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Design Thinking, Applied

A method for digital innovation in any organisation.


Ian H Smith

Digital innovation, if it is to deliver timely, measurable value outcomes for any organisation, must go faster than traditional IT and software development cycles allow. Ideas generated in online or face-to-face workshops should be translated into prototype apps and iterated in the same meeting.

This means taking advantage of technologies that collapse the distance and time between ideation and delivery of next generation enterprise IT: a 'No-Code Platform' or 'Low-Code Platform' blended with less ground-up 'Code' (more on this below). This also means applying the right thinking to how innovation gets done with next generation digital platforms: this is Design Thinking, Applied.

In this updated blog post, I am focused on applying a method that will achieve More For Less; more value, and less spend. This also means applying Design Principles, such as Fierce Reduction: a Lean state of mind that means eliminating everything you can (again, more on this below).

So, what is Design Thinking? Simply put, it is a human-centered approach to solving problems.

Design Thinking: The Purpose

I believe that the core purpose of Design Thinking with digital innovation is to simplify IT. The IT industry is riddled with 'Complex Thinking' and, in turn, a set of strong 'Belief Systems' emerge, that are often unhealthy and result in significant over-engineering and therefore, over-spending, when it comes to implementing new IT systems and digital innovation.

Although I am part of a 'for-profit' commercial world, I am utterly opposed to a world of over-engineered IT, where the supplyside are all too often focused on one thing: to maximise the billable hours of a complex IT systems engagement. Institutionalised commercial and public sector buyers are brought into a Belief System based on fear, where over-scoping of monolithic IT projects results in significant over-spends/over-runs with well-intentioned digital innovations. There is a better way.

Design Thinking, Applied - if nothing else - enables the supplyside and the buyside to come together in the quest for achieving more for less with what are now shrinking IT budgets. This means Design Thinking has a crucial role to play as its purpose: it must simplify and clarify.

Design Thinking: The Process

The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University ( is home to original Design Thinking. At the, Design Thinking is expressed as five steps in the innovation process: Empathize; Define; Ideate; Prototype; and, Test. For digital innovation in the cloud, and armed with the right tools - e.g. a 'No-Code Platform' or 'Low-Code Platform' (more on this below) - this means that all five steps can be executed in a rapidly-phased meetings. In turn, this creates a strong sense of immediate progress from initial ideas to prototypes. This is often means minutes and hours, and never more than days and weeks.

In my own work, I find that the most important thing about the five steps defined by the Stanford is Empathize. This means ensuring that the right tone is set for all subsequent four phases of work - and beyond. It is where receptivity and rapport leads to trust - and, in turn, where open conversation enables the realisation of truth related to the problem or challenge in play.

Selecting the right technology enables faster, better Design Thinking. This is best done when applying a No-Code or Low-Code Platform (see below) to drive real world Service Designs, and following the five steps expanded upon above. For digital innovation with next generation IT, this translates into apps and workflows that should conform to three Design Principles: (1.) Meaningful Journey; (2.) Fierce Reduction; and, (3.) Progressive Disclosure.

Meaningful Journey means apps used on desktop, tablet and smartphone devices that work the way users intuitively think and work.

Fierce Reduction means eliminating everything you can from a process, task or set of tasks: applying lean thinking to Service Design.

Progressive Disclosure means limiting what users sees on a device screen only what they need to see and act upon: avoid cognitive overload.


With the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT), it is recognised that Design Principles must also recognise the exponential growth of 'embedded devices' within digital innovation that go well beyond screen-based user devices, such as desktop/laptop PCs, tablets or smartphones. More on IoT and its impact on Design Principles will be added to future updates of this blog post. 

In developing empathy, it is important to discover hidden needs alongside those problems more clearly expressed by stakeholders. In many ways, this goes against being purely 'data-driven': you need to look at the people, not just the data. It is wrong to try to create an artificial layer between business and personal: all business is personal - and vice versa.

If digital innovation is to improve business or consumer processes, then firstly, there must be empathy with its users. This means paying great attention to creating a Meaningful Journey, which means eliminating waste and complexity of processes and tasks with Fierce Reduction - and finally, from prototyping and beyond - thereby enabling Progressive Disclosure to reduce stress and maximise ease of use of say, a new Web, mobile or Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) app.

Improving business processes with Fierce Reduction is all about introducing 'Lean' principles (more on this topic below) into a quest for simplification, and/or increase in user experience, and/or increase in effectiveness of task execution. This is accomplished through the following steps and embracing the three Design Principles noted above, including:

  • Specify value gained by the user.
  • Identify all steps in the 'value stream' and eliminate non-value-adding steps (Fierce Reduction).
  • Make the value-creating steps occur in a smooth and intuitive manner (Meaningful Journey).
  • As flow is introduced, let user pull value from the next task. (Progressive Disclosure).
  • Iterate the process until maximum value is created with least waste.


You will see how Lean becomes part of an interplay between Design Thinking and what is often called Strategy Execution - applying the principles of Japanese management thinking - an interpretation of Lean called Hoshin Kanri.

Design Thinking: The People

In any Design Thinking engagement focused on digital innovation, it is people who matter most. In any digital innovation engagement, the participants must be a combination of all stakeholders - e.g. business, expert and/or consumer users, internal IT specialists and an external digital agency or similar expert IT solutions provider. In this context, both buyside and supplyside are stakeholders, pursuing 'Mutual Value Discovery', through open, trustful interactions.

Design Thinkers are both designers and non-designers: but what they all have in common is being inherently curious, empathetic, challenging, non-judgmental and open-minded. With digital innovation, a lack of clarity about technology choices can lead to ineffective translation of ideas to timely prototyping and testing phases. Equally, tech expertise can create closed-mindedness, and an inhibitor to curiosity and exploration. To adopt a 'beginner's mind' is actually helpful to solving problems with digital innovation: to look at business challenges in new ways.

As Design Thinking becomes increasingly embedded in business school education, following the example set by Stanford, management will increasingly recognise that focusing on data-driven decision-making alone is wrong: you need to look at the people too. When following the five steps of the approach, digital innovation requires Design Thinkers to facilitate open communications among all key stakeholders and would-be users of a next generation cloud app.

Design Thinkers recognise that concepts of being right-brain creative or left-brain logical are better explained by the notion of creative and logical thinking taking place together. In some ways, a cold corporate culture may have a lack of a collective 'Limbic System' (low emotions) whereas Design Thinkers tend to exhibit strengths in this area: high-levels of curiosity and ability to communicate and ask the right questions. 

To empathize, Design Thinkers need to embrace three key attributes: Immerse; Observe; and, Engage. The rewards from this done right is the discovery of both explicit and implicit needs: resulting in unexpected solutions and outcomes for digital innovation.

Immerse means experiencing what the user experiences.

Observe means observing user behaviours in the context of their lives.

Engage means interact, interview - all in short intercept encounters.

Design Thinkers embrace the three basic questions: What?; How?; and, Why? The 'What?' becomes observable facts; the 'How?' is all about emotional responses; and, the 'Why?' becomes the inferences drawn. All of this builds a picture, as the process moves through the five steps of Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test.  

Design Thinking: The Network

I encourage and facilitate the building of teams led by Design Thinkers, focused on bringing new digital innovations to market and constantly seeking new ways to achieve more for less from IT spends. We should minimise the worst aspects of a hierarchy, and build networks: bringing together a diverse group of people who are designers, and non-designers, but who are all, at heart, Design Thinkers: curious, challenging inquisitive, empathetic.

Wherever possible, you should build digital innovation engagements around a Deliverables, Not Hours business model: milestone-based, which means that end-clients only pay for value created, not time consumed.

Design Thinking: The Execution

You can combine the Stanford five-step process described above, with the best of Hoshin Kanri, as the underpinning of Design Thinking execution - ideas into timely, measurable value outcomes.

Hoshin Kanri is two Japanese words translated as 'direction' and 'administration'. It is practised extensively in the automotive manufacturing industry, defined as:

"A method for ensuring that the strategic goals of a company drive progress and action at every level within that company. This eliminates the waste that comes from inconsistent direction and poor communication."

With it's roots in Lean (in manufacturing, more recently, applied to tech startups), Hoshin Kanri enables a pragmatic translation through hierarchical flow of Vision, Mission, Objectives, Strategy and Tactics (VMOST) - or in the tech world of Agile - Epics, Stories, Sprints, Tasks ....

What we want to achieve in combining Design Thinking with Hoshin Kanri is to avoid innovation falling into the hands of 'corporate do-nothings', where Strategy is abstract. We want Strategy Execution - and enable VMOST to be seen as having a measurable link from top Vision/Mission to Tactics that comer alive in the form of digital innovations.

As illustrated in the graphic above, the origins of Hoshin Kanri are found in large, hierarchical Japanese firms, and of course, hierarchies are still very much alive and well today. But we also want to make sure that our Network enables broader combinations of stakeholders to come together in Strategy Execution.

Design Thinking: The Technology

In digital innovation there is a need strike an optimal use of a No-Code or Low-Code Platform - with minimal Code - all underpinned by Design Thinking as the method of execution. This is simply an extension of creating the right balance between packaged and custom software, as in the past.

But what enterprises and government agencies should be wary of today is 'Complex Thinking': the tendency of traditional IT services firms who need to maximise billable people hours, and miss the power of simplification.

The concept of a Low-Code Platform is more mature than a No-Code Platform, as a complete automation enabler for digital innovation. The pure No-Code Platform is some way from being available as an enterprise-grade solution. Since the real world suggests that we will be moving to a blend of Code, Low-Code and eventually, No-Code, I argue for a tech architecture built on a solid prebuilt business logic: a Low-Code Platform, such as Salesforce Lightning Platform or a Design Language and User Interface (UI) Framework, such as Google Material.

On top of the prebuilt business logic is a 'Studio': tools that allow any combination of Code and Low-Code to apply, and designed for different types of users. This enables a broad community of users to collaborate: from 'hard core' programmers (Code) through tech-savvy IT analysts and developers (Low-Code), and in the near future, so-called 'citizen developers' (No-Code).

In my view, billable people hours for Code should be subjected to 'Lean Thinking'. This means taking a critical view of what truly represents value-added versus non-value-added in a Value Stream related to a particular process, or service ripe for re-engineering through digital innovation. This is where a set of reusable components (built with a Low-Code Platform) should always displace ground-up, syntax-level Code, wherever technically viable.

Design Thinking as a method provides a solid foundation for digital innovation, but it also requires an environment of Mutual Value Discovery - an open collaborative approach among all buyside and sellside stakeholders. You also need to select and use a Low-Code Platform to avoid lengthy and costly timelines between the Ideate, Prototype and Test steps of Design Thinking.


Design Thinking as a method provides a solid foundation for digital innovation, but it also requires an environment of Mutual Value Discovery - an open collaborative approach among all buyside and sellside stakeholders. You also need to select and use a No-Code Platform or Low-Code Platform to avoid lengthy and costly timelines between the Ideate, Prototype and Test steps of Design Thinking.

Overall, you will need to keep Complex Thinking at bay. Design Thinking in IT should have a common purpose: Simplify IT. Digital innovation is a continuous process, a journey, not an event. Remember that people are the key thing: and Empathize is the first and most import step in digital innovation with Design Thinking, Applied.

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