Designing a better future at all levels

Design thinking may be the cool new kid on the block in Silicone Valley, but it can also be used to improve the lives of millions of consumers at the bottom of the pyramid.

In designing a product or a service, it is important to stay as close to the user’s experience as possible, otherwise customers, and/or potential consumers or users are likely to do their own thing and either find another service that works better for them, or undermine the value of yours.

Once upon a time most people thought that design and business were two very different things: fashion and architecture vs commerce. Today some of the world’s most successful and fastest growing companies are design-led and the value of design-thinking is recognised.

Take Airbnb for example. In just seven years this company has taken the international hospitality industry by storm with its innovative online platform that allows people to list, discover, and book unique accommodation around the world. At its helm are two designers: CEO Brian Chesky and his co-founder and chief product officer, Joe Gebbia, who are both graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design.

Staying close to the customer experience is one of the key factors of their success. A recent article in FAST COMPANY tells how Chesky and his team think about Airbnb as “being more than just a place to find a room” and take an explicitly empathetic approach to each “emotional moment” of the customer’s experience.

This helps them to be responsive and to consistently tweak the service they offer. For example, when they identified that many of the users of Airbnb transact on the go, they upgraded their mobile products accordingly.

Design thinking is keeping close to your customers and their needs. But it is also inherently disruptive, entrepreneurial, insanely optimistic and creative. It is not afraid to try and fail and it knows no boundaries. As a philosophy it invites you to integrate your business; or as one of my colleagues put it, to “think in 3D”. Design thinking is essentially about the intersection between three dimensions: business/economics, technology/science and people/society. For a business to have economic value it must also serve a purpose for people.

The opportunities for innovation occur at every level of an organisation and often – as with Google – in the creative coupling of unexpected elements (it was by combining search engine wizardry with advertising opportunities that the company hit the jackpot).

Through design-thinking, social challenges like education, energy and access to clean water might be countered.

This was one of the stated aims of the Cape Town World Design Capital (WDC) initiative. Director Richard Perez has said that employing design thinking to resolve the city’s entrenched problems, such as segregation and unemployment, was one of the key aspects of the WDC – setting it apart from other world design capitals which have had a more conventional focus on design.

Perez hopes that design thinking might dripfeed through WDC projects and change the way the city approaches issues in the future. In the same way that Airbnb is setting an example of the value of design in business, so too can cities and other social purpose organisations draw inspiration from the WDC.

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