Nowadays, digital technologies are providing incredible options; we live in a world where technological opportunities are cascading over society at an unprecedented speed. Humans are central to understanding how the technology can be better aligned with end-user needs and their willingness to adopt it. Design Thinking is an approach that looks at value and change from the perspective of people
Claudio Dell’Era, Associate Professor of Design Strategy at School of Management, Politecnico di Milano
Stefano Magistretti, Assistant Professor of Innovation and Design Management at School of Management, Politecnico di Milano
We live in a digital society where digital technologies are all being used for work, monitoring health and habits, staying connected, seeking information and getting the news, shopping for groceries, travelling, managing finances and more. Digital technologies are widespread throughout the world, and their presence in our daily life is booming. In the last few decades, several different digital technologies have reshaped the way people live and the way companies develop new products and services. Nowadays, digital technologies are providing incredible options; we live in a world where technological opportunities are cascading over society at an unprecedented speed.
A world awash with technologies and information. But humans do not use digital technologies or data; they need products and services. Artificial Intelligence (AI), in particular, has the potential to transform our world for the better: it can improve healthcare, reduce energy consumption, make cars safer and enable farmers to use water and natural resources more efficiently. AI can be used to predict environmental and climate change, improve financial risk management and provides the tools to manufacture products tailored to our needs with less waste. AI can also help to detect fraud and cybersecurity threats, and enables law enforcement agencies to fight crime more efficiently. AI can benefit the whole of society and the economy. It is a strategic technology that is now being developed and used at a rapid pace across the world.
Nevertheless, AI also brings new challenges for the future of work, and raises legal and ethical questions. To address these challenges and make the most of the opportunities which AI offers, the Commission published a European strategy in April 2018. The strategy places people at the centre of the development of AI — human-centric AI. According to the report “Tech for Good – Smoothing disruption, improving well-being” developed by McKinsey, the development and adoption of AI-driven solutions has the potential not only to raise productivity and GDP growth, but also to improve wellbeing more broadly, including through healthier living and longevity and more leisure.
Technology has for centuries both excited the human imagination and prompted fears about its effects. In this changing context, the challenge is to build AI solutions to improve and not damage wellbeing. Researchers and practitioners are acknowledging that this is a problem of design, which acts as a driver of innovation and change and which is able to keep humans at the centre when building solutions. Humans are central to understanding how the technology can be better aligned with end-user needs and their willingness to adopt it.
Design Thinking is an approach that looks at value and change from the perspective of people. Or, even better, from the perspective of what is meaningful to people. Similar to many other approaches, Design Thinking also combines three factors: (i) technologies, how things are made and their improved performance; (ii) people, how these things are valuable for customers; (iii) business, how organisations can profit from offering them.
The perspective embedded in Design Thinking makes it unique: Design Thinking starts with people. This approach allows leaders to look at value created for individuals and assume their perspective, conceiving innovation not primarily as a source of competitive advantage and profit, but as a means to generate value for end-users.
Design Thinking is usually characterised by three traits: a human-centred perspective, where innovators build empathy with users; the leverage of creativity as a driver of innovation (sometimes even in contrast to assets as knowledge, technology and competitive positioning); and an intense use of prototyping as a rapid and effective source of communication and learning among stakeholders.
Human centeredness in Design Thinking means that what drives the entire innovation process is the identification and satisfaction of user needs. The success of any innovation depends on simultaneously achieving user desirability, technology feasibility and financial viability, yet Design Thinking almost prescriptively instructs innovators to address desirability first.
By continuously involving end users in the iterative co-creation and testing of ideas and prototypes, design thinkers ensure that the outcomes of their innovation effort add value to the human experience and are meaningful and affordable. In so doing, Design Thinking overturns the traditional business perspective that is technology driven: companies first determine what is feasible for them to develop and then push their new products and services through marketing campaigns hoping that they address people’s search for value and meaning.
The need for a human-centred approach also stems from the wicked nature of the problems addressed in Design Thinking projects. Wicked problems are defined as a class of social system problems that are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, and where many customers and decision-makers have conflicting values. These types of problems should be addressed with a human perspective to grasp their complexity, make sense of them and make them tractable.
Human centredness in Design Thinking is achieved through the innovator’s empathy with users. Empathy consists of perspective taking, namely the ability to adopt the perspective of another person or recognise their perspective as their truth, be open to various inputs, suspend judgement, recognise other people’s emotions and communicate by mirroring back.