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Creativity, Design Thinking, Innovation

December 19, 2017

Design Thinking: how to understand your clients’ needs?


Design Thinking is becoming increasingly popular among businesses and intellectuals, and while the process and concepts are relatively straightforward, it’s not an easy practice to master. We tried to demystify the approach and see all the innovation opportunities that it can create by talking to an expert, Niels Billou.

Niels recently joined Talsom’s team as a Design Thinking Expert. His expertise in Design Thinking will allow us to include this practice as a new strategic service offering for our clients. This will allow us to co-create innovative solutions for their digital transformation issues.

Holder of a PhD in entrepreneurship and innovation, he has taught in some of the most prestigious schools such as HEC Paris, London Business School and Ivey Business School. Over the course of his career, Niels has trained a vast number of executives from leading companies such as Bosch, Deutsche Telekom, Siemens, IBM, Nokia and SAP, where he helped implement the Design Thinking process across SAP Canada. He was one of the founding members at the HPI School of Design Thinking located in Berlin. He’s also the Co-founder and Executive Director of the Humanos Institute, a non-profit organization that uses Design Thinking to help solve the most pressing problems of our times and help transform the lives of those that need it the most.

Let’s start by the fundamentals: what is Design Thinking?

A state of mind

Design Thinking principles are not new. They were first introduced in California in the late 1960’s by tech-creative enthusiasts and faculty members at Stanford University. These were used to create the first design agency named IDEO in Palo Alto, California, one of the biggest hubs in creativity.

Design Thinking has varying definitions but Niels likes the one offered by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO:

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

Focusing on truly understanding the pain points of users and creating a solution for their point of view is the key to Design Thinking. You can check the IDEO Shopping Carvideo that illustrate how the Design Thinking process is applied to innovate an everyday product.

From an idea to a project

Design Thinking process follow 6 steps, centered around deep understanding of the user’s needs, rapid prototyping, testing and iterating ideas. According to Niels Billou, it takes a minimum of 10 to 12 weeks to realize the complete Design Thinking process.

Source : Nielsen Norman Group – Graph: Talsom


Understand the experience through the eyes of the user. Unlike the marketing methodologies that are based on focus groups, the human centered approach consists in observing and interviewing the user in his/her real-life environment. When you observe how the user acts in his environment,  and ask questions in that environment, it’s easier to understand his/her experience and his/her difficulties.


The definition of the problem is from the user’s perspectives. In this stage, we work to understand the context of the problem by digging deep into the thoughts and feelings of the user. Defining the problem is an iterative approach, going back and forth until it becomes clear that we see the issues as the user does.

 “Design Thinking is not just science. It’s equally the art of understanding people.”
– Niels Billou


Try to be innovative! The goal is to go beyond incremental innovation. You need to recommend ideas that will be a source of radical and breakthrough innovation that will solve the user problems that you defined in the previous step. Afterwards, you can start to filter the ideas according to the viability and feasibility logic.


Retain the best ideas generated in the brainstorm and form an MVP (minimal viable product). Initial prototypes are low fidelity made of Lego, modeling clay or simply a paper story board. The main point is to create something quickly at a low cost.


During this step, the team validates the prototype with the user to see if the solution is meeting their needs. During this co-creation process, the team can adjust the product or service based on the feedback and input of the user so it precisely suits their needs. At the test stage, it is important to be ready to completely iterate the solution by going back to the different steps of the process.  By taking this iterative approach, you are building a solution that is most likely to be accepted and adopted by your users. You need to go back as many times as it takes until you refine the solution that most closely aligns with what users want and expect. Impromptu needs will probably arise from each cycle and you need to take them into consideration as you are making the adjustments.


The final phase for bringing the innovation to life is the implement the latest iteration in the market.  You will have an innovation with a good chance of success if you have faithfully followed each step, adjusting and iterating as you go along, making sure that the needs, hopes and aspirations of the user are faithfully captured and acted upon.

The Design Thinking process is an intense experience and while it is easy to understand the steps it can be difficult to master. Success depends upon putting together an engaged team with a multidisciplinary background, an experienced Design Thinking coach to guide the process, and a deep understanding the pain points of the user.

“Mastering of the Design Thinking process takes time and practice – you have to repeatedly use the techniques and tools on multiple projects.  It is not something you can improvise because each project is unique with its own context and circumstances. You need to develop the right reflexes, both analytically and intuitively, and apply these appropriately for each situation.” – Niels Billou

What is the added value for my business?

“Why should we prioritize Design Thinking over another approach for our business?”

Everything lies in the way that you address the problem with your client. If you put the emphasis on the user and how he interacts with his ecosystem, then you will be able to define and understand their needs.

By trying to alleviate a deep pain point rather than simply problem solving, you will be able to ask the right questions, at the right time and answer them in ways that create value for the user. following this approach, you become more open to more innovative and more creative solutions than the ones usually constrained by traditional methods.

 A personalized user’s experience

In an era of digital transformation, Design Thinking is positioned as the cornerstone of innovation. It helps create integrated and personalized experiences, that exceed the client needs through an empathic research and a deep comprehension of the user challenges. It simply acts as a lever to develop an offer that answers the client’s needs, not the other way around.

In 2017, 68% of enterprises made the choice of prioritizing personalized experiences. [1]

This process is always supported by multidisciplinary teams that work in close collaboration. Take a chance and try it internally! Bring a team with different backgrounds and expertise around a table and you’ll see opportunities and threats that you would’ve never thought about before. By letting your company departments work collaboratively instead of working in “silos”, you will not only get better results, but you will benefit from the collective intelligence. For example, the marketing and IT directors and production teams can collaborate to determine which is the best software for promotion and marketing tools. The same logic can be applied to clients, distributors and partners that work together to find new challenges that are arising on the market.

Discount tire was one of the first store to adopt Design Thinking principles with the help of SAP. With more than 875 sales points across the United States, this tire company explored the possibility of improving its online experience by reducing its waiting time.

As business opportunities grow, Design Thinking will become a success factor in user’s experience and the solutions deployed to this stake. However, this practice requires a lot of effort and time from the team and require good coaching. Adopting this process will require a change in the company management and sometimes in the enterprise culture.


Article co-written by Charlotte Cagnet

[1] Source: Forrester: ‘Hot Or Hype: The Most Important Retail Technologies For 2017’. March 2017


By Talsom
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