On the overall trend toward customer-centricity, marketers are embracing new processes for creating and managing their projects. There have been a lot of articles written about the merits of applying design thinking across the organization, especially in marketing. Some call it user-centered design, or perhaps ethnographic design, but if you look at the process, it all begins the same way: with understanding your customer.

The design thinking process usually goes like this:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

Each step is important, but I want to focus on that first step, because – in my view – this is the key to design thinking. And a lot of organizations are doing it wrong.

Focus groups. Online surveys. Feedback forms.

We’ve all used them, and they’re not entirely without value. But they have some hard limits. The wording of the questions, the multiple choice answers, the group that’s been recruited, the incentives offered; these can all manipulate the results in expected and undecipherable ways. Most crucially, they only give you answers to the questions you thought to ask.

In short, they lack empathy. Empathy requires us to really listen to what our customers have to say and try to understand it from their perspective. If we’re supplying the questions and the answers, we’ll never be truly empathetic.

Clark Scheffy, a managing director at IDEO, put it this way in an interview: “Marketers use focus groups for validation. A design process makes things more provocative because you’re designing ideas, not validating them.”

And what exactly is the value in “designing ideas?” 

In brief, it’s to find out what you don’t know you don’t know.

It’s only human to start with a hypothesis, but that is already limiting the data you’ll collect. And, when pressing forward with your data collection, traditional methods can tell you what, when, how and where. But true empathy is concerned with why.

"Marketers use focus groups for validation. A design process makes things more provocative because you’re designing ideas, not validating them."

Clark Scheffy, IDEO

Let’s go back to that original process. Many guides will direct you to bring in customers during Step 5 – Testing. But if this is the first time you’re soliciting feedback, you’ve missed the point of design thinking.

In a perfectly customer-centric process, customers would be involved in every step of the process. Of course this needs to be balanced with feasibility, resource management, and timelines.

Ideally, this effort leads to a new approach to customer involvement. With the idea of survey and focus groups firmly in the past, organizations can embrace a more iterative approach, folding customer interaction into every step of the process.

Or, as Joe Carstairs put it: “Short sharp bursts of ethnographic research and the insights they provide are often the lightbulb moment for many people embracing design thinking for the first time. The ideal situation is for that initial spark to kick off a chain reaction of organisational change, where on-going, empathy-led research is the norm.”

If you’re having a hard time imaging what design thinking can do for your marketing, just remember what Lowe SSP3, an advertising agency in Colombia, was able to accomplish. If they could empathize with guerrilla combatants enough to convince them to demobilize, just think what you can do.