Why ‘Design Thinking’ is as relevant during COVID-19 as ever

Nathan Baird explores how marketers can use design-led methodologies to reframe problems, take creative risks and thrive in a post-pandemic market.

‘Design Thinking’ is best known for being a human-centred, creative and experimentation-driven approach to developing new products, services and experiences. However, right now, it is its ability to help leaders and teams manage and navigate in uncertainty that could prove to be the most impactful.

Where traditional management thinking skills are great for managing in certainty, design-led thinking skills are great for managing in VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity). This is because design thinking is a method that is based on customer-centricity, abductive thinking, problem reframing, creativity and experimentation. These are all skills suited to problem solving in the unknown. And you couldn’t get much more VUCA than now. Let’s take a look at how design thinking can help right now:

  1. The importance of customer empathy

At the moment everybody’s worlds (including our customers and employees) have been turned upside down, meaning customer understanding is more important than ever. We need to apply customer empathy research to understand their new normal and identify new and evolving needs and pains, in order to solve and satisfy them. 

  1. Gleaming insight from customer deprivation and disruption

Typically, when we are helping a client innovate in a mature category, such as transportation, cereal or beer, it can be hard for customers to articulate any substantial unmet needs, frustrations or desires. To overcome this barrier we apply what we call deprivation and disruption research techniques. These techniques create a heightened experience of the situation, product or service for the customer, so the needs and pains more easily bubble to the surface and you uncover insights that you wouldn’t have using more traditional research techniques.

COVID-19 has created a global scenario where people’s lives have been disrupted and they are being deprived of what were once everyday activities like going to the office, attending large social gatherings, exercising or travelling further than a 5km radius from their home and so on. This makes now a perfect time to empathetically and respectfully research and uncover new customer needs, which have been heightened by an extreme situation. And by doing so, hopefully, design new solutions to improve people’s lives in some small, if not big, ways.

  1. Creative thinking to adapt, survive and thrive

To survive and thrive during the pandemic we need to think creatively. Whether it is how to lead and keep a dispersed and remote workforce happy, healthy and engaged, design a new way of working for when we return to our places of work or finding how to pivot your product or business model. Creativity is key to generating effective solutions to solve these new problems we are facing. In the words of Albert Einstein: “Problems cannot be solved by thinking within the framework in which the problems were created.” We need to apply lateral thinking to think outside the box.

We also know from the author of ‘Flow’, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, that human beings are at their happiest (in flow, or ‘the zone’) when they are creating. People actually long to express their creativity and when we can’t we’re more likely to feel disengaged, become unproductive and even feel depressed. Engaging our teams to be creative right now may go some way to building a happy and healthy team culture.

  1. Running experiments to decide quickly with confidence

More than ever we need to quickly and cheaply experiment with new solutions, new channels to market and new ways of working to pivot our offerings and operating models.

Experimentation enables teams to quickly and cheaply prototype their solutions building the minimum required to make it testable. They then test these prototypes to validate their assumptions, de-risking their ideas and gaining critical learnings as to why these solutions succeeded or failed. In a design thinking approach, we start first by testing desirability (does the customer need or want it) and move rapidly into viability (can we make money from it) and feasibility (can we technically and organisationally build it) to provide enough confidence to move forward into development and commercialisation.

Right now design thinking can help marketers, corporate teams, startups and leaders across all levels to use design-led methodologies to navigate, survive and hopefully thrive in the current environment. 

Nathan Baird is a leading Design Thinking practitioner, the founder of customer-driven innovation and growth firm Methodry and an author.

Photo by Nikita Kachanovsky on Unsplash.