The fourth dimension of design thinking


Design thinking is a systematic, human-centered approach to problem solving. While the term “design” looms large in construction, the approach has well and truly shifted from the realm of material goods to the more nebulous realms of life and business.

Today, we are seeing the approach being taken successfully in settings, from improving sanitation standards to encouraging employees to return to the office after the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the unique and pragmatic aspects of design thinking is its simultaneous focus on human desirability, technical feasibility and commercial viability.

Tim Brown, former head of IDEO, defines design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation, which draws on the designer’s toolbox to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology and the demands of business success”.

The traditional model of design thinking

This image is etched in the minds of many design thinking practitioners and enthusiasts. It’s sleek and comprehensive, and by looking at some of the innovations that failed, you can see how they missed one or more of these three dimensions.

For example, the ambitious Tata Nano failed on the measure of human desirability, where customers sought prestige from their first car and least labeled as owning the “cheapest car in the world”.

Companies like Kingfisher Airlines and Jet Airways struggled to maintain viable operations, despite scoring high on customer desirability and having a battery of customers.

The most recent case of Big Bazaar only adds to the argument that a satisfied customer does not automatically lead to a profitable business.

And then we have Roomba Robot and Roti Maker which have not reached technical feasibility, especially in an Indian context.

However, one product that could cross the chasm during the pandemic was the dishwasher. With a low opportunity and feasibility score, it could convince households of a timely investment.

Bosch, one of India’s leading dishwasher manufacturers, has Covid to thank for at least one reason. But, the three parameters do not complete the picture. We need a fourth goal: exponential impact.

Think of a situation where an idea scores very high on the metrics of human desirability, technical feasibility, and commercial viability and yet the idea may be very far from creating an impact.

For example, the recently launched iPhone 13 in green color. Does it excite the customer? Yes. Can Apple produce it cost-effectively and quickly? Again yes. But does it produce the desired impact for both the company and its loyal customers? Certainly not.

The dominant model of the desirability-feasibility-viability trinity does not do justice to the pursuit of radical, let alone disruptive, innovation. Interestingly, a breakthrough innovation would score low on some metrics, especially business viability, to begin with, and yet if the impact is huge, like a 10X impact, the idea still needs to be pursued.

Similarly, for disruptive innovation, there would usually be a thumbs down from incumbent customers, and yet the company has every reason to go ahead as the idea may give an advantage. significant competition and often leads to the creation of entirely new products. value stream.

Think of the case of QR code-based, UPI-based transactions, where the impact far obscures returns on desirability, feasibility, or even viability. Often the customer does not know the benefits of a particular innovation or feature.

Think of the usefulness of Bluetooth in in-car entertainment or GPS in navigation. Customers can’t imagine the impact these technologies could have unless use cases emerge and adoption accelerates.

The angle of impact is even more pronounced in the social sector, where the commercial viability of an idea is difficult to argue, and several customers (see stakeholders) to satisfy.

An idea that might have very low commercial viability and even less desirability for customers can be a winning bet if it can have a significant societal impact. Consider the single-use plastic ban in cities like Bangalore. It’s costly for all parties involved – customer, retailer, carriers, etc. – but became a winning idea once its adoption accelerated.

Even in the corporate context, by introducing the fourth dimension of exponential impact into the evaluation rubric, you raise the stakes for everyone involved and aim for high-impact ideas.

For example, any incremental ideas or those for facelift or minor modifications would easily pass through the mix of desirability, feasibility and viability, but no impact, and that’s where everyone would be driven to consider serious bets, a more robust portfolio of ideas.

In summary, the current practice of design thinking, through its continued focus on the triad of human desirability, technical feasibility, and commercial viability, ends up discarding radically superior ideas.

Breakthrough and disruptive innovations require adopting a different focus, and by introducing the impact axis, especially exponential impact, you avoid undermining your innovation efforts.

It has obvious involvement in the non-profit sector, but also has immense utility in the commercial context.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)


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