The role of design thinking in CX management: CX Mini Masterclass – E57

By October 10, 2019 December 20th, 2019 No Comments
This CX Mini Masterclass provides an overview of design thinking and how this methodology can be used to craft new experiences, refine journeys or build solutions around the needs of other stakeholders. Show host and customer experience expert, Julia Ahlfeldt, explains the 5 key phases of the design thinking approach and how CX professionals can incorporate this into their repertoire. If you want to learn about the relationship between design thinking and CX management, then this episode is for you.




Not just another business buzzword

You’ve probably heard the term “design thinking” before. Unlike “customer experience” or “user experience” (UX was the subject of episode 56), the concept of design thinking has been around for a bit longer. It also has a much less nebulous definition.


Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.

Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO

The origins of design thinking start in the late 1950s and early 1960s as creativity techniques for designers and engineers. Through the 1960s and 1970s design thinking methods and theories began to take hold in the fields of industrial design, architecture and product design. By the 1980s and 1990s people began talking about this in terms of human-centered design. During this time, design thinking firms such as IDEO came into being and the most innovative and forward-thinking organizations started to embed design-centered business management. From 2000 onward, we’ve seen the steady rise of design thinking as a proper business discipline that can be applied by organizations to many different contexts.


The 5-step methodology

Design thinking aims to solve problems at the intersection of three things: desirability, viability and feasibility. Design thinking methodologies push teams to balance these competing forces. Unlike CX, which doesn’t have a set approach or methodology, classic design thinking has an adaptable 5-step approach. This is often represented as a double diamond.



  1. Empathize – arguably the most important phase of the process. This is all about understanding the user, their needs, feelings and perspective through research. When we talk about putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we’re essentially talking about establishing empathy. How can we build something for someone if we don’t understand who they are?
  2. Define – probably the step that most organizations neglect. Once we understand the user through empathizing, we need to leverage that information to establish their point of view and express the problem we want to solve. The more specific, the better. In design thinking the problem is often posed as a “How Might We” statement that give clues about the user and their needs. An example problem statement might sound something like: How might we provide quick and healthy meal options to the busy working mom on the go, this statement could experience several rounds of re-framing to make it more and more specific. Einstein once said that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem. Einstein was onto something.
  3. Ideation – this is what people often think about when they envision design thinking. They imagine word clouds and post-it notes and all kinds of creative ideas flying around. Stages 1 and 2 are all about honing in on the user and the challenge, but ideation is where teams want to go wide again, imagine the possibilities and generate lots of options. Ideation is wonderful. It’s creative, exploratory and can be a lot of fun.
  4. Prototype – after ideation teams need to pick one idea to work on. Prototyping can take many forms: storyboarding, building with legos or crafting a small 3-d model. The important point is to make the idea real so that a user can begin to interact with it.
  5. Testing – this is where teams share their prototype with a user to gather feedback. Testing presents an opportunity to gain more perspective about the end-user. Feedback may help teams realize that they need to go back and learn more about their user, reframe their question, pick another idea to prototype or make refinements to their existing prototype. All of those outcomes are OK.

If a team comes out of testing and goes back to square one, that’s still a win because at least they didn’t launch something that was going to be a total flop with their audience. Design thinking encourages teams to go through this process quickly with several iterations so that the investment of time doesn’t tempt teams to become attached to an idea that might not strike the magic balance of desirability, feasibility and viability.


Design thinking and CX

Design thinking has some obvious and not so obvious applications in the world of customer experience. It’s easy to see how this could be a powerful approach for innovating journey improvements or defining new products and services.

Beyond the obvious applications within customer experience innovation, design thinking can help teams bolster the organizational ecosystems that help journeys happen. How many of us have had an employee onboarding experience or a vendor management experience that was user unfriendly to the extreme? Not only are these experiences super annoying for the end user, but they also throw noise into the system that slows things down. Design thinking can be used in the context of employee experience, organizational alignment or stakeholder management.

Because of it’s emphasis on empathy and framing the user’s point of view, design thinking is an inherently outside-in way of looking at things, so it’s a great approach for CX professionals to use. If the 5-step methodology seems overwhelming, don’t worry. It’s also OK to leverage components of the approach as and when appropriate.

Regardless of whether or not you use the 5-steps in a structured approach or integrate bits and pieces into your daily work, it will make a difference and complement your efforts to instill customer-centricity.


Want to keep learning about CX?

If you’d like to checkout more of these CX Mini Masterclasses or listen to my longer format CX expert interviews, check out the full listing of episodes for this CX podcast.

And if you are looking to super-charge your CX skills and continue learning, be sure to check out CX University. They have a great array of CXPA accredited training resources available on a flexible monthly subscription plan. Use the code PODCAST10 to get 10% off your first month’s subscription and support this podcast.

Decoding the Customer is a series of customer experience podcasts created and produced by Julia Ahlfeldt, CCXP. Julia is a customer experience strategist, speaker and business advisor. She is a Certified Customer Experience Professional and one of the top experts in customer experience management. To find out more about how Julia can help your business achieve its CX goals, check out her customer experience advisory consulting services (including B2B CX strategy) or get in touch via email










Julia Ahlfeldt

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