Design Thinking is one of those concepts that sound fuzzy at the beginning but once you understand it, it just makes sense.
In a nutshell, design thinking is understanding problems before looking for solutions.
This is especially important in sales and marketing, where many professionals rely on their instincts, or their past experience, or even on the latest trend to build their sales and marketing strategies. There’s nothing wrong with that, as it sometimes works; but there may be a better way.
That way is design thinking.
Thinking like a designer involves asking a lot of questions and looking at things from the customer’s point of view. It may sound like common sense but it’s not common practice.
It’s easier to start with your company goals and set a sales and marketing strategy from there, but people today want organizations to relate to them in a personalized way — they want to have more choices, they want to have control.
Perhaps your clients are not buying what you think you’re selling; perhaps there’s a misalignment between what you think they want and what they actually want (like IBM found out with their design team).
That’s why you must understand their needs and create innovative solutions to their real problems.
So let’s look at the design thinking process and how you can use it to boost your sales and marketing strategy.
The Five Components of Design Thinking
Design thinking originated from the need to bring creativity into corporations ruled by analytical thinking that couldn’t keep up with the pace of innovation in the market.
The market keeps changing and organizations must respond in time, innovating quickly — and to innovate you must be able to design new solutions (think Steve Jobs and Apple). You can accomplish this by creating a culture where everyone in your organization (including the sales and marketing teams) use the tools and methods that designers use.
The following method will give you an understanding of how designers think and work.
In practice, these components are not necessarily sequential and can be implemented in parallel, in different order or repeated at will.
Now I will explain each step and how it applies to sales and marketing.
#1 - Empathize
Start with research of your buyer persona: What do your customers really want? Why do they want it? What do they think and what’s their thought process?
Empathy requires you to look at things from your customer’s perspective and to relate to them emotionally. That means understanding their way of thinking and their feelings.
Survey your existing clients or run focus groups with your target audience. Come with an open mind into this part of the process. Forget what you think or believe your customers want and listen intently -- you may be surprised at what you’ll find.
Empathize with a particular need and learn everything you can about it, until everyone in your team understands it. This will help you focus on the right problem.
Marketing application: What is the exact pain point of your buyer persona? Price, service, convenience? When you empathize with your customer, you can craft the right marketing messages, not overpromising on everything but sure of hitting your target’s most pressing need.
As a marketer, your job is not to just apply marketing best practices and hope that they work; you must provide an amazing and relevant experience for your buyer persona based on research gathered from your actual customers and from others in your company who face customers at one point or another.
Because design thinking is human-centric, it will challenge your marketing team to go beyond the norm. You can’t just rely on last year’s survey or even on third-party data anymore. You must get out there and talk to real people yourself if you really want to empathize with your buyer persona.
That’s exactly what UberEats does, with their design thinking approach. Here’s what a former designer from the company says: "To understand all our different markets and how our products fit into the physical conditions of each city, we constantly immerse ourselves in the places where our customers live, work, and eat. Sitting in our offices in San Francisco or New York, we can’t truly understand the experiences of a person on the streets of Bangkok or London. We need to go there, move about the city, experience the food culture, and watch how people use the things we’ve designed.”
Sales application: Do your sales reps understand all the reasons your customers would want your product (besides the obvious reasons)?
Perhaps you have a great CRM filled with AI-generated data, so you think you know everything about your clients. But empathy requires you to listen a lot during the sales process and see things from their point of view.
It also requires you to adjust your sales goals. It’s not just numbers and quotas anymore, but solving problems in a creative way. You’re not just a vendor but an advocate for your customer, finding the solutions for their needs even if it means that the sales process will take longer or the product they want is not what you intended to sell them in the first place.
#2 - Define the problem
Here you gather all the information you gathered during the empathize component and define the core problem.
Design thinkers write a human-centered problem statement instead of a business goal. For example, instead of saying, “increase sales by 5% next quarter,” they say, “help small companies effectively scale their support teams.”
Take the case of PillPack, the online pharmacy that Amazon bought out for $1 billion in 2018. The design team working with PillPack defined the problem of their users - people forget to take their medications on time - and came up with an innovative solution. They didn’t focus just on selling pills but on solving a specific problem, sorting and organizing prescriptions with great design.
Check out this video to see their innovative solution:
Marketing application: A human-centered point of view makes your marketing messages relevant, clear and powerful. Knowing why your customers buy your product or service gives you the chance to connect with them emotionally, carting stories that actually match their buyer’s journey.
Defining the problem means understanding your customer’s frustrations, fears, hopes and feelings so you can create content that makes them cry or laugh.
Sales application: When companies define a problem without empathizing with their customer’s needs, sales reps end up wasting time with unqualified leads. In this component, you must ask many questions - to your customers, to people on your team - even out-of-the-box questions that are not in your script. Remember that this a human-centric approach.
If you are in the B2B arena, it would help if you also focus on your customer’s customer. Put yourself in the shoes of a client of your B2B lead and go through their buying experience. Take note of what works and what doesn’t and then define the problem based on your research. Perhaps you’ll discover a problem that your client wasn’t even aware they had. Check out this case study for an example.
#3 - Ideate
Now it’s time for a free-flowing brainstorming session with your team to explore solutions to the problem you defined above.
The challenge here is to think differently, not just in terms of minor adjustments to your existing product but also innovating in new directions. There are no barriers when brainstorming - on the contrary, encourage crazy ideas to unleash creativity.
The team then evaluates all the ideas and picks those that are worth pursuing. Those will move to the next phase.
A company culture open to everyone’s ideas and not just the boss’ is an innovation hub. Take for example, Airbnb, who encourages new employees to ship new features on their first day at the job.
In fact, design thinking is credited with much of the success of Airbnb. Back in 2009, the company was struggling with low revenue. They quickly defined the problem: poor quality listing photos. Then they ideated solutions and came up with a crazy idea to test — to fly themselves to New York and personally take high-quality photos for their clients. The experiment doubled their weekly revenue in just a week.
Marketing application: Although marketers are considered a creative bunch, they often fall into the trap of stubbornly sticking to their established written marketing plans, content calendars and the like.
Try new ways of working with your team. For example, hold ideation sessions where you change the expectations and focus on quantity instead of quality (sometimes bad ideas will inspire others to come up with great ideas). Instead of just writing down an idea on a board, the team members can draw, sketch, or even do a skit.
Sales application: The above marketing application applies to sales as well. Have your sales team think outside the obvious and get creative when coming up with sales pitches and finding solutions for your customers. Creativity can be a great bet in the sales department — in fact, a European study showed that creative salespeople sold more than their less creative colleagues.
#4 - Prototype
You want feedback as soon as possible about your creative ideas. The key is iteration.
Get your ideas into something palpable, a minimum viable product that you can first work with internally (and obtain feedback from your team) and then with your customers in step five of the design thinking process.
The prototype serves to understand what works and what doesn’t, and because it’s a low-cost version of your product, you can develop multiple versions, improving the experience every time, to refine your ideas until you come up with a satisfying solution for your customer.
Check out this case study featuring the Golden Gate Regional Center (GGRC), an organization that provides services and financial support to people with developmental disabilities in the San Francisco Bay Area, to see how design thinking and prototyping solved a huge problem for GGRC’s clients.
Marketing application: From landing pages to print ads, you can prototype your marketing materials and gain insights quickly. Draft different versions of your copy and marketing content.
Sales application: Prototype sales pitches, demo presentations and even variations of your sales process. Involve different people in the company in the prototyping process to gain insights from their points of view.
#5 - Test
Once you’ve improved your prototypes with the feedback you received, you must test your final solution.
While the prototype allowed you to start a conversation with the stakeholders to understand better if your proposed solutions worked, testing your solution in the real world is what matters the most.
Testing shows if the problem you defined is really being solved. There must be an actual, measurable difference in the behavior or satisfaction of your clients. You must be willing to start over if the solution doesn’t work, because the final goal is to deeply understand your customer’s pain points and provide an effective solution.
A great example is the MRI machine. More than 80% of kids had to be sedated to get an MRI scan because they were terrified of the machine. General Electric tested a scanner decorated like a pirate ship (along with the room), changing the experience for the children. As a result, sedation rates dropped to 10% and kids were delighted, some of them even asking if they could come back.
Read about this one and other design thinking case studies here.
Marketing and sales application: Test your copy or pitch in the real world. Iterate and go back to the drawing board as often as you need to — that’s the price you must pay for innovation and growth.
Design thinking is a mindset that can revolutionize everything you do in marketing and sales, but only if you’re open-minded and willing to change. Almost 60% of salespeople say they won’t change their approach once they discover that something works for them. That's a problem you must address with your team.
Design thinking will help you know your clients’ needs deeply and develop innovative solutions.
This process, however, is not for one or two people in an office. It’s for a whole interdisciplinary team, it’s for your entire organization.
Marketing and sales professionals committed to a culture of design thinking must draw insights from finances, engineering, C-level executives, et cetera, to come up with the best solutions to your customers’ needs.
Part of having an effective design thinking plan comes down to your culture: