how to use design thinking in marketing

How to Use Design Thinking to Manage Marketing Projects

How do you reach audiences and how do you engage them in the product that you have put all your energy to develop? These questions are constantly on the minds of marketers, but sometimes they get deprioritized when employees are blasted with budgeting problems, tight deadlines, or miscommunication.

Why Do Marketers Need Design Thinking?

Boiled down, the first set of problems facing marketers can be described as “soft problems” – how do we connect with customers, how do we answer their problems, how do we construct stories to keep them coming back – while the other set is “hard problems” – what are the costs, what is the return on investment, how can we streamline the process? Added on top of these issues, you have the problems marketers themselves face when they work within organizations. Two examples of these are fear of failure, and fear of straying too far from “this-is-how-we-do” organizational mentalities.

Balancing between these issues can be tricky for even some of the savviest marketers. That is why structuring the marketing team’s work on a design thinking framework can be useful.

Design thinking is a human-centric problem-solving framework, which works through an iterative process that fine-tunes the product until it perfectly answers customer pain points. Although first developed to answer design problems, design thinking can be applied also to solve many of the problems marketers face.

Engaging Your Empathy

Design thinking works through a five-step process: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. All things being equal, of course, each of the steps is essential for projects to succeed, but the first step, empathy, is the linchpin that enables marketers to work so well with design thinking.

Marketing by necessity is customer-centric. Without customers, products would have no value and marketers would have no jobs. Because design thinking hinges on empathy, it provides marketers a method through which, from the beginning, they can empathize with customers and do mental exercises to put themselves in customer shoes. Design thinking is focused on problem-solving so, by going into depth with the issues customers are confronting, marketers can sift through the many small pains and discover “the big one” – the pain that makes customers tick and that they would pay money to see solved.

Just as important, design thinking does not shy away from customer-marketer collaboration, as the iterative process is done with the help of customer feedback. By comparison, marketing teams which develop projects internally, risk presenting them to unsuspecting customers only to discover that the products do not answer customer pains.

By having projects run in a continuous counterpoint with customer feedback, marketers are kept close to the ground by being given honest outside opinions. This can help them maintain the right course, recognize new opportunities, and even discern when projects should be retired. Continuing the comparison with projects developed in isolation, once these pass a certain budget and resource allocation, employees are less likely to retire them when needed because they find it hard to accept that the projects have failed. Instead, the employees end up pumping more money and resources and, as a result, inadvertently digging a bigger grave for themselves and their project.

Taking the Road Less Travelled

As relevant as empathy and defining the problem are for outlining successful marketing projects, the relevancy of the other design thinking steps should not be ignored. With sufficient perspective attained, marketing teams can finally work on designing the solutions that are so needed.

Teams working in a design thinking manner are encouraged in the ideating phase to come up with many solutions, including hypothetical or out-of-the-box ones. The idea is to create a different way of looking at the problem, one which can lead to solutions that will differentiate the product from all others on the market.

This obligates teams to not go with the lowest hanging fruit – they need to exercise their creativity to come up with enticing solutions. As a fellow marketer, I believe that this is incredibly important. Customers are continuously bombarded with advertisements and promises of the best product. Indifferent of how good a product is, however, if marketing does not differentiate it from the many others, there’s a big risk that the product will get lost in the cacophony of voices that surrounds it.

Having an original marketing voice, therefore, can make or break a product’s success. If project managers and the C-suite understand this, the marketing team can be freed of the “this-is-how-we-do” mentality that plagues many organizational cultures.

At the same time, marketers should not fall into the trap of continuously ideating without having anything to show at the end. Once the team comes up with something solid – or multiple solids that can be tested in parallel – they should move to the prototyping and testing phases.

The Never-Ending Story

Design thinking is structured on an iterative framework. Once teams create a prototype, they test it both inside and outside the company. Based on the feedback, improvements are made and then a new round of feedback is in order. But what happens when teams reach the point that they all dream about? What happens when they create the perfect story, the perfect product, the perfect end for a project – is that really the end?

Within design thinking, iteration does not stop once products reach the market. Given enough time, customer pain points change, and new competitors appear. From a marketing perspective, this makes plenty of sense. Just because a product has been out for years does not mean that marketers will not campaign to increase its visibility or to reach new customer demographics. Just as products need to be updated to maintain their relevance, so too must the product marketing also be iterated. To do this, marketers must continue to exercise empathy and collaborate with customers.

To capitalize, marketing teams should not be afraid to fail. Failure is a prerequisite for project success. If teams do not fail, then it means that they are playing it too safe and that their marketing will not make enough of a splash to get the envisioned results.

Moreover, because marketing projects developed through design thinking can go through numerous iterations before they reach the market, most failures will happen behind the scenes. Contrast this to marketing projects that are developed in isolation. If these projects fail, it is painful because they do it publicly and do not have an iterative structure to fall back on in order to continue.

Design Thinking From a Project Management Perspective

It is all nice and easy to say that marketing projects should be developed through design thinking, and that teams must fail and reach their goals through longer winding roads. However, if project managers and leaders are not on board with the changes to organizational culture needed for design thinking project to flourish, then there is a high chance that projects will fail or that results will be unsatisfactory.

Truth is that working in a design thinking manner can require large parts of the organization to grow, not only the team. Project managers should empathize with their teams and be willing to make the organizational changes needed for projects to succeed.

Managers must create opportunities and motivate employees to come up with out-of-the-box solutions. This can take the form of various activities which can stimulate the ideation process, such as pitching sessions, role-playing, brainstorming, or team-building activities. Motivating employees can also mean that those who come up with the best ideas get public recognition and incentives.

Leaders and project managers must also create an environment in which employees are not scared to fail and to share these experiences publicly. As stated previously, failure is needed for growth. Yet, if failure happens in isolation, there is no certainty that someone else in the company will not repeat the mistake in the future. Therefore, failure should be shared at all company levels so that lessons can be collectively learned.

The more marketers and project managers work with design thinking, the more they can open the organization to the principles behind the method – empathy, outside-the-box-thinking, fast failure, and continuous iteration.  

What do you think about the views presented in this article? I’m curious to hear your opinions, especially if you have a different perspective than mine. Let’s start a conversation in the comments below!

Illustration: Copyright © Oksana Drachkovska

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