How to incorporate design thinking into your marketing strategy

Matt Geary in Growth hacking on 26th of Nov 2018
Design thinking steps

Design thinking steps

Design Thinking helps systematically extract, teach, learn and apply human-centered techniques to solve problems in a creative and innovative way. It can apply to creative processes, but also to marketing strategy, business processes and daily life.

Design thinking is such an effective approach that some of the world’s leading brands have adopted it, including Apple, Google, Samsung and Disney. It's also taught at leading universities around the world, like Stanford, Harvard and MIT. But what is Design Thinking, and why should marketers care?

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a process used by UX designers to challenge embedded knowledge, redefine problems and better understand users. The idea is to try and pinpoint alternative strategies and solutions that might not be immediately obvious.

The concept relies on having an empathetic connection with your customer to improve understanding of how they use your product or service.  Creating empathy with your customers helps upend assumptions and implications that tend to become embedded in teams — something that is especially problematic when they have been working on the same project for an extended period of time.

By reframing the product or service experience through the eyes of the customers, teams can better tackle problems that would otherwise be hard to identify.

The phases of Design Thinking

The original five phases of Design Thinking were coined by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. They are:

1. Empathize: see the experience from the perspective of the user

2. Define: map the user’s needs and pain points to define customer insights

3. Ideate: craft new ideas that solve the user’s needs and challenge embedded knowledge

4. Prototype: scaffold new ideas ideas

5. Test: test and validate ideas to prove their legitimacy

Plus an extra step that isn't outlined by Stanford:
6. Implement: execute and valid ideas that will improve the customer experience

Although these phases are numbered, they're not linear. Design Thinking is an ongoing process that continually reinforces value into the customer journey. It's entirely flexible — jumping back and forth between each process until the desired result is achieved.

Reduce encumbered thinking

Over time, human beings have developed specific thinking patterns that aren't necessarily useful in modern life. Some of these patterns come to the surface as cognitive biases, while other thinking patterns are modeled after personal experiences. These other, experience-related thinking patterns are known as schemas.

Your brain creates a relationship between memories, things, places, people or actions to create a schema. Each schema is an organized set of information mapped to experiences you've had.

So, if you've experienced success with a certain way of working in the past, you'll create a schema related to that. This is incredibly useful for applying knowledge in familiar situations like analyzing a marketing report.

But schemas also tempt you to recreate the same thinking process over and over again — not the best approach in the face of an evolving digital marketplace. Breaking away from repetitive thinking patterns is key to seeing new trends and opportunities.

This is particularly difficult to do for experienced professionals who rely on solid thought patterns and years of experience. Challenging their own knowledge isn't easy, but doing so isn't a weakness. If marketing professionals can focus on the experience from the perspective of the customer (i.e., use Design Thinking), they can apply their knowledge in new and effective ways.

Apply the six stages of Design Thinking to marketing

As you browse through the six steps, remember that this is a way of thinking. It can apply to customer journey mapping, brainstorming ad creatives and producing eye-catching copy. But just remember, it's a critical thinking process — not a hard and fast way to do your job.

Stage 1: Empathize

This stage gives teams insight into the needs of the customer. It's simply an exercise in listening. Make every effort not to add any assumptions or current knowledge — just listen to the customer.

In marketing, you can create an encourage an empathetic connection with your customers by receiving customer feedback through avenues like NPS surveys, website and social media reviews and analytics data. Look at the data as if you're an outsider and emphasize with what your customers are saying. Put yourself in their shoes.

What you learn will help define the parts of your customer journey that need the most work, and how to activate that knowledge.

Stage 2: Define

This is where you find insights from all the data gathered within the empathize step. Analyze what you've learned about your customers, and use this data to understand the problems your team has defined to this point.

Maybe customers are churning right away. Or, maybe long-time customers are suddenly leaving bad reviews. Define all your problems now, and you'll better be able to move on to the next step — coming up with solutions.

Stage 3: Ideate

Get the team together to brainstorm all potential ideas and don't discount anything. This is your chance to address problems that have been normalized into your marketing strategy.

By the end of ideation, it's good to have as many ideas on the board as possible. Post-it notes, a whiteboard on the Autopilot Canvas are perfect for this. It's your chance to forget about the risk and be creative. Some of the most successful marketing campaigns in the world came from ideas that would have seemed crazy (at first) to most boardroom tables.

By ideating based on customer needs and wants (read: step 1 and 2), it's more likely you can get good ideas to fly.

Stage 4: Prototype

Prototyping is the stage where you start to eliminate bad ideas and refine the good ones. Before new steps in your customer journey are tested (costing time and money) your team should rigorously examine them.

This can be a drawing a draft of a customer journey map or a piece of advertising creative. Play through concepts and see if they make sense on a high level. Over time, it will become evident it's better to flop on shaky concepts and ideas earlier rather than later.

Stage 5: Testing

The customer journeys, ideas or concepts that make it past stage four are ready to be officially tested. Anything that gets this far is highly refined and revised. Now, it’s time to officially run your process through the numbers, whether it be AB testing, heatmap analysis, campaign metrics or anything else.

What's working? What isn't? Based on the results, this process allows you to go back to previous stages and further optimize until the best outcome is achieved.

Stage 6: Implement

Implement your validated idea, concept, creative or customer journey after running it through the first five steps. You can always head back to any step to gain a fresh perspective on your customer's experience and break out of ingrained patterns of thinking.

Learn more about how to visualize the customer experience and identify new marketing opportunities.

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