Design Thinking Works Best When Problems are Unclear and Clients Embrace Innovation

Softtek and Belatrix Software describe the pros and cons of design thinking, and suggest how clients should prepare for this innovative development approach

design thinking workshop

When it comes to outsourcing software development, clients have to understand that flawless end-user experience will make or break their products, so it’s vital to gain a true understanding how those users think, feel, and interact with them. This is the underlying concept of design thinking, an innovative development approach driven by creative thought and collective problem solving.

“It all starts with interviewing the end users and looking into what the client is trying to achieve,” said Federico Ferreres, SVP of Marketing & Strategy at Softtek USA. “Many IT folks will focus on the technical aspects and challenges, but after you realize what the customers are going through, you find out that the technical solution may not be ideal.”

Innovation through Design Thinking Requires Patience and Risk-taking

The center of the design thinking process is about the problem, not the solution. However, many buy-side clients are not comfortable with this, as they often think they’re well-aware of their problems.

design thinking team
The design thinking process consists of five steps: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test

“Our job is to clarify the benefits of being closer to their users, which often means that new problems are found that are not obvious from the beginning,” said Ferreres. “If clients don’t want to innovate in a specific direction, we don’t do the projects; if they really have a desire to be leaders in their industry, we can use design thinking to work with them.”

Design thinking, as it relates to end-customers, is intrinsically linked to user experience (UX), which is often misunderstood by clients as an interface overhaul. In fact, the process goes much deeper than simple face value.

“Most clients think they know what they want to build, so think that user experience (UX) will help to make this idea pretty, intuitive, and pleasant to use – they see it more like a new paint job,” said Enrique Stanziola, Subject Matter Expert on User Experience at Belatrix Software. “Part of our goal is to evaluate these initial ideas, using real users to see how the experience plays out in reality.”

Defining Design Thinking

By definition, design thinking places emphasis on customer centricity and creating prototypes, in comparison to agile, which provides the structure for constant iteration, such as daily standups and retrospectives.

The design thinking process consists of five steps: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. The methodology uses logic, imagination, intuition, and systemic reasoning to explore possibilities of what could be, and to create desired outcomes that benefit the end user.

One of the most complicated things in the process is breaking down the solution to a final version once the collective problem solving has resulted in numerous potential solutions.

Getting Clients Involved

In terms of including clients in the process, Stanizola believes that it should happen as frequently as possible. “On the last project, we talked with the client every day,” he said. “There wasn’t an initial specification, so we were designing based on what they were telling us, step by step. In these cases, the client needs to be aware of where the project is heading and to understand the findings and insights.”

One of Softtek’s clients, a US grocery store chain with a large presence in Mexico, was faced with the challenge of improving customer experience. As part of the client’s broader innovation initiative, the executive team reached out to Softtek, which took the design thinking approach to ultimately propose and implement a solution.

“The two-day program with Softtek was fun, and fostered new ideas and ways of viewing the challenges we face,” said the Director, who requested to remain anonymous. “We ultimately walked away with a handful of plausible solutions, presented them to our executive board, and are now in the process of seeing a couple of the activities come to life.”

From Empathy to Realization

Since it relates so closely to user experience, design thinking requires people who can truly understand others’ point of view. This kind of empathy is key for Belatrix UX employees.

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“They also need the ability to produce a true solution and must be are skilled at detecting usability issues and design flaws, before inventing something that functions and solves a problem,” said Stanziola. “I once tried to train someone in this kind of problem solving, but it didn’t go too well – if someone has a tremendous eye for detail, but doesn’t have empathy and problem-solving skills, they can’t be part of a UX team.”

Once the empaths are on board, they work to fully understand the end-user experience through observation, interaction, and immersing themselves in the experiences. They then process the findings to form a “user’s point of view” that is addressed in the design stages.

Cooking up a (Brain)storm

design thinking brainstorm session
Getting people engaged with “solutions sprints” is an efficient way to generate lots of ideas and concepts.

Once the design aspect of the process begins, Softtek encourages several “solution sprints”, which are essentially high-impact brainstorming sessions to get the creative juices flowing. After a few rounds of this, the strongest concepts emerge from a refined set of ideas, helping to better inform the decision-makers for the piloting stage.

“The timing has to be really accurate, so sprints are the best way to generate ideas quickly,” said Ferreres. “Also, the sprint groups need to be made up of people from different departments to bring more knowledge to the table. While you generally don’t want more than three to six concepts at the end of the sprints, the ideas that don’t make the cut are kept in a portfolio that might be useful for later.”

Following the ideate stage, the best concepts are prototyped and tested, before being presented to the client and its stakeholders.

“It’s difficult to sell design thinking as a service – it’s great for designers, but for stakeholders it is more about numbers, so we have to show them that the idea or solution is going to turn a profit,” said Ferreres. “Even so, clients that are reluctant to innovate are unsuited to design thinking, so will be directed to more traditional methodologies for their projects.”

Arguably, one of the biggest timewasters for clients and their development partners is the creation and adoption of solutions that users will never use.

If a product shows no differentiation from a competitor and it doesn’t achieve the desired (often misinformed) effect, then everyone is back to square one. Design thinking can be a great way to prevent that, but only if clients have the right mindset to begin with.


Are you a client that has experience with the design thinking approach? How did it affect your final product and what impact is it having on your business? Let us know in the comments below.

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