The 21st Century Customer


E6/E4, FORTH, HCD, 3 Is, Hasso-Plattner, 4D/DoubleDiamond, SDT…these are all methods that have come up during the reading for this class and in class. Whatever the method, the point is to have a process that is collaborative (between team members but also between the team and the intended consumers and also the unintended consumers), with well-placed moments of divergence and convergence, and involves some kind of hacked prototype. Only from these very roughly described actions can a team have the beginnings of a workable idea. Depending on what you are trying to accomplish and who is involved will depend on which of these many models serves you and your team(s). These processes then rely on a handbag full of various “tools” that can be accessed when needed. And you will not need all the tools all the time.

During the first days of classes we were introduced to the “Top Ten” tools in Design thinking (Tschimmel, 2012). Of those ten we used 6 in the class project: minds maps, brainwriting, visual confrontations, storyboarding, rapid prototyping, and storytelling. But we also used interviews and a mood board to get the process started in class. One of my favourite points that was reiterated over the three days and in the readings was the fact that the first ideas are the ones “in the box” and that to really access the great ideas you have to go through many processes to jumble everything up first. This allows the participants to step back and really let their imaginations work on another level.

Photo credit: Jaakko Porokuokka

Who will be the creators?

The 21st Century is, and will continue to be, a complicated place where there is a huge diversity in experience, access (to wealth, services, freedom, etc), wants and needs. So the services and products that will need to be designed will be created for hugely diverse groups of people. My favourite line from Tim Brown’s Design Thinking article say “Time and again we see successful products that were not necessarily the first to market but were the first to appeal to us emotionally and functionally.” I have often struggled with my ideas as to whether they have been done before and have pushed them aside when I see that they have. But the truth is, there is room for more than one when you really get the design (and the business model) right. As it has been pointed out in many places Apple was not the first mp3 player, Facebook was not the first social media space and Google was not the first search engine…but they have all succeeded. Keeping the customer central to your design is crucial to be successful and know what their experience can and should be keeps a business on the right track.


This concept of keeping the customer central to your business is not new nor is it the sole domain of design thinking but it is vital. Tim Brown’s book Change by Design is stuffed full of examples from his company IDEO and I love this style of expressing processes and reasoning through storytelling. A very good demonstration of this comes on page 50 when he discusses the issue of empathy and the case of the SSM DePaul Health Center. It is tangible to me the process of the team member lying on the gurney being rolled, quite disorientingly, through a hospital. This shows that the hospital was built to suit the workers not, in fact, the “customers” or patients.

This continual repetition of customer-centred processes have really stuck with me and I now not only know it intellectually, I actually feel it to be true. In addition to really knowing that the customer needs to be at the centre, there is also the need to really define who your customer is. And in fact, you must know that before you move further than the early prototyping stage otherwise…who are you prototyping for?

By Pamela Spokes

Brown, T. 2009. Change by design: How design thinking can transform organizations and inspire innovation. New York, United States: HarperCollins.
Brown, Tim. 2008. Design Thinking. Harvard Business Review, June 84-95.
Tschimmel, Katja. 2012. Design Thinking as an effective Toolkit for Innovation. In Proceedings of the XXIII ISPIM Conference: Action for Innovation: Innovating from Experience. Barcelona, Spain.
Gijs Van Wulfen, G. 2013. The Innovation Expedition, A Visual Toolkit to Start Innovation. Amsterdam, Netherlands: BIS Publishers.

2 thoughts on “The 21st Century Customer

  1. Thanks for a great blog post. I have to agree about first ideas being in the box being one of my favourite points also. Next Monday I’ll be trying out a brainwriting session with one of my clients to see if it makes a difference. I’ve done idea generation exercises before, but coupled with other Design Thinking tools I might see better results 🙂

    I’ve seen Tim Browns point about not being first, but getting it right mentioned in many occasions and it strikes to me being true. iPods we’re introduced only after one could store sufficient amount of music on them. There was a time when one could store only a hundred songs or so in on player.

    You raise good points in the post, I too was struck also when I was thinking of the hospital example. What would it be like to be in bed and just look at the ceilings passing by and people leaning over from time to time.

    Thanks and see you next week!

  2. Very inspiring blog post! There were two things in particular that I wanted to comment:
    1) The Tim Brown quote – that is so true that it is not enough anymore to fulfill a functional need (nor only the emotional) as consumers are out there for customized and easy experiences rather than massproduced services. I also like the way you really make it concrete with the so true examples!
    2) The storytelling – it is absolutely essential, I think, to hit the customers with engaging power. I also need that we should be trained to utilize storytelling better also in internal communications to ensure smooth service design process from the very first to the very last step.

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