Design thinking is all about gaining a better understanding of exactly what customers want, and adapting your product or service on that basis. How can this design method help you?

When developing or improving a product or service, most companies collect and analyse historical data, and apply this when making certain design choices. This way, they create an improved or completely new product.

That approach can work. But just as often, companies and organisations miss the mark, says Dr Dirk Deichmann, associate professor at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). “With traditional design methods, you usually look at the previous choices that customers or users have made. But analysing that data will rarely lead you to significant new insights.”

Insight into the client

To gain insights that are actually new, design thinking is a better approach. This innovation technique helps you clarify what drives the end-user through four steps: understanding and observing, defining, ideation, and prototyping and testing.

Once you have this input, you can use it to devise truly innovative solutions, Dr Deichmann says. “Instead of coming up with your own thoughts about what is best for the customer, design thinking gives you real insight into what they want.”


Users of the design thinking method have several techniques and instruments for this purpose. In its most basic form, design thinking is simply about observing the end-user or customer. How do they use a product or service? What obstacles do they encounter? These observations alone will often provide interesting input for improving products, or even developing new ones.

Customer journey

The next step involves structured mapping of the whole customer journey. In e-commerce, the customer journey is often mapped in detail to optimise webshop design and conversion rate: the more easily the customer moves through the purchasing process, the greater the chance that they will confirm and pay for their order.

You can map the customer journey the same way in offline situations, Deichmann says. “What steps does the customer take? What emotions do they experience? And what bottlenecks do they encounter? You can use this input to optimise products and services and develop new ones, ensuring the most enjoyable user experience possible.”

Anxiety reduction

An example of this is the research that Dr Deichmann and Roel van der Heijde conducted at the Rotterdam Eye Hospital. “For many people, a visit to the hospital is accompanied by a certain degree of uncertainty and anxiety. There’s a good reason that anxiety reduction is an important theme for hospitals.”

“When someone has an eye operation, their anxiety is often very concrete: will they still be able to see after the operation? With design thinking, you can map out the patient journey, and see how it can be redesigned in a way that removes patients’ anxiety as much as possible.”

New and disruptive business models; a better, personalised customer experience; optimal business processes: these are some of the numerous opportunities for digital transformation that are emerging at the point where large amounts of data meet technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and robotization. The general expectation is that many companies and organisations will increasingly turn into software companies in the coming years.




Instead of coming up with your own thoughts about what is best for the customer, design thinking gives you real insight into what they want.

Dr Dirk Deichmann


In the case of the Eye Hospital, this process resulted in a number of palpable, low-threshold innovations that contribute to anxiety reduction. That’s how the EyePad was developed for patients – an app that enables individual patients to monitor their treatment in detail.

“Transparency is an important factor in reducing anxiety,” Deichmann explains. “By giving patients more control over what’s happening, we have been able to largely eliminate anxiety.”

Information processing

The hospital also developed four personas: standard descriptions that describe in general terms the motives, desires and goals of different groups of patients. Patients differ in the way they process information, among other things, Deichmann explains. “One patient feels good about searching for details on Google; that could make another type of patient very uneasy.”

The hospital can respond better in terms of the information they provide if they look closely at the type of patient, Deichmann says: “Above all, a ‘Google patient’ needs detailed information. A more ‘emotional patient’ benefits more from social talk and reassurance; in particular, they want to hear that everything will be fine.”


Defining personas is always a good way to apply design thinking, Dr Deichmann says. “That’s why this is part of our online training in design thinking. Which different types of customers do you serve? How are they different in terms of their interests and preferences? And how can you tailor your product or service to that? It can be very rewarding to think structurally about your customers in this way.”

Extreme users

Another common design thinking method is to consider people known as extreme users. How does someone who is very different to the average user handle your product or service?

Dr Deichmann share an example of kitchenware manufacturer OXO. “The company wanted to develop a new potato peeler. The designer wondered how his wife, who suffered from arthritis in her wrist, would be able to use the peeler. By taking this extreme user as a starting point, the designer eventually developed a peeler that is useful for almost everyone. By starting at the extreme, you automatically arrive at a design that works for the majority of your customers.”


Experimenting, making prototypes, daring to fail, relying on intuition: according to Deichman, all this fits perfectly within the design thinking framework. “It’s certainly exciting, but ultimately, the process leads to solutions that optimally meet the real needs of your customer. It is definitely worth delving further into design thinking.”

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