How Design Thinking Solves for the Consumer Dilemma

By Nicolas Pochart

Director of Consumer Innovation Sciences

  • “If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said, ‘A faster horse.’”
    ~Henry Ford
  • “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”
    ~Steve Jobs

These two quotes summarize the challenges we face in consumer innovation quite well: there’s often a discrepancy between what an individual thinks they want, and what would actually make their lives better.

Of course we all want to design products that delight consumers and meet their needs, but often the challenge posed is looking past the obvious, ‘makes sense’ solution to solve a problem that’s been articulated through behavior rather than self-reporting. Its important to realize that while traditional market surveys or focus group make for useful tools in generating consumer insights, they can’t and don’t paint a holistic picture.

As the interaction design foundation writes,

In order to solve a complex, wicked problem, you and your team need to resist the urge to react impulsively and learn to dive deep and develop a holistic understanding of the problem, before starting to ideate the possible solutions to it.

In recent years, organizations have caught wind of the many benefits the design thinking process has to offer. According to the Design Management Institute, longstanding design-conscious companies like Apple, Coca Cola, and Walt Disney see 10-year returns yielding 2.19 times (219%) that of the S&P 500, so it makes sense that the rest of the business world is following suit.

But how does this concept fare in industries such as healthcare?

How We Manage Design Thinking in Healthcare

At GSK Consumer Healthcare, we employ design thinking methodologies to drive our consumer-led, science-based innovations. Our first step is use ethnography to identify weak signals of consumer needs, followed by testing prototypes to gauge consumer response.

Here is our general format for designing

1.     This first phase is called ‘the empathy phase.’

We interview consumers in the context of their usual environment, typically their homes. We ask consumers to project themselves into the last time they were in the condition we want to study, for example the last time they had a cold, and to describe to us how they felt before, during, and after the event. We browse with them all the place where they store their consumer health products. Typically, in the bathroom, in the kitchen, by the bedside, in their purse/rucksack. It is always a surprise to see how many products they have on hand. For a common cold, typically 5-7 products/devices/home remedies appear during the interview. We ask consumers to pretend they use these products in front of us, and to describe what they are doing, why this is necessary, and how it makes them feel. Sometimes, we use projective techniques: “imagine your body can talk – what is it telling you it feels at that moment”.

During these interviews, we look for discrepancies between what consumers are telling us, and what we see they are doing. This is particularly helpful to identify coping behaviors, that is, things that consumers are doing to cope with an unmet need despite not being to articulate said need. A classic example of a coping behavior was identified by the appliance manufacturer Miele, when they were conducting ethnography interview amongst families where kids were suffering from allergies.

Consumers were vacuuming mattresses and bed sheets to remove allergens. And they were repeating this tedious task again and again. When the ethnographers inquired why consumers were doing this, the answer was because they were unsure about when to stop. Identifying that unarticulated unmet need - know when to stop -  enabled Miele to design an indicator, which shows when the surface is dust-free. Had consumers been interviewed in a focus group room, this unarticulated need would never have emerged. Ethnography was able to elicit the unmet need by confronting what consumers were doing with what they were saying.
*indented to visually differentiate the example from the conceptual body of text

We typically also expand the universe of the research beyond using our consumer health products. We try to understand consumer lifestyles and aspirations. How do consumers homes look like? What equipment or features do we see emerging? How could our products fit into their lives? One example is the popularity of pods coffee brewers in North American homes, which created the need for a more convenient way to prepare Cold & Flu remedies, and the launch of Theraflu Power Pods.

2.     The second phase of the process ‘the definition phase.’

Findings from the ethnography research are turned into problem statements:

“this consumer (description) needs this benefit, because (s)he experiences this tension (between his/her situation and the currently available solution).”

A clear definition of the problem statements of the need is critical to the quality of the solutions that will then be brainstormed, which is why we invest a lot of time at this stage. It is done off-line, rather than during the consumer interviews.

3.     The third stage of design thinking is the ideation process

During the third phase of the design thinking process, multi-functional teams brainstorm as many solutions as possible. No crazy idea is rejected during the ideation phase, until piles of post-it notes have been used to cover the walls of the ideation room. Ideas are then compiled, and clustered into groups of easy vs. difficult to implement, novel vs. incremental, totally vs. partially solving for the consumer need, and ideas are prioritized.

There are of course many ways different techniques for ideating, such as coming up with the worst possible idea to help identify what actually makes sense to implement, or using the SCAMPER technique, and we actively work to experiment to integrate new practices to stay dynamic with our thinking.

4.     The fourth stage is when we prototype

The fourth phase of the design thinking process is the prototyping phase. A prototype can be a drawing, a paper concept, a duct tape/carton 3D model, a new fragrance or a new flavor. Consumers don’t need to see fully finished prototypes to be able to react to them, as long as the idea is clear enough for consumers to react and tell us what they like about it, and what should be further improved.

As Tim Brown, CEO of internationally acclaimed design firm IDEO said,

“They slow us down to speed us up. By taking the time to prototype our ideas, we avoid costly mistakes such as becoming too complex too early and sticking with a weak idea for too long.”
– Tim Brown

The key to prototyping is to develop an mvp, or minimal viable product, which is the most barebones example of what a final product could be. It needs to exemplify the central function of the product, without being romantic about the less important features. Once we have something to show and try out, we can begin the final phase.

5.     The fifth and last stage in a single cycle is the testing phase

In the fifth phase of the design thinking process, we test the ideas with consumers. This is no longer about identifying the consumer need (which has been elicited via ethnography in the empathy phase), it is about assessing the consumer like (or attitude), towards our prototypes. In this case, we can ask consumers the question directly in a focus group discussion or in a straight survey, and they are typically able to give us a pretty straight answer.

Many times, output of the fifth phase of the design thinking process sends us back to the problem definition (phase two), and we iterate, until the prototype of an innovation, which clearly meets an unmet consumer needs, receives a positive attitude (like) from consumers.

Reflecting on our Design Thinking process
This is the way we solve for the consumer dilemma: we are cautious about what consumers claim they want, and prefer to use ethnographic techniques to understand what consumers truly need before testing their response. Its through this process that we’ve been able to feel the greatest impacts of our innovation process in bringing new products to market.

Another strategy we’ve deployed is opening our doors to innovate collaboratively. To serve our consumers’ ever-changing healthcare needs, we partner with entrepreneurs & startups, established organizations, investors and intermediaries and academic institutions to launch new product and technology ideas.

If you have an idea and are interested in exploring a potential collaboration, see below to see how to get in touch.


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