Becoming a Design Thinking Organization: Sense Making through Empathy

Co-authored by Airine Kariuki and Saper Sahbaz

“There is only one valid purpose of a corporation: to create a customer” (Drucker, 2006). As called by some “the father of modern management”, Peter Drucker drew attention to customer-centricity 67 years ago, dividing the management practice into two camps: those who strive for customer value creation vs. value extraction. But today, it is clear who the winners are.

Figure 1: Market capitalization of value creators (Amazon, Apple) vs. value extractors (GE, and IBM) (Denning, 2021)

However, firms that strive for customer value creation face newer and newer challenges today. As Daniel Pink writes (in Brown, 2008): “Abundance has […] over-satisfied, the material needs of millions—boosting the significance of beauty and emotion and accelerating individuals’ search for meaning”. In response, truly customer-centric firms need to deliver not only products but experiences wrapped with both tangible and intangible value propositions (Brown, 2008). More, contemporary customers demand more and more complex experiences.

Building more complex experiences and delivering intangible value requires a deep understanding of users’ emotions, desires, aspirations, wants, needs, expectations, and experience (Kolko, 2015). What’s more, it requires interpreting the complexity of the context in which the users exist and interact. This is where Design Thinking comes to the rescue by providing the approach and the tools for “sense making” through “empathy” (Tschimmel, 2022; Kolko, 2015; Mootee, 2013; Kouprie & Sleeswijk Visser, 2009).

In the real world, user problems don’t exist as problems but present themselves through problematic situations (Mootee, 2013). The task for the organization is then interpreting these problematic situations. Empathy provides us a way to relate to the user, understand the situation, and understand why certain experiences are meaningful to people (Kouprie & Sleeswijk Visser, 2009). It enables us to capture information that can’t be transcribed in quantitative means but in the form of stories—or as Koupre and Sleeswijk put it (ibid.): “[an] understanding that goes beyond knowledge”. It provides us the perspective to “frame” the users’ reality to define the problems in a way that users face them instead of what it “seems to be” for the firm (Dorst, 2011).

Figure 2: Researchers using gamification to create empathy with and between users (Kaario et al., 2009) – Image: Niemi (2017)

Only by such deep understanding of the user, the firms can exercise “thoughtful restraint” (Kolko, 2015) providing a simpler, streamlined, and authentic experience that goes beyond mere functionality, appealing also to emotions such as pleasure and satisfaction; eventually capturing a sustainable competitive edge in today’s market and business landscape.

Figure 3: Through “thoughtful restrain”, an Apple Macbook Air’s touchpad provides users a clear, simple, yet very effective way to interact with the computer whereas and HP notebook just throws in multiple features that do not relate to each other—resulting in a confusing and inefficient user experience.

Sense making through framing goes also beyond experience design. It enables organizations to make sense of complexity of any sort. It can be, for example, used to learn about a sudden shift in markets, value migration between industries, emerging behaviors associated with disruptive technologies, or the reason why a previously successful business model expired and needs a redesign (Mootee, 2013).

While Design Thinking provides the means to compete in a brand-new age, it requires a change in attitudes, world views, ways of working, and interacting. Being more than just mere tools and prescribed frameworks, the question for the future-looking organizations is whether or not they can achieve the cultural transformation that is required to become a Design Thinking organization (Mootee, 2013). But perhaps, the key to success probably lies in Design Thinking itself to achieve this cultural transformation.

Works Cited

Brown, T. (2008). Design Thinking. Harvard Business Review.

Denning, S. (2021, May 2). Why Peter Drucker is the Albert Einstein of Management. Retrieved from Forbes:

Dorst, K. (2011). The core of ‘design thinking’ and its application. Design Studies.

Drucker, P. (2006). The Practice of Management. Harper Business.

Kaario, P., Vaajakallio, K., Lehtinen, V., Kantola, V., & Kuikkaniemi, K. (2009). Someone Else’s Shoes – Using Role Playing Games in User-Centered Service Design. DeThinkingService ReThinking Design. Oslo.

Kolko, J. (2015). Design Thinking Comes of Age. Harvard Business Review.

Kouprie, M., & Sleeswijk Visser, F. (2009). A framework for empathy in design: stepping into and out of the user’s life. Journal of Engineering Design.

Mootee, I. (2013). Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation: What They Can’t Teach You at Business or Design School. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.

Niemi, R. (2017, July 3). Pöytäroolipelit ja hbtq-asiat ovat lähellä Sonja Kutinlahden sydäntä. Retrieved from Sveriges Radio:

Tschimmel, K. (2022). Creativity, Design adn Design Thinking – a human-centred ménage à trois for Innovation.

4 thoughts on “Becoming a Design Thinking Organization: Sense Making through Empathy

  1. I enjoyed reading your post a lot, I think it has a very clear thought process laid out. Interestingly, you had a very different choice of readings than myself and that’s possibly why I found your post also very insightful. The keyboard example is brilliant: I just straight looked down at my own (Lenovo) one which lands somewhere in between the two you chose to show.
    In general, I think it is an interesting question to pose on whose agenda it should be to make DT useable for business i.e. drive for a DT-driven business culture, though I then wonder what interest DT has in being on a business agenda, or who would drive DT in achieving cultural transformation?

    • Those are really critical questions, Sabine! In fact, I was also wondering about those questions while putting the post together. I didn’t have the chance to look into the literature though, I wonder what the extent of the existing literature is on these topics.

      But I’d say, like any major transformation initiatives (such as digital transformation), DT also requires a commitment and facilitation by the top-management. Of course, it is another question then how to onboard the people with the idea, create rituals, and transform ad-hoc actions into habits and eventually into a concrete culture…

  2. An interesting topic indeed. I really liked how the authors have integrated the scientific text material with really clear everyday examples and pictures – both so relevant in illustrating the “why” behind the importance of empathy. It would have been interesting if the authors had reflected more on how the SID masterclass has impacted them on the topic of empathy, but nevertheless a very good blog post – straight to the point, relevant scientific references, yet well written and easy to understand and illustrated with pictures as they often speak more than a thousand words.

  3. As stated by the authors, due to the abundance of options available in the market, the innovators and successful organizations need to create more complex experiences than before; not just fulfilling the customer’s need for sustenance for example, but offering a better value proposition than the other food solutions by a combination of time, place, context and experience. Be it for example the cheapest and fastest… or the most exquisite and instagrammable.

    Truly customer-centric organizations look beyond their service/products into the experiences of buying, using and talking about them as well as feeling about them compared to the other options. They strive for customer value creation from the customer’s point of view instead of that of the organization’s. This way brands are created; they can be lifestyles and have a life of their own in the hands of the users.

    I find it worrisome when products and service are created first and customers are tried to find only after that. It is much easier to find an unsaturated or entirely new opportunity to grasp than to try without customer/market knowledge or try to offer a solution that exists already in the saturated market. What Drucker said about creating a customer made me think of how important it is that we design something that the people find that they need in their lives; something that they have not had before that enhances their lives. Offering a solution that is not out there yet, creating a user/customer.

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