Seven Innovation | Design Thinking as a possibility-driven approach
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Design Thinking as a possibility-driven approach

30 May Design Thinking as a possibility-driven approach

Now more than ever, companies are investing in design thinking to provide us with innovative products and services that solve our everyday problems and make our lives easier. But does this approach lead to meaningful contributions to the lives of customers? This post shows how design thinking is more than an approach to solve problems and how it can enrich your customers’ lives.

Over the past decade, there has been a radical change in how innovation departments and design teams approach innovation and (re-)design products and services. By embedding design thinking in their innovation processes, many of these organizations have succeeded in becoming more human-centered and in providing better customer experiences. Design thinking has proven itself to be a valuable mindset in all kinds of domains. It has provided organizations with an empathetic mindset, an iterative way of working and the means to create value for customers. Organizations who have successfully embraced design thinking, have embedded this mindset in their strategy and their company culture.

Problem-driven approach
Even though design thinking includes many approaches and is now embraced by many different domains, it is common amongst organizations to adopt design thinking as a problem-driven approach. Particularly when designing products or services for customers, organizations tend to practice design thinking by focusing on ‘undesirable’ situations and envisioning an ideal future scenario in which these situations are resolved.

This problem-driven approach has been successful as it increases the quality and effectiveness of the products and services we all use. Furthermore, it has enabled organizations to solve our everyday problems by providing products and services that are smoother, faster, and generally ‘better’. To a large extend, this has made our lives easier and more comfortable, and has resulted in solutions such as self-driving cars, user-friendly mobile software and comfortable flight experiences.

Solving our everyday problems does not necessarily lead to positive and worthwhile experiences.

However, solving our everyday problems does not necessarily lead to positive and worthwhile experiences. It is a common misunderstanding among organizations and designers that they are able to create long-term value or to contribute to the well-being of customers by making their lives easier. Although the trend of design thinking stems from the motivation of becoming more relevant for customers, most organizations fail in contributing to customers’ happiness or in having a positive impact on society.

This phenomenon is clearly demonstrated in the market of mobile network operators, particularly by companies who are providing phone contracts for customers. Since mobile phones took over the world, many network operators tried to differentiate from their competitors by offering the best deals or the cheapest phone bundles. Nowadays, everyone can easily afford a phone contract, causing network operators to differentiate by providing the best service: creating smooth and care-free service experiences through design thinking. This could lead to a situation where all companies will provide the same service, eliminating all negative experiences of their customers. However, to actually differentiate from their competitors and create value leading to strong customer relationships, network operators should provide products and services that truly have a positive impact on the lives of customers.

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Possibility-driven approach
For organizations that want to invest in becoming more significant in their customers’ lives and secure a long-term relationship, we propose a possibility-driven approach of design thinking. This approach seeks to explore the role of design beyond solving undesirable events. It aims at creating new products or services without referring to any problem, but by looking for possibilities to create new possible futures. By implementing a possibility-driven approach, design thinking could be used as an engine of possibilities — envisioning possible futures, rather than solving the problems of today.

To become more significant in the customers’ lives and secure a long-term relationship, we propose a possibility-driven approach of design thinking.

An example of a possibility-driven approach can be illustrated by  the Philips Wake Up Light. Rather than eliminating all the problems in the user journey of waking up or trying to improve the current use of the product, Philips reframed the whole experience of waking up. By looking beyond the use of the alarm itself, they focused on how such a product could contribute to the human goal of health by providing a new way to start the day.

Wake Up Light

In general, a possibility-driven approach seems particularly promising when contributing to the subjective well-being of customers. By targeting customers’ happiness, many new opportunities and ideas arise that could create customer value rooted in their psychological needs. This view of innovation considers the influence of design much greater than solely taking away what bothers people in everyday life. Several challenges can be identified when designing with the aim of contributing to customers’ well-being. The most evident one is perhaps the lack of theoretical knowledge of the psychological principles of what makes people happy and the lack of practical knowledge in identifying new opportunities in design processes.

This view of innovation considers the influence of design much greater than solely taking away what bothers people in everyday life.

A vast amount of knowledge and scientific principles of what makes people happy is found in the theories and frameworks of positive psychology. Traditional psychology focuses on treating peoples’ mental illnesses, such as depressions, schizophrenia or addiction, and aims to increase peoples’ happiness level to a so-called set point. In contrast, positive psychology aims to increase peoples’ happiness beyond this set point, by investigating what makes our life most worth living. In other words, positive psychology is the science of determining our level of happiness, and understanding the concept of well-being as a whole. The mindset of design thinking combined with the knowledge and principles from ‘positive psychology’ are united in Positive Design – a design philosophy that creates means for increasing peoples’ well-being. 

In Positive Design the aim of the design process is not making the lives of people less miserable, but creating opportunities to facilitate or foster happiness. The psychological principles used in Positive Design include the understanding of:

  • human emotions, how they arise and how they contribute to positive experiences.
  • human goals, how they contribute to peoples’ personal significance.
  • character strengths, how they foster virtuous behavior.

A personal example of a product that makes me happy are the chocolate bars of Tony’s Chocolonely. Apart from the fact that eating chocolate is a pleasurable experience in itself, it comes in all kinds of daring tastes, providing me with the emotions of curiosity and surprise. Furthermore, I like to bring this chocolate when visiting friends or family, making it an experience I can share with people who matter to me. And last but not least, Tony’s Chocolonely is famous for providing ‘fair’ chocolate, where no child-labor or slavery is involved, making me feel good and virtuous for contributing to a fair world. Although my experience with this product is subjective, the factors contributing to my happiness are universal and can be used in any design process.

Tony's Chocolonely

Challenges for the future
For organization to be able to shift to a possibility-driven approach, they should focus their innovation process on the whole domain of their products or services instead of solely focusing on the problems of today. By focusing on possibilities, design thinking can contribute in finding opportunities for new future-proof design strategies, including the development of new products and services.

For adopting Positive Design, the challenge for organizations lies particularly in the understanding of human emotions, peoples’ behavior, human goals and character strengths. By investing in this knowledge, organizations could gain a full understanding of their customers and the contexts in which they interact. Only then, organizations will be able to create value that has a positive impact on the lives of their customers. As a result, they are able to create an authentic value-proposition, build valuable customer relationships, and ultimately play a prominent role in society.

Jimenez, S., Pohlmeyer, A.E., Desmet, P.M.A., & Huzen, G. (2014). Learning from the positive: A structured approach to possibility-driven design. In: The colors of care: Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Design and Emotion 2014

Hekkert, P. and Van Dijk, M. (2011) Vision in Design: A Guidebook for Innovators. Amsterdam: BIS Publishers.

Desmet, P.M.A., and Hassenzahl, M. (2012). Towards happiness: Possibility driven design. In M. Zacarias & J.V. Oliveira de (Eds.), Human Computer Interaction: The Agency Perspective (pp. 3-27).

Desmet, P. M., and Pohlmeyer, A. E. (2013) ‘Positive design: An introduction to design for subjective well-being’, International Journal of Design, 7, (3), pp.5-19.