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Thought Thursdays
Design Thinking : A Customer Perspective

When I visualise design thinking, I always see a sophisticated man, wearing a black polo-neck with an interesting shoe choice. (Stereotyping in marketing is actually called customer segmentation!) Although most of us have been exposed to the concept of design thinking, some reflection may just shed more light on why, according to McKinsey & Company, this way of thinking is here to stay. 

The traditional approach of company‐centric value creation (that has served us so well over the past 100 years) is becoming obsolete. As a result, companies can no longer act autonomously, designing products, developing production processes, crafting marketing messages, and controlling sales channels, with little or no intervention from consumers. 

Design Thinking

Design thinking is a collaborative approach which encourages empathy for a problem or context, creativity in solutioning, and rationality in applying the best fit, intending an improved future for the system’s stakeholders.
The main idea is that by having real empathy for the problem and the context, the user is placed right in the centre of everything. This enables designers to then think and feel as if ‘it is done unto us’. 

One of the ways to depict design thinking is to imagine a team where the members are applying their hearts and minds to a concern and – through activities like discovering, defining, developing and delivering – are realising an improved result.

Double Diamond Design Process.png

Adapted from Double Diamond Design Process

But, can design thinking bridge the gap from social innovation to big business? Meet Ricardo Semler, ex-CEO and chairman of Semco Foundation – one of Brazil’s largest conglomerates. He is also the bestselling author of Maverick! (1993) and The Seven-day Weekend: Changing the Way Work Works (2004), and is now set to change the educational system with Lumiar Schools, which have no core curriculum but rather a mosaic curriculum; and no classrooms but rather learning spaces. He is a thinker who is proving that design is an approach to life, rather than a business strategy (


Empathy, as the cornerstone of design thinking, is the ability to be aware, or have an understanding or sensitivity for another’s feelings and thoughts, without having had the same experiences. Design thinkers consciously work to understand the customer experience, as this often inspires and informs the solution.

Customer empathy is already being practised in many companies, mainly as a marketing tactic. The practice is driven by customers who increasingly express their feelings through social media. The intent of this empathy is to be more engaging. Alison Black, author of Empathic Design: User-focused Strategies for Innovation (1998), says that this empathy is a fundamental cultural value that allows for a system to develop concepts, products, services and strategies that are both innovative and responsive to actual user needs and desires. Such a work environment is built around trust and self-awareness about the mode of operation, and it strives to develop a mental habit of switching modes: To think and feel, rigorously and deeply!

For me, the most profound thing happens when, as a customer, I sense that I am being included and considered; that my experiences matter; and that care is taken to make me part of something special. 

There is a beautiful Sanskrit word ‘Drishti’, which means to look at something with soft eyes.  That is the way we need to look at our customers – and at the world, for that matter.


As our world advances in information and communication technologies, it alters how we work, play, learn, socialise, and express ourselves. Businesses worldwide are being exposed to wider stakeholder participation and are held increasingly accountable for more than their financial performance. 

This participation (which usually creates fear) is a crucial element in design thinking, and a fundamental of marketing. Whether we are big on data, CRM, social networks, or customer segmentation – business legend Peter Drucker proposes that we need to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits him or her, and thus sells itself. 

Building platforms for participation can open up valuable design opportunities, where the shift is a principle made famous by Seth Godin: Don’t find customers for your products, find products for your customers.


We are managing complexity with varying degrees of success and, as academics, entrepreneurs and business leaders, we have all been exposed to – and have applied – very powerful thinking tools in an attempt to master situations. One of the most widely shared tools (although not practised with equal enthusiasm!) is systems thinking. As a student and practitioner of this approach, my discomfort has always been that purists demand a degree of subscription to an orthodoxy (a particular view of just what systems thinking is) and require the mastering of a large number of related ideas and techniques, before allowing systems thinking to be applied in any context. 

Although design thinking shares similarities with systems thinking, it negates the human urge to rush off and create comprehensive models or frameworks that specify how a design thinker must proceed. See Lessons Learned – Why the Failure of Systems Thinking Should Inform the Future of Design Thinking by Fred Collopy.

Instead, design thinking focuses on building an arsenal of methods and techniques, many of them drawn from various design practices and alternate environments, which may be applicable to the problems in question. These various pieces of knowledge become a kind of intellectual scaffolding that can be used to support the design, and is conducive to innovation. In addition to engaging a much larger community in knowledge sharing, one does not have to buy the whole of design thinking, for example, to accept that there are places in management where visual representations could help out, or that for complex problems spending more time on problem framing and reframing will pay dividends down the line; or simply for practising observation – or questioning (action learning) techniques. In time, each manager will do what designers do – they will adopt those methods, techniques and ideas that best suit the nature of the problems and their own style.   

The current corporate setting, where there is a frantic chase for more and more (short-term) profits, is not sustainable. Companies have always been a part of the communities in which they operate, and businesses with heart will be the businesses of the future. Movements that rethink how we design this new world are becoming mainstream, such as Shared Value; Profit for Purpose; and Conscious Capitalism.  By regaining an appreciation of what customers want and really care about, a new world of opportunities awaits. 

Anne-marie le Roux
Anne-marie le Roux is an independent business consultant, part-time faculty at USB-ED and UCT Graduate School of Business, and a life coach. Her areas of expertise include strategy, marketing, innovation and design thinking.

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