Design Thinking vs Consumer Expectations: How to Ace Both and Come out on Top

 In Culture, Innovation

With every passing year, customer expectation grows to match and exceed the plethora of products, services and features available on the market; with more choice, comes more expectation. Expectations about functionality, about customization and personalization, etc. Rather than being seen as an inconvenience, top businesses know and acknowledge the importance of these customer expectation, and they recognize that failure to meet evolving customer expectations puts them at risk of losing out in the race to be competitive. At the same time, organizations want to be innovative. They want to produce great products and services without being restricted by any one single factor, including customer expectation. But what if there is a conflict between customer expectation and what companies produce? The result is quite obviously failure – those products and services will fail either completely or fall far short of their potential. Companies know they have to find a middle ground where customer expectations are met, and innovation is also given room to thrive. Enter Design Thinking. In today’s business environment, companies have tended to prioritize Design Thinking far more than they did in in the past, in order to avoid the kind of conflict referred to, and indeed to grow as a business.

The Importance of Design Thinking

The premise of Design Thinking is very simple: products and services should be determined by what the customer wants and not the other way round. The innovative user-need approach of Design Thinking eschews the traditional approach in which products were developed with a ‚potential‘ market in sight and such products were ‚forced‘ upon the market with the intention of fitting them somewhere within the market. Design Thinking leads to product or service designs and business process designs that are ‚directly‘ based on customer expectation.

Design thinking has worked wonders in the development of new businesses and products. It has helped both entrepreneurs as well as designers to accomplish tasks in a skillful, professional and innovative manner. While for individuals, it can enhance their quality of life, for businesses, it can help generate a focus on the customer’s needs, thus eliminating or minimizing ‚waste‘ or redundancies in the entire business process and features that would not be of any value to the customer.

Design thinking helps to create an alignment between various business segments and functions within and outside an organization i.e. with market, technological environment and consumer expectations. It helps to bring in line, the entire internal structure of the organization including managerial strategies, technologies involved, and the communication processes followed. All these internal organizational elements are then aligned to the brand offer which is external to the company. Once this inside-outside alignment is achieved, an organization starts responding to customer needs at the fastest pace possible thus optimizing its effectiveness, agility, and innovative capability. Thus, it creates a direct link to customer expectations and the entire organization performs according to these expectations.

Once design thinking approach is pervasive in a business organization, it creates a customer-focused approach to problem-solving and to exploiting opportunities. It also creates a coherence within an organization because the resultant thinking that pervades the organization helps ‚harmonize‘ the organization in its response to the challenges, and in developing and formulating possible solutions with full participation of everyone in the organization.

Latent Customer Expectation – the Key to Getting Design Thinking Right

It is a well-understood fact that customers have a lot of latent and hidden needs. It is for this reason that they are not able to express these out right, when asked directly as to their idea or preferences. The organization needs to ‚dig‘ into the consumer minds while conducting surveys and the surveys were done to probe consumer behavior patterns and preferences need to be designed in such a way that they can ‚dig out‘ these latent needs from within the consumer psyche. It is only then that the organization would be able to come up with a ’starting point‘ from where to start the design process. The design thinkers must be both extremely intuitive to be able to ‚dig‘ into the consumer mind but also must have the analytical ability to ‚extract‘ results from myriad consumer data generated. These days many organizations are relying a lot on Big Data and its related analytics. Companies go to the extent of employing behavioral psychologists to study and analyze consumer behavior over time and correlate it to any possible product offering the company can make in time to earn customer goodwill and loyalty besides generating a handsome revenue stream. Design thinking provides the crucial link between the analytical ability and the intuitive mind.

What getting it right does for business

The customer expectations described above are best addressed by design thinking as it values the customer input to implement a design process.  There are many advantages to this:

1.      Helps to understand customer well

While many companies understand the importance of customer satisfaction, not all organize properly to cater to it. Companies using design thinking, however, go beyond the ordinary and try to dig the customer latent needs and wants. They just do not collect data; they empathize with their customers. They use ethnographers and cultural anthropologists for this purpose listen, observe and learn as to how consumers experience the products. They generate ‚customer journey patterns‘ to find their likes and dislikes and what motivates them so that the company can create the right ‚opportunity‘ for them to get excited about the company’s products or services. They also figure out how products and services can be tailored to meet individual needs. For example, Design Thinking companies who monitor Millennials know that they prefer to find product reviews online on YouTube etc. before making online purchases. Such companies then invest in developing related videos which satisfy them.  Technology companies can monitor via interviews for sophisticated engineering products and get feedback on how the customers can handle them better in emergency situations like in a storm, or security alert etc. The products can then be modified to suit to such situations.  Banking institutions can figure out by studying account holder behavior patterns to see what services they like to use more. That way, they can tailor advertising and promotional materials to them.

2.      Makes the organization more empathic

Design thinking requires the right people to do the right thing which means that the design thinker needs to be sitting at strategic positions from where he can guide the whole organization. He would build the design process or product as per the customer journeys. Functions like IT, legal, HR, marketing, sales, and finance need to be brought in by him to empathize with the customer.  This creates ‚value‘ for the customer. The customer empathy and advocacy pervades throughout. IT builds customer oriented services, product design group follows customer expectations on design, and finally, the whole supply chain and delivery process needs to be in line with customer expectations all the way to social media marketing, online sales, and outlet sales. Customer empathy must be pervasive through the organization. A typical design thinking company does exactly as what is described here. A consumer product company can ask all its employees to use its products and give an honest opinion. This way they would empathize with the customer. Customer metrics obtained to implement design thinking could include: segment wise or individual customer satisfaction information and data, customer lifetime experiences, highlighting spiked points where issues are reported by customers.

3.      Real-time designing

Design Thinking companies take care of evolving customer expectations through real-time designing, saving time, money and avoiding negative impacts of reactive designing. Business strategy, technology, and design are ‚braided‘ together and keep customer expectation as a ‚top‘ issue. A Design Thinking approach is best implemented by creating a ‚control room‘ for operations in which all functions contribute. Other experts in user experience, product design, visual artists, etc. can be included. Each group can get its own wall in the room which is the group’s working surface. Every day can start with a meeting as to what is to be done on that day. Each wall gets filled with post-it notes and the like for all to see. Quick and informed decision making can thus be achieved by simply walking across the room and deciding and then moving on.

4.      Promotes quick response

Design Thinking companies prototype rapidly after designing, iterate frequently, and modify as per customer responses. There is no harm in going to market with a product having minimum viability. The next version based on feedback would be better. Chrysler even went to the extent of inviting its customers to help design the dashboard by starting from scratch. Globally speaking there were differences but there were many commonalities too. Therefore, design thinking approach of rapid prototyping combined with customer feedback would save millions on future possible mistakes. The product or service would also be launched quickly

5.      Improves the business process

Design thinking is not as a new concept; at least, certainly not as new as it is perceived to be. Companies like P&G and 3M have been practicing it for a long time. As an example, we consider 3M and how it pursued a design thinking approach in designing its Counter top water purifier. 3M had an early realization that the filter would be a necessary part of the purification system but does not have to be the starting point necessarily. They were quick to realize that it is the ‘perception of the customer’ regarding the purification of water as an experience which is of prime importance. They would obviously be interested to compare the different choices they have available to them and they would go for a selection based on how these choices reflect on them as individuals. It was with this in mind that 3M went on to design their purification system and in the process strengthened their business systems

Although product management has traditionally been linked to analytical abilities of the Product Manager who would analyze product data and try to push it through the market, this conventional approach is now giving way to the much more sophisticated consumer-based of Design Thinking. While traditional research and analysis would focus primarily on the world on ‚as is‘ basis, Design Thinking would free the manager from this constraint and give him the liberty to look at the world with a more open mind focusing on the right ideas based on consumer needs and then thinking about growing with those ideas. Mixing Design thinking and Product development would lead to products that would endear the customers and increase brand loyalty.


Most business organizations want to respond to and meet customer expectations by designing great products that the customer wants. They understand the value to their business and the competitive advantage it offers. When Design Thinking is well embedded in a company’s culture, it can rest secure knowing it has prioritized the hugely important factor – meeting customer expectation. Such a company will have ‘empathy’ for customer at its core,  employ strategies such a ‘braided’ approach for company functions and enable the whole process via a collaborative environment in  which diverse input is let in. Companies that approach design thinking like this can fulfill customer expectations in ways they have never been fulfilled before.

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