments. Go grab lunch with past colleagues who are in new industries and compare notes and ideas (as appropriate). Go to conferences. Make sure that you’re infusing your thinking regularly with something different and not usual… and you’re in a state of the wonder of what you’re not considering.
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