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How Design Thinking Inspires Innovative, Remarkable Customer Experiences

“Don’t market to a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” 

— TopRight’s interpretation of a poem written by Mary T. Lathrap in 1895

You’re often told to put yourself in the shoes of your customer and ask, “if you were the customer, how would you feel about that customer service policy or the user experience?” This is a great exercise on paper, but without a plan or methodology to put that thinking into action it’s no better than a nice idea. So, how can you mobilize your organization to walk a mile in your customer’s shoes? 

Enter Design Thinking

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”  — Tim Brown CEO of IDEO 

Design Thinking for solving problems shifts the focus to human behavior. It provides the opportunity to see the customers’ existing pain points through their eyes, successfully shifting your thinking and focus to make the customer the hero. Design Thinking asks you to put the customer  not your brand, product, or service  at the center of your Story and Strategy.

We recently sat down with Design Thinking expert Kelly Chmielewski. (You may remember her from our Transformational Marketer Interviews.) Kelly is the former Vice President of PBS Creative Lab and current CEO of The Possibility Shop, which she founded to help companies deliver purposeful impact at the intersection of exceptional branding, strategy, and design.

Kelly specializes in helping companies adopt Design Thinking to build stronger, more innovative teams, a customer-focused strategy, and new products and ideas that deliver exceptional user experiences. We asked Kelly to share some of her expert insight into how the Design Thinking methodology can transform the customer experience.

8 Insights on Design Thinking + Innovation from Kelly Chmielewski 

1. In your experience, what are the reasons why Design Thinking spurs transformation and innovation?

Design thinking is a great catalyst for innovation and transformation because it asks us to explore and embrace new, unique and sometimes surprising points of view. Design thinking is also called Human Centered Design, which means looking at the world with deep empathy for our customers’ point of view. When we can think with, and like, our customers, and look at ourselves differently, we have new opportunities to solve problems or overcome challenges that otherwise are really tough nuts to crack. And even when our company is doing well, no large, looming “problems” per se, design thinking helps us keep up with the changing needs and wants of our customers—which helps us offer new products, services or campaigns that add meaningful value for them, and allow us to engage them in more meaningful ways, as the marketplace continues to evolve. If we’re not keeping up with the changing needs and wants of our customers, someone else will!

2. What types of problems are best suited for Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is probably best known for new product development, although it’s grown widely as an effective way to develop less physically tangible outputs, for example, new strategies, campaigns or services that add real value for people (customers). That’s because the approach works on any problem we can clearly define, even if it’s complex or seemingly insurmountable. I’ve seen it work well when we wanted a fresh perspective or tons of new ideas quickly (especially great for teams with long-tenured staff), when we were looking for new ways to add value without adding a lot more resources (think nonprofits), and encouraging teams to collaborate in new ways and in developing campaigns that set brands apart in their space (we can’t do things the same way and expect different results).  This all means that it’s no longer just the product team using design thinking—people across the organization are embracing it to help break down barriers and silos and to advance goals. Above all, it’s an excellent way to reinvigorate our focus on our customers and what they want/need/aspire to.

Design Thinking can help teams solve complex business challenges and explore new ideas—whether a new product, strategy, campaign, service or brand experience. 

This team is exploring a new way to help people in locations around the country to share research, lessons learned and other resources.

3. What are common hurdles you’ve seen organizations face while implementing the Design Thinking methodology? 

In organizations unfamiliar with this kind of approach, we find that not everyone is a fan, which means we may have some reluctant participation (at first). That’s because it’s not a traditional, linear “process” that makes it easy to see exactly where you’re going. It’s really a set of tools (see chart) and a mindset. We draw on the tools and this mindset in different ways each time we practice design thinking (depending on where a project is in its lifecycle). This makes some people uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable at first! But when we are open to what’s possible as a result of human-centered design, willing to experiment with a new set of tools and embrace a growth mindset, it will deliver real, tangible ideas we can test right away.

4. What are 3 things innovators must do when trying to create an exceptional user experience?

First, we need to see the world through our customers’ eyes, second, walk in our customers’ shoes and third, feel what our customers feel in their heart of hearts. In other words, at the core of great design thinking is understanding and embracing our customers’ worldview. Importantly, not just research about what our customers think about your products and services, but what our customers think about the world, their hopes and aspirations, their challenges and pain points and the things that bring them joy. When we understand our customers this deeply, their whole selves, we can THEN find new ways to add real value in their lives through our product and service offerings. And in the spirit of the question, there are two more things for innovators to embrace in serving customers best. First, we need to create simple prototypes to get feedback on our ideas. The rougher the better, because people see their feedback matters and they will give it generously. Second, be open to possibilities even if they don’t seem right at first. Design thinking is a journey and sometimes surprises us along the way.

A prototype can be as simple as a series of drawings on post-its, like this one representing the idea of inviting people to a local TV station to learn about social media. The rougher the prototype, the more generous people will be with their feedback because they can see how early in the development of our ideas we are.

5. How do you measure the success of Design Thinking?

On its own, I’ve heard many executives say even having their teams adopt a design thinking mindset and collaborate in new ways was a valuable result in and of itself. Beyond that, consider design thinking as a way to accelerate or fortify existing goals—which all have their own measures attached, for example, growth, revenue (sales or donations), engagement, loyalty or advocacy. For those who want to measure design as a whole, there’s a new(ish) index called the Design Value Index, which tracks the financial success of companies who embrace design at every level of the organization.

6. How do you know if a Design Thinking approach to innovation is right for your organization?

People have told me that they really understood the value in design thinking once they experienced it firsthand. I encourage people to take it out for a test drive, practicing a few of the activities with your team or scheduling a short workshop to address a specific challenge. That way, it’s very low risk; you can experiment with the best way to bring the approach to bigger challenges and a broader team. It’s much better experienced than explained!

7. What is the easiest way to get started with Design Thinking today?

The easiest thing we can do is ask for feedback from someone on an idea that is not fully formed. Preferably, this conversation happens with an end-user, but it also will work with a colleague, neighbor or friend. I encourage everyone to try this: ask for feedback or questions on a project in progress that’s part of your portfolio today. As you’re listening to someone reaction, resist the urge to answer the questions or respond to the feedback. Just listen. It can be eye-opening and transformative. And keep in mind that one of the best-kept secrets is this: sometimes the question is the feedback.

8. Bonus: What are your top 3 examples of Design Thinking in action?

One of my far-and-away favorite examples comes from the Island of Mauritius, who used design thinking to combat the geophysical misfortune of their sinking island—and found ways to boost their economy through ocean-based research. At PBS, we used design thinking to think way outside the box and ultimately turned the idea of a rock band style roadshow into our first experiential brand campaign in more than a decade. And personally, I love how gigantic data-driven companies like Facebook and Google use design thinking to make sure their products are universally accessible, including by people with physical disabilities. There are so many great stories out there.

In the spirit of the journey, I always love learning about new stories and would love if your readers would share any of their own examples!


Kelly Chmielewski
Founder + CEO, The Possibility Shop

Kelly is an innovation leader, brand champion and founder of The Possibility Shop, which she is building to help purpose-driven companies fortify, evolve and amplify their brands to meet the changing needs of customers—winning hearts, minds, loyalty, and revenue. Previously, Kelly led the PBS brand through 15 years of extraordinary industry change, driving double-digit growth in engagement and increased brand value, culminating in her role as Vice President of the PBS Creative Lab. Her career has been celebrated with wide-ranging national honors, including numerous EMMY®, Promax/BDA, American Advertising and CINE Awards. Kelly is a sought-after professional mentor and brand expert. She speaks on Design Thinking and Brand Innovation at national industry events and serves as a pro bono consultant for The Taproot Foundation. She recently returned from her first (but not last) trip to Cuba and she welcomes new ideas to add to her always growing wanderlust wish list.

Watch another interview with Kelly here.

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