How design thinking fuels meaningful innovation
 From empathising with the user to prototyping and iteration, the key processes in design thinking can help innovation teams create desirable product for the market. 


Desire is a visceral emotion—a sense of yearning that marketers and advertisers want to tap into when promoting a product or service. One could argue that at heart of desire lies a need that triggers a search for a solution. Ultimately, the most effective and elegant solution wins the hearts of customers.

But how can organisations increase the likelihood that their creations truly meet the needs of their intended users and stand out among other offerings on the market? Rather than innovate blindly, companies are integrating design thinking into their product and technology workflows to help direct their development process.

“Design thinking is a human-centred methodology and framework combining mindset, principle, approach, process and tools, which could help people innovate more consistently,” said Jeremy Sun, Design Director of strategic research design agency Orcadesign Consultants. “It is particularly useful for solving poorly defined problems—especially in changing contexts—to fulfil multiple stakeholders' needs and improve their experiences.”

Finding that connection

To know what gives someone pleasure and pain, it helps to walk in their shoes. Empathy is thus a key element of the design thinking process.

“A big part of design thinking is stakeholder empathy; being able to connect key user needs to the product or technology early on during the [innovation] process,” explained Lee Tze Ming, Co-founder and Director at STUCK, a multidisciplinary design studio that bridges physical products, digital interaction and user experiences.

He added that empathy results in a more focused approach to innovation, as it reminds development teams to focus on the benefits and value that a potential product or technology will deliver. This sentiment was echoed by Sun, who advocated going beyond empathy to leverage evidence and data when trying to understand user behaviour and preferences.

Making innovation tangible

Having built a firm foundation based on empathy and evidence, the innovation team may then progress to develop a prototype, which helps crystalise the key features of an invention and serves as a platform for testing how users might interact with it. Lee recounted how prototyping was immensely useful in the development of a respirator mask—the Air+ Smartmask—by Singapore-based open innovation lab Innosparks Pte Ltd.

“The engineering team at Innosparks had a range of filtration technologies to choose from that might have offered better performance in terms of sealing or comfort, some of which were derived from professional filtration masks. However, a key user need was for the mask to be lightweight, portable for young children and give the perception of friendliness when worn,” he said.

Keeping these criteria in mind, Lee’s team at STUCK quickly prototyped different formats of respirator masks, which allowed Innosparks to better evaluate whether certain product features were more desirable than others.

Being fluid and flexible

As the term implies, a prototype is only an early model, not a finished product. With feedback from users, the innovation team must then iterate the design of their prototype.

“The emphasis on prototyping and iteration in the design thinking process means that solutions can be quickly tested with the target audience to see if they genuinely address specific needs in the best possible way,” Lee noted.

Sun added that the iterative process would “ensure that solutions are more holistic because they are tested and refined before being implemented. This increases the chance of success when those solutions are eventually made available to consumers.”

Having said that, there will be scenarios where a prototype or iteration cycle ends up in failure. Managers of innovation teams ought to see this as part and parcel of the innovation process and empower their colleagues to embrace failure rather than avoid it, Lee advised. “The innovation process is essentially a risky endeavour, so managing risks and expectations is the challenge,” he said.

Keeping up the good work

Both Lee and Sun highlighted that continuity is another critical stumbling block for organisations seeking to embed design thinking into their operations. After overcoming inertia to kickstart the design thinking process, innovation teams easily lapse back into earlier ways of doing things.

“Identifying champions for design thinking and clearing up the path for how they can adapt it to the organisation's existing culture really is the ‘inside job’ [needed to sustain design thinking],” Lee suggested. Sun agreed, adding that top management must endorse design thinking for it to be consistently carried out within the company.

Nonetheless, design thinking alone cannot resolve all of a company’s innovation woes. “In the context of open innovation, design thinking does not address intellectual property related issues, nor does it address the development work of technology,” said Sun. Hence, there is a need for interdisciplinary knowledge and expertise in innovation teams so that new, desirable products and technologies can be consistently rolled out.

“With these elements in place, products and technologies are more likely to be well received, adopted and experienced by their intended users,” Sun concluded.