Measuring the Impact of Design Thinking

The term design thinking has been widely used to describe the application of design process’s characteristics and distinguish it from other development processes such as the focus of user needs. These characteristics have been framed into different design thinking models such as the Double Diamond, IDEO model, IBM Design Thinking, and others. In my previous article (How to Successfully Apply the Inspiration in Design Thinking), we explored the different models of design thinking stages. The outcome of applying design thinking has been proven through different case studies from various company sizes and industries such as Aple, Microsoft, IBM, IKEA, AirBnB, Starbucks, and others. However, organizations have varied structure, capabilities, and outcome. Accordingly, there should a measuring framework that can help companies to evaluate the impact of applying design thinking with each project inside the company and compare this outcome with the currently applied processes.

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The Impact of Applying Design Thinking

Through observing of the applications of design thinking in different companies, we can identify a number of general benefits of applying the application of the design thinking process. Understanding these benefits helps us to build a measurable framework that contributes over the course of understanding the impact of design thinking inside the organization. These benefits include the following:

Focus on the consumer needs

The design process aims to achieve a three corner triangle; user needs, business feasibility, and technology viability. While managers approach projects from a business-oriented point of view and engineers approach projects from a technology-oriented point of view, designers tend to focus on the user needs and solve the problems they face before, during, and after using the product or service. All the design thinking process models agree to start with understanding the user needs and address them during the different stages of production (case study: How Design Thinking Reshaped Microsoft Products).

design thinking innovation
Figure 1. The relation between design thinking and innovation (figure content modified from IDEO)

Improving the innovation capabilities

Design thinking follows similar stages like the critical thinking, it starts with a diversion of ideas that can be discussed and examined during the conversion stage that tends select the idea before moving to the prototyping stage. This methodology helps companies to get outside the box and explore ideas outside the traditional thinking inside the organization (case study: Design Thinking Case Study: Innovation at Apple).

design thinking
The different design thinking models

Supporting agility

The design thinking process is agile at its core as the team can move between the different phases when needed. This iteration nature of the process gives it strength as the team can always return to the initial stages and examine different ideas.

Measuring the impact of Design Thinking

Unfortunately, while there are many design thinking models presented over the last years, there are few suggestions of how we can measure the outcome of the design thinking process. Only 24% of the design thinking process users actually measure the impact of the process on projects 1. This lack of knowledge stands as a barrier between companies and their application for design thinking as they don’t have a proof of the efficiency of the process.

Stanford D.School and Has Plattner Measurement Framework

While there is no one way to measure the design thinking outcome 2. In 2015, a paper published by the Stanford d.school and Has Plattner Institute, Measuring the Impact of Design Thinking, including surveys and interview with 403 design thinking practitioners from large for-profit companies. The aim of the paper is to determine the return on investment (ROI) of applying the design thinking process. The paper suggested a number of criteria that can be used to build a measurement framework. These criteria include the following:

Customer feedback – the feedback from the consumers after using the product or service to determine the level of satisfaction based on their testimonials
Design thinking activities – the number of design thinking processes and employee participants in it
“Immediate” results – the number of implemented projects based on design thinking sessions
Traditional KPIs – units such as financial performance, market success, and revenue outcome of design thinking projects
Reflective Measurements – questionnaires and surveys completed internally and externally by participants in design thinking processes including the practitioners, employees, and consumers
Working culture – the impact of the design thinking inside the organization measured by factors such as motivation, team collaboration, and engagement

ROI of Design Thinking Framework

The ROI of Design Thinking framework was introduced by Professor Jeanne Liedtka, University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. In her paper, Exploring the Impact of Design Thinking in Action, she examined 22 companies using design thinking over a research period of three years. In her framework, Jeanne suggested that the ROI of the design thinking based three main factors 3:

Practice – Identify the most effective elements actually practiced under the rubric of “design thinking”
Mechanisms – Assess design thinking’s value for enhancing innovation outcomes
Impact – Evaluate the overall impact of design thinking in practice

Based on her presentation on Mural, the below-animated figure summarise the different elements of each factor:

impact of design thinking
Measuring the impact of the design thinking process model by Professor Jeanne Liedtka. Click to enlarge (image source: Mural)

Both suggested frameworks tend to evaluate the ROI of the design thinking based on it special nature. However, the later framework is more details about the elements included in each factor which may vary from one company to another. I believe this framework doesn’t consider the flexibility of design thinking process and how it may be altered based on the organizational environment and projects.

Conclusion

The design thinking process has proven success in many companies include Fortune 500 firms such as IBM, Microsoft, Apple, and others. However, companies vary based on its capabilities and environment. Accordingly, the design thinking impact may vary as well. Therefore, it is vital now than before to build a framework that helps companies to measure the impact of design thinking process on project outcome in order to understand the real-life benefits that can be gained through the application of design thinking. Until now, there is a lack of the initiatives that aim to build a measurement framework. The above two researches introduced two frameworks that can use to measure the ROI of the design thinking and can be used as a guide for companies to build their own framework based on the nature of their projects.

1 Rapp, K., & Stroup, C. (2016). How can organizations adopt and measure design thinking processes? Retrieved [8 April 2018] from Cornell University, ILR School site: http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/student/138

2 Schmiedgen, J. et al (2016). Measuring the Impact of Design Thinking In H. Plattner et al (Ed.), Design Thinking Research: Making Design Thinking Foundational (pp. 157-170). Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.

3 Liedtka, J. (2017). Evaluating the Impact of Design Thinking in Action. Academy of Management Proceedings. (1) 2017.


Rafiq Elmansy

Rafiq Elmansy is the founder of Designorate.com, author, and design and innovation consultant. He is an affiliated faculty teaching design at the American University in Cairo. He holds a master degree in Design Management with Distinction from Staffordshire University, UK. He has more than 17 years experience in the field of UXD and interaction design, and his books are published by John Wiley, O’Reilly Media and Taylor and Francis. He is also a contributor at the Design Management Review. Rafiq is a jury board member for the A'Design Awards, Poster for Tomorrow, and Adobe Achievements Awards. His design artwork was exhibited in many locations including Croatia, South Africa, Brazil, and Spain.