What Businesses Can Learn From Designers

Instructors for the Power of Social Technology curriculum at the Stanford Graduate School of Business unpack social media concepts

It's not clear how design and business mix. However, in the last decade, there has been a growing fascination with how they might. Recent articles on design thinking proliferate—ranging from those that highlight its potential to those that warn of it’s impending decline .

But despite its waxing and waning in the press, the case for adopting a design thinking approach to business in general—and on the social web in particular—is actually quite simple. Design thinking helps creators get over unintentional biases and misconceptions. Time and again, initiatives falter because they’re developed with the brand, organization, or cause—rather than individuals’ needs—foremost in mind. When deep empathy doesn’t guide the decision-making, fear of failure influences decision processes, and rapid prototyping is rarely used to solicit quick and early feedback. Design thinking offers tools to address these challenges, get into other peoples’ heads and hearts, understand their needs, and iteratively test to determine how best to address those needs. Working with the Hasso Plattner School of Design , we encourage adopting a design mindset in the Power of Social Technology class at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Why? Three big reasons.

1. Empathy is on the decline. A recent analysis of 72 studies performed on nearly 14,000 college students between 1979 and 2009 showed a sharp decline in the empathy trait over the last 10 years. How do we change this trajectory? By fostering processes and mindsets that cultivate a radical focus on listening to others and understanding them before we build solutions. Design thinking is one such process.

2. Corporations need to (re)focus on trust and improving effectiveness . Recent data suggests that American consumers view nonprofits as warm and inspirational but less effective than for-profits, which are seen as competent but greedy. Changing these stereotypes will require a focus on processes that encourage both inspiration and impact. Such an approach was taken by The Montana Meth Project, an effort bankrolled by billionaire Montana resident Tom Siebel . Built on meth “customer” empathy, the campaign targeted youth, touched on the strong sense of regret addicts feel, and reflected addicts' desperate desire not to let a younger sibling end up like them. The campaign was incredibly effective in reducing meth-related crimes.

3. Social media is an important part of business strategy. And social media tools make a design thinking approach extremely easy to adopt. Consider rapid prototyping: With the availability of tools such as Google AdWords, Twitter, and Wordpress, it is simple for even a non-technical person to prototype every part of a social media campaign. These tools allow you to treat feedback not as an identification of what you did wrong but as a key part of your understanding of what makes your target tick. Look at the Old Spice Guy sensation—it involved shooting, producing, and posting 84 videos in one day. Real-time prototyping and feedback defined the campaign.

How have you used design thinking to solve problems that seemed unsolvable? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Illustration by Will Etling.