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Enterprise Design Thinking: How to Get Started

Adam Fard
Adam Fard, Co-founder & Head of Design
Enterprise Design Thinking: How to Get Started

Fundamentally, the Enteprise Design Thinking framework is a powerful tool that allows teams and companies to solve complex problems, all while focusing on innovation. In its standard form, this framework consists of five phases that are built around the user. 

The foundations for the Design Thinking framework were laid back in the 1960s with the earliest attempts to view design through a more rigid and scientific lens. This process continued up to 1987 when Peter Rowe, who was Director of Urban Design Programs at Harvard, published his book Design Thinking. Rowe’s work served as a critical starting point for the framework we all know and use. 

There have been multiple attempts to optimize Design Thinking over the years. After all, the business ecosystem continues to shift and change at an accelerating rate—old concepts take new shapes and pave the way for future change. One of such iterations of the framework is Enterprise Design Thinking (EDT), which emerged in the early 2010s at IBM.

EDT builds on the principles that are near and dear to its predecessor, but it manages to boost innovation while minimizing uncertainty and exposure to risk for larger organizations. 

Revisiting the original Design Thinking

Before we dive into the intricacies of Enterprise Design Thinking, let’s take a closer look at the original that it was built upon, namely its five phases. As you’ll see, every step of the framework is tightly connected to the steps that precede and follow it, creating a sense of coherence and cohesion in the design process and instilling a sense of logic into it. 

Design thinking diagram illsutrating the path from empathy to definition to ideation to prototyping and ultimately testing

Empathize

The process starts with understanding the people you’ll be designing for. The goal is to acquire an empathetic understanding of the users, the context in which they’ll be using the product, and the problems they’d like to address via the product you’re creating. This is a critical component of human-centric design since it lets you discard assumptions from your decision-making process by extracting actionable insights about your users. 

User interviews are one of the ways you could gather information about your users' pain points.

Define

The Define phase is where we process and synthesize the information that we gather during the Empathize stage. The main goal here is to define the core problem you’ll be addressing via design. 

Putting your insights onto a whiteboard and then collaboratively sorting them is a good way to make sense of your findings.

Ideate

Once you’ve defined the problem, it’s time to seek solutions. The ideation phase is where your team brainstorms to identify viable and outside-the-box solutions to the above-mentioned problems. 

In a remote environment, whiteboarding tools help you brainstorm with your team in real-time.

Prototype

Prototyping is all about experimenting with the best solutions you’ve come across in the previous stage. Your goal here is to create a series of inexpensive and scaled-down low-fidelity wireframes of these solutions to explore whether they satisfy the users’ needs and whether they’re technically and financially viable. 

Here's an example of an Interactive Prototype created in Figma. Go ahead and click around 😄

Test

Once the above solutions are developed, it’s time to test them. This is where the iterative nature of Design Thinking kicks in. The feedback that a team will collect during the Test stage will fuel further defining, ideation, and prototyping, which will allow the surfacing of better solutions.  

Example of usability testing session through Zoom

Usability testing is one of the most potent ways to gauge early user feedback.

Applying Design Thinking to product design

We’ve mentioned above that there were several attempts to adapt and adjust Design Thinking to fit the needs of different teams and organizations. We want to mention a few of them—specifically, Double Diamond, Google Design Sprints, and the IDEO Design thinking program. Let’s take a quick look at their approaches. 

Double Diamond

As the name of the framework suggests, there are two key areas in the process marked by diamonds. Within the first diamond, designers aim to focus on the problem a user is facing and learn as much actionable information about the context in which this problem arises. This is followed by defining the problem and identifying potential solutions for it. 

The second diamond predominantly focuses on creating actual designs. Towards the end of the diamond, designers conduct multiple rounds of testing to identify the most viable solution.

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Google Design Sprint

This is a 5-day framework developed by Google Ventures by taking inspiration from Design Thinking. It has six central phases: Understand, Define, Sketch, Decide, Prototype, and Validate. 

On Monday, the aim is to extract as much information about the project’s business goals, the end-users’ needs, and other key aspects that will allow informing further stages of design and development. 

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On Tuesday, the team should explore a wide array of possible solutions to the problems they’ve outlined the day before.

The main goal of day three is identifying the best idea and storyboarding it. 

Thursday is dedicated to prototyping building something “quick and dirty” by focusing more on usability and less on looks.

Friday is all about putting the design in front of real users and identifying the potential flaws in your current design/solution. 

IDEO Design Thinking

IDEO is one of the most reputable and innovative design firms out there. Their passion for human-centered design has led them to adapt the Design Thinking framework to suit their way of working and solving problems. 

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IDEO’s design process is divided into six stages: 

  • Observation

  • Ideation

  • Rapid prototyping

  • User feedback

  • Iteration 

  • Implementation 

What is Enterprise Design Thinking?

Enterprise Design Thinking was originally developed by IBM back in the early 2010s. This framework aimed to adapt the agility and innovation that comes with Design Thinking to enterprise realities. Today, this model is used by a wide array of organizations around the world, throughout a wide array of industries and sectors. 

Principles of Enterprise Design Thinking

We mentioned above that EDT is fundamentally rooted in traditional Design Thinking. However, there are some specific things that this framework focuses on to make it more valuable for enterprises. 

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Focusing on user outcomes

It is considered common practice to use the “5 Why’s” technique as part of EDT because one of the critical aspects of this framework is to understand the root causes of problems and understand how certain actions impact user outcomes. 

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It’s also important to mention that it would be complicated to understand user outcomes without a well-defined user persona since it provides a wealth of insight into their problems and how their experiences can be improved. 

Restless reinvention

A core tenet of EDT revolves around the continuous reinvention and improvement of products and experiences. The products we use today are starting grounds for future breakthroughs. Constantly searching for solutions and improvements is a cost-effective and risk-free path toward innovation

Diverse and empowered teams

The people involved in the development of a product play a vital role in the process, yet an often-overlooked factor is the diversity of their skill sets and backgrounds. A culturally and professionally diverse team is a valuable asset for creativity and innovation. 

The “keys” 

Keys are a central component of EDT—they allow organizations to transform mere ideas into well-thought-out solutions while also ensuring cross-departmental alignment within the organization. IBM’s model features three keys: hills, playbacks, and sponsor users. 

Hills

Hills, in EDT, is a term that helps teams align around user outcomes instead of focusing on features as their development goal. This way, a team’s attention revolves around the interests and needs of the end-user rather than technical milestones that don’t guarantee their satisfaction. 

Basically, hills help establish the mission and scope of a project and help direct the team’s attention towards measurable results and deliverables.

Playbacks

Playbacks are meetings or sessions that align everyone on the high-value scenarios that express the value of the offering at hand. This is where everyone gets filled in on the latest feedback collected from testing and how that may affect further work and product iterations. 

Sponsor users

In Enterprise Design Thinking, “sponsor users” are people that fit your user persona. Organizations work with them to craft products and services that satisfy their needs entirely instead of making assumptions on their behalf. It’s considered best practice to work with the same sponsors from the beginning to the end of a product’s design and development. 

Value of Enterprise Design Thinking

Now, let’s take a closer look at the how EDT benefits large organizations: 

  • Fostering cross-department collaboration: the traditional Design Thinking model isn’t necessarily very scalable to large organizations—it’s most efficient in smaller startups. EDT provides a better solution for larger organizations that have multiple departments participating in design exercises;

  • Focusing on the real-world problems: EDT’s keys ensure alignment across teams as they move from idea to product, ensuring that they’re permanently connected to the real-world problems they’re aiming to solve;

  • Fostering empathy: creating a sense of shared empathy in a large organization can be quite a demanding task, which is why EDT uses a variety of tools like user personas and empathy maps to ensure an in-depth understanding of the user across the board. 

  • Faster, better, cheaper feature shipping: according to a Forrester report on Enterprise Design Thinking, this framework allowed organizations to significantly decrease the time spent on project completion by 50%.

Starting out with Enterprise Design Thinking

While there are many differences that set traditional Design Thinking and Enterprise Design thinking apart, it’s worth mentioning starting to incorporate EDT in your organization’s workflow is reasonably straightforward. Here are a few steps: 

  1. Start by defining the problem as a user-centered statement;

  2. Ensure that ideation sessions are attended by a diverse crowd of specialists. 

  3. Make sure that your ideas are validated by real users. More importantly, as your product evolves from iteration to iteration, it’s essential to have users on board to measure how successfully their needs are met.

  4. Ditch the idea of a finished product—everything is a prototype, everything is an iteration. 

  5. Remember to focus on serving user needs rather than on building products or features.

The bottom line

Design Thinking is a marvelous framework for organizations of all sizes—it enables thoughtful collaboration, alignment, and user-centricity. However, larger organizations may find it more complicated to follow this framework due to a wide array of reasons ranging from the number of people involved in a project to the financial implications of failure. Enterprise Design Thinking provides ample opportunity for innovation and agility while mitigating the problems we mentioned above. 

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