​Embracing design thinking with a business lens

Jackie Ball shares her favorite parts of human-centered design approach
Jackie Ball shares her favorite parts of human-centered design approach

Before joining Doblin, I had more traditional business strategy experiences. Like many of the clients with whom we work, I was accustomed to a hypothesis-driven approach to solving problems — challenging myself to consider what solutions could be, before even attending a project kickoff meeting.

Things feel very different at Doblin. I have learned that a key distinction for Doblin is the application of human-centered design, an approach to problem-solving that focuses on users and asks a lot of questions before declaring solutions. Although parts of this process might not always feel comfortable, I’ve learned there’s a method to the madness. The Doblin approach comes to life in ways that can be surprising and uniquely meaningful for our clients.

Here are three of my favorite aspects of the process:

  1. Framing, and re-framing, to solve the right problem. Clients often come to us because they have a challenge they want to solve through innovation, but that’s not where we start. We start with more questions. In human-centered design, framing the problem is a critical step that often happens during the Doblin process, even if the client has already come to us with their problem definition.

    It could seem odd to frame the problem twice, or begin a consulting engagement without fully baked “marching orders,” but dedicating time to problem framing ensures that we, Doblin and our client team, are aligned on the right problem to solve and the scope of the potential solution. And since we value questions and discovery, we also need to be flexible to shifting our problem frame as we learn more about user and business needs. This part of the process has taught me to exercise discipline and patience to take time to truly understand problems before trying to solve them.

  2. Instilling ownership through co-creation. We emphasize co-ownership between Doblin and client teams. Clients join us in the field for research, spend time with us in our team room at the Doblin office, and participate in workshops.

    In co-analysis workshops, clients are immersed in project research and then join us in analyzing research data to understand users and uncover their needs. In co-creation workshops, clients take the user insights from the analysis session, their industry expertise, and new frameworks such as the Ten Types of Innovation® to brainstorm solutions.

    These workshops are my favorite part of our work. People step away from their computers to collaborate and connect with each other. For clients, co-creation challenges them to employ and, thus, embrace human-centered design methods, which they can bring back to their organizations. Further, co-creation instills client ownership over the final concept — which often leads to deeper investment in an innovation concept and stronger ability to push that concept to reality within their organization.
  3. Getting messy to get it right. Our projects can feel, for lack of a better word, “messy.” We embrace flexibility as part of the design thinking methodology, which allows for a longer brainstorming period before converging on a set of possible solutions.

    Our project plans and meeting agendas are rigorous but fluid because we need to be led by what we experience and learn along the way. If we want to dive deeper into a part of the process (think: additional research), we work with the client to make time for it. I’ve learned that if an innovation project is neat and tidy, it’s probably not going to include very new, fresh thinking or deliver the strongest ideas. It can feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar to stray from a plan, but innovation often requires it. For our clients, embracing ambiguity on a Doblin project is a great place to start.

In being human-centered, a positive client experience is certainly on our list of project deliverables. By spending time unpacking and framing the business challenge, co-owning the work along the way, and embracing a flexible approach and the ambiguity that comes with it, clients engage with innovation work in a way that can feel uncomfortable at times. Because of my background, I can empathize with that, and simultaneously recognize the impact this alternative approach has for clients. When clients fully embrace this new process, they become better and more confident innovators themselves.