A smiling caucasian man with brown hair wearing a black shirt.

Design Thinking: adopting a user centred approach

Design Thinking is often illustrated in diagrammatic form as a five-step process: Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. In reality, Design Thinking is both more complex, and simpler, than this.

It’s more complex, in that the “process” of creative problem-solving, or innovating and developing successful new products and services, is rarely a straight-line one, or even one with well-defined iterative loops, it’s often very messy and unpredictable, with influencing external factors as well as stakeholder and business needs to be balanced. It’s simple in that Design Thinking is not really a process, it’s an approach, a mindset, an attitude. It’s about having an unwavering commitment to submit to end users – those who we are designing for – in conceiving, developing and testing your ideas.

But surely that’s obvious? Isn’t it just common sense to ask people what they want before designing for their needs? You’d think so, but in McKinsey’s report: “The Business Value of Design”, published in October 2018, over 40% of the 300 publicly-listed companies researched were still not talking to their end users during development of their products.

In a recent project developing solutions for patients with a chronic medical condition, our team found a startling example of this. One patient said that in 20 years of having, and being treated for, his condition, no-one had ever talked to him about his needs or asked him what he wanted. Whilst it’s easy to understand why this might be the case – all his touchpoints over those 20 years have been with healthcare professionals, not the manufacturers of the products used – it illustrates the tremendous opportunity that exists in finding ways to unlock the value of the real-world end user experience in designing new and better solutions.

But it’s not just a simple matter of asking end users, customers, what they want. Steve Jobs was very sceptical about the value of market research noting that: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them”. This is certainly true, but having a user-centred, Design Thinking “attitude” is not a market research tool, it’s about building an innate understanding of your end customers’ needs and finding meaningful ways to engage with them throughout the innovation and product development process. How can this be achieved?

In-home research Mumbai, Coca-cola Kinneir Dufort

Walk in your user's shoes

The first “stage” in the Design Thinking process is about empathising with who we are designing for. When we installed a research viewing facility at KD 15 years ago, it wasn’t just about providing a convenient space for user insight research and for testing new concepts, it was about providing a facility to allow our design team to relate more closely to the people we are designing for. In our view, if you are a fit and able 28-year-old professional designer, you can’t really start to design a product for a 72-year-old with rheumatoid arthritis without spending some time understanding what that means in your daily life. Conducting insight research in peoples’ homes, social situations or workplaces provides greater opportunity for empathetic insight.

By getting alongside people in more naturalistic settings, insights are more likely to be revealed through demonstration or observation, as well as by questioning. Sometimes this can lead to powerful empathy, such as when one of our design team was visibly moved relating the story of a home visit to a research participant of his own age, whose life was contrastingly different to his own, due to the medical condition we were researching. In situations like these, it’s important to be professionally dispassionate, and to filter and evaluate insights objectively, and not be unduly influenced by a “sample of one”.

Speed-dating concept testing with leading-edge consumers New York, Sony, Kinneir Dufort



Graphic artist Anthony Birrill’s poster “Ask More Questions” adorns the wall of one of our rooms at KD for good reason, but in terms of user-centred Design Thinking, it’s about asking the right questions, and listening carefully to the responses that can be the most revealing. Returning to Steve Jobs, and the famous quote attributed to Henry Ford that he referenced: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Had this been a summary of some research with horse users at the time, an insightful interpretation might have focused on the word faster, rather than the word horse, and a skilful researcher might have probed about other desirable attributes, such as comfort and safety. It’s easy to miss significant insights without careful listening to the user’s responses from different angles.

Crafting a framework for how to ask the right questions is important too. Spending a longer time with someone in their home, or with healthcare professionals in a busy clinic environment might reveal more about contextual needs, in real-time, as well as providing valuable observational insight opportunities. When working on new technology products for Sony, we adopted a “speed-dating” method for testing concepts with early-adopters – this allowed us to maximise the number of concepts tested, as well as the end user contact time with the KD and Sony team. In this case, the energetic, fast-paced session suited the respondents and the subject matter perfectly.

GE Healthcare Drytec production line

Meaningful prototyping & testing


The user-centred mindset can, and should, continue throughout the product development process. In the conceptual stage, a prototype may take the form of a clickable App mock-up, or a simplified handling model. As products are developed, testing increasing fidelities of prototype will confirm and verify decisions made on the basis of reactions to earlier stage mock-ups. As projects progress through the product development process, time becomes increasingly important. Sometimes, it’s necessary to parallel-track prototyping and testing, to gain user feedback whilst technical development effort is continuing. Working with the Mars Drinks team on a new Klix vending machine, the KD team produced a full-size functional mock-up of the machine fascia to test the user interface. Similarly, KD’s electronics engineering team replicated the necessary pressure sensing functionality to facilitate the testing of the user interface in the Vivatmo Pro asthma diagnostics device for Bosch Healthcare Solutions. The results helped us refine and improve the design as well as informing technical development teams, ultimately saving project time and money.

Vending machine interface, prototype testing Mars Kilx

Choose your users


In certain product categories, such as industrial, professional and business-to-business products, the end user may not be the customer (i.e. the person, or group, making the buying decision). In these cases, working out who to engage with and listen to in a user-centred, Design Thinking mindset is more complex and challenging. The right approach is to consider all stakeholders, whether they are end users, managers, purchasers, influencers, installers or service engineers, and to carefully analyse and prioritise their needs and feedback.

In approaching the design of GE Healthcare’s Drytec technetium generator (used to prepare radioisotope injectable samples for use in medical imaging), the needs of the production line operatives (who assemble, as well as disassemble the units when returned for safe recycling) were identified as being key to achieving a successful product. By understanding their needs, and incorporating ideas into the new design, KD and the GE Healthcare team were able to significantly reduce assembly time and double the capacity of the plant.

Originally published in our special Insight and Innovation edition of FOCUS. Read your copy online, here.

Find out more?

Get in touch with Craig Wightman our CDO