Using design thinking to win the hearts of consumers

14 Jan 2016

Once a buzzword in creative circles, design thinking is now on the agenda of mainstream businesses keen to put the consumer first.


Imagine munching on potato chips that make little mess or noise, or using a no-burn iron that can automatically sense the right temperature needed for different fabrics.


These are not far-fetched ideas but actual products introduced to markets across Asia, thanks to the growing importance of design in the development and marketing of consumer goods.


In particular, companies from P&G to Pepsico have adopted design methodologies such as design thinking for problem-solving, and innovation that will best meet real human needs and pain points.


The definition of design thinking varies, but is largely agreed to be an approach that revolves around human-centred design as opposed to an approach driven predominantly by technology or a product, says Pete Overy, managing director at IDEO Singapore, a global design consultancy.


Changing the face of products


Recognising the value of design thinking in product development, Procter & Gamble (P&G) opened its S$250 million Singapore Innovation Center in 2014 (as seen in image above).


It is where human-centric design springs into action, says James Kaw, director of the research facility, who oversees scientists engaging with consumers to uncover needs.

“Design thinking enabled our research and development as well as retail specialists to create a holistic approach that takes into consideration consumers’ concerns through an intuitive skin-analysis protocol as well as through continuous conversations with them via online or in-person interactions,” he says. The result of this initiative and the consumer interactions was SK-II’s personalized Skin DNA Analysis service.


Introduced in 2014 in Japan, Korea and Singapore, it involves customising skincare by first analysing cheek swabs for DNA analysis, using which SKII counsellors can provide specific skin care regiments. This service was designed to help consumers address their biggest concern – preventing future skin issues through proactive skin care. “Providing them with the right skin regimen, together with recommendations on other preventive action – to avoid direct sunshine, for example – can help the consumer change his or her skin destiny,” explains Kaw.


Other companies have also made design a priority, beginning right at the C-suite boardroom. Last year, Johnson & Johnson hired its first chief design officer, while a few years ago, PepsiCo similarly incorporated design thinking into the company’s decision-making process. Since the induction of its first chief design officer, PepsiCo’s innovation contribution to the company’s net revenue has increased by more than nine percent in 2014, up from seven percent in 2012.


This decision has also led to new PepsiCo products in China, such as stacked chips that come in a plastic tray inside a canister, so that they are less messy and noisy to eat. Key to achieving this was observing the needs of consumers, which includes gender-specific preferences.


“Women don’t want people to hear them crunching away,” PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi explained in a recent interview with Harvard Business Review, where she also credited design thinking as the main factor driving innovation within the company. She hopes to continue raising innovation’s contribution to the company’s net revenue.


The impact of design thinking has gone beyond the food and personal care sectors.

In 2012, Philips launched a new range of irons across Asia, which boasts a ground-breaking design.

While irons typically have to be placed vertically when not in use, so that their heated sole plates do not come in contact with garments, Philips aimed to solve this problem by designing an iron that does not burn fabric when laid flat.

This was a collective effort by Philips’ marketing, engineering and design teams, through developing an optimal temperature technology, in addition to re-evaluating the archetype iron design and removing the iron’s heels necessary for vertical standing.

Low Cheaw Hwei, head of design for Philips ASEAN and Pacific, says: “For too long, many of us have been plagued by the risk of burning our clothes if we left an unattended iron on them. We just wanted to solve this problem and improve the quality of the ironing experience. It was a bold decision and a technical challenge, but we felt it was necessary to reshape people’s deep-rooted habits.”

The dollars and cents

Intense competition and rapid growth in Asian consumer demand has created an urgency to bring innovative products to market quickly. According to IDEO’s Overy, the pace of design-led innovation has picked up in Asia over the last few years.

Human-centred design can also help companies better engage their consumers.

IDEO, for instance, worked with outdoor apparel brand North Face to define the outdoor category in ways that resonate in the China market. IDEO’s work helped North Face grow through new brand communities, digital experiences, and retail.

IDEO used insights generated through this exercise to collaborate with The North Face on designs and prototypes for a new digital platform and an updated store-within-a-store merchandising display.

Embarking on small-scale prototyping is a crucial step in the design thinking process as it lowers risks and costs, Overy says. “We create a cheap version of the idea and rapidly prototype it based on consumers’ responses. If it doesn’t work, we learn, adapt and evolve the idea. We call it failing fast.”

As design thinking is closely associated with creativity, it can be challenging to measure the precise returns on investment, according to Philips’ Low. “It’s more meaningful to adopt a holistic view to evaluate the benefits of the use of creativity in the workplace and in corporate decision making. The benefits can be seen not just through traditional barometers such as market share, customer satisfaction, and brand perception, but also through changes in company culture and consumer attitudes towards the company and the brand.”

“Design thinking is not new – it has now evolved to become one of the most popular approaches to creative problem solving, especially in large organisations,” Low says. “Its effectiveness and impact can’t be isolated. In fact, we can see results in the growth of brands that have effectively incorporated design thinking into their product innovation process.”

Designing for business impact

Design thinking is often used to rethink business strategies, observes Jeffrey Ho, the executive director of DesignSingapore Council, the national agency for design in Singapore.

He highlighted how the management of restaurant chain The Soup Spoon in Singapore attended a workshop on design thinking organised by the Council’s Design Thinking & Innovation Academy in 2012 and later overhauled its The Soup Spoon Union outlet by applying design thinking principles. Through changes such as a new layout and rebranding, sales at this outlet increased by 25 per cent and manpower hours were reduced by 24 per cent.

“In the broadest sense, design encompasses not just the physical appearance, ergonomics, user interface, etc. of a product, but can also be found in service delivery, efficiency and effectiveness,” says Arlindo Silva, associate professor of engineering product development at Singapore University of Technology and Design. “It not only results in better products, but also improves productivity in business processes.”