The Importance of Design Thinking to Marketing Strategy

Isabel Ji

Design thinking is a methodology widely used by designers to conceptualize ideas. Imagine it like this: if there are two ways of “thinking” — intuition-based (gut feeling) and logical (reason based) — design thinking combines them. It’s an ideal way for designers to unearth more people-focused, creative solutions often overlooked by conventional practices. But, what exactly does this mean to marketers?

This should sound familiar to marketers, who leverage tools like surveys and focus groups for digging into the needs of their audience. Design thinking takes it a step further and can be the very thing that helps propel businesses into more human-centered and “blue ocean” ideas that break through in a competitive marketplace.

Design thinking starts by uniquely understanding consumers and what matters to them and then frames a problem based on what they need. So, how should you apply design thinking?

Look beyond surveys & focus groups.

Surveys and interviews are popular ways to gather intelligence about customers. And while they are powerful, they often don’t get at the level of detail needed to break through. Few, if any, people take a survey knowing exactly what they need. Survey takers will judiciously mark their answers and offer careful freeform responses. All valuable. But not as valuable as the things they aren’t telling you.

Focus groups get a little closer to digging in with consumers— their attitudes, concerns, and needs as it relates to your brand, your product or service, and your marketing. Yet, there are certain drawbacks in this method. A participant may have their own belief biased by another in the room, or be less vocal about sharing feedback. The discussion is also difficult to control, and sorting out multiple perspectives is a challenge. Focus groups are often best practiced when there is clear direction or a known problem to be addressed.

There’s another way to uncover your customer’s unknown needs. Observation.

Observation is the crux of design thinking. It is an important way to uncover subtle problems and unperceived needs that a person may have in their daily lives.

There are several observation techniques. The simplest may be setting a camera up to capture a subject’s reaction or behavior. There is also shadowing, where a researcher follows a subject(s) from a distance. The benefit of shadowing is that it’s a bit less disruptive and a better indication of “real life.” You could also ask a person to fill in a photo logbook, recording daily life activities and moods as it relates to your particular initiative.

Regardless of the method, just like other forms of research, having a substantive sample is critical to gathering meaningful marketing insights — and carefully analyzing that data to uncover patterns that might unearth something unique. It’s tedious work, but fruitful.

Finally, validation & customer development are vital.

The worst outcome is made possible when companies run with an idea they *think* people want. Then, spend time and money in implementation without ever showing it to a prospective customer. When it finally faces the market and they respond with indifference, both time and capital have been wasted.

Whether it is a product or a marketing strategy, there needs to be a constant start-to-finish iterative process of testing, modifying, and developing with the end user. See how users interact and make modifications based on their feedback and your observations. And, be prepared to scrap the idea of it’s not resonating.

There are no rules about how many tests you should do, how to conduct them, or even when. It’s often a trade-off of validation and budget and deadline. That is precisely why lean startup and agile development techniques are becoming so popular. And yet, it still boils down to marketers and developers thinking creatively about time and cost efficient methods for testing their ideas.