How Design Thinking Can Save Digital Transformation and the Tour de France

B. Shimmin
B. Shimmin

Summary Bullets:

  • Technology companies like IBM and SAP are turning to the 50-year-old design and ideation methodology, ‘design thinking,’ in order to innovate more rapidly and better respond to customer needs.
  • Why is a process rooted in sticky notes and whiteboard doodles suddenly relevant for both technology providers and enterprise buyers? The reason is simple: with it, software developers can find and then answer the right questions.

A few weeks ago, a colleague passed me a link to an interesting live data dashboard for the Tour de France. Built by Dimension Data, this interactive, live view into the yearly bicycle jaunt about the French countryside was for me both fascinating and frustrating. As an IoT problem in action, the live tracking and comparative bar charts for various cycling groups (breakaway pack vs. Peloton, for example) provided an absorbing array of data points to ponder. Yet, I found myself looking for and failing to find answers to my own questions, like where are the current outliers and how does today’s stage compare with those in the past? Nitpicking, I know. But as an enthusiast of both data and cycling, I would have jumped at the chance to work with the team designing this app.

Fast forward to SAP’s recent Leonardo event in Frankfurt, Germany, where the company dedicated some considerable time and energy to promoting an idea called ‘design thinking’ as a means for its customers to realize the potential of digital transformation. Why? Why would a modern company push a 50-year-old design school methodology of ideation in the sciences that’s based on communal sticky notes and whiteboard doodles? The reason is simple: with design thinking, enterprise software developers can find and then answer the right questions by empathizing with the users of their software.

For SAP, design thinking is not just an idea like agile software development. It’s a productized solution, namely SAP BUILD, a set of software prototyping tools that blend design thinking ideas with a catalog of SAP Fiori UX widgets. The company uses this tool extensively as a way to innovate rapidly; it was the point of origin for the company’s executive dashboard offering, for example, helping its developers answer the simple question: what do CxO’s need from analytics? As it turns out, they need an immersive, mission control-style wall of data. Now SAP wants to extend this idea to its customers as a tool (SAP BUILD), consultative services, quick start packages, and co-innovation spaces (SAP AppHaus) to help them put the Leonardo ‘system of innovation’ (as the company would say) to work.

Honestly, I’ve been very skeptical of design thinking. IBM, which uses it heavily, took a number of analysts through the process two years ago, and unfortunately my biggest takeaway from that experience was that innovation doesn’t magically appear when summoned. However, what I failed to see then is that design thinking forces all concerned to actually consider and define the problem before jumping to the task of building a desired solution to the imagined problem. Within the realm of enterprise software development, design thinking does this in a couple of interesting ways. First, it completely removes project hierarchies. Second, it erases the gap between business and IT. Third, it does away with linear progression and emphasizes iteration.

The result, as I now understand it, is an interesting blend of creativity, execution, and empathy, where stakeholders can work together to uncover the true problems they wish to solve. For companies like Uber, the result might be a solution that prioritizes experience over workflow (a solution sans UX software). For the Tour de France, perhaps the result would have been user-defined predictive models or ad hoc queries. Who knows? The point is that design thinking, especially in a productized form, is worth some exploration. Within the realm of enterprise data and analytics, for example, I think it can help IT stakeholders close the loop on the data/analytics value chain with dashboard developers identifying and understanding the questions users will actually pose before jumping to the insights they ‘think’ users might want. Sound crazy? Maybe, but already BI vendor Information Builders just announced its own productized rendition of design thinking methodology. I’m sure they won’t be the last.

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