The positive effects of Design Thinking

Design Thinking is the not so new big thing. Companies of all kinds are investing in the development and application of Design Thinking methods. A rethinking is taking place. But what exactly is Design Thinking and is this investment worthwhile?

Design Thinking?

According to Wikipedia, design thinking is “the set of cognitive, strategic and practical processes by which design concepts (proposals for products, buildings, machines, communications, etc.) are developed”. For companies, this means putting together cross-functional teams and having them work together to solve problems or come up with new ideas using a variety of methods in a workshop format. The entire process is oriented around the sequence of “understanding, observing, defining the viewpoint, brainstorming, executing and testing” (there are different approaches to this sequence, but they all do the same thing in principle). This ensures that a basic understanding of a topic is created, primarily through observation, in order to generate ideas from it. From this pool of ideas, refined ideas are then worked out, which are then also tested directly and, if necessary, refined or also discarded in further iteration cycles. The goal is to develop ideas within a very short time and also to test them for feasibility or usefulness.

Investing in Design Thinking pays off

Research results clearly indicate that the investment in design thinking pays off. Forrester studied IBM’s investment in design thinking competencies and found that the ROI was 300%. McKinsey produced a report with research results from over 300 companies and found an average increase in revenue of 32% and up to 56% higher payouts to shareholders.

However, measuring the actual impact of design thinking is very difficult. The reason for this is the way in which Design Thinking has an impact: mainly in a changed way of thinking, perception and the way of discussing problems and opportunities.

Scientific results on the effects of design thinking

Recently, however, the first real scientific results on this topic have finally emerged. Jeanne Liedtka from the University of Virginia and Darden School of Business Charlottesville, VA and Kristina Jaskyte Bahr from the University of Georgia, School of Social Work and the Institute for Nonprofit Organizations have taken up the topic of the impact of design thinking and have now produced their first paper in November under the title “Exploring the Impact of Design Thinking in Action“, which is currently still in draft status.

I myself became aware of it through a webinar at MURAL and can only recommend everyone to watch it to get deeper into the topic. I consider the results to be extremely significant, because we now have the first real scientific evidence that the mere use of a few simple design thinking methods can have positive and worthwhile effects.

Research structure

A total of 471 questionnaires were completed, of which 66% of the subjects were companies, 18% were public authorities and 16% were non-profit companies. Responses were rated on a scale of 1 (no impact) to 5 (strong impact).

The level of experience with regard to design thinking was distributed as follows:

  • 1% no experience
  • 15% some experience
  • 50% moderate experience
  • 34% advanced

The following factors were examined:

  • Improved implementation quality of projects and increased adaptability in terms of user-centeredness.
  • Positive individual psychological effects on users of design thinking (increased sense of security, support, openness, and increased confidence in their own abilities).
  • Improved use of existing resources and networks.
  • Increased quality level of solutions.
  • Increased trust within teams and at stakeholder level.

Broken down, the following results could be assigned to these factors.

Improved implementation quality of projects and increased adaptability in terms of user-centricity.

  • Improved ability to switch if the original solution did not work.
  • Increased implementation rate of new solutions.
  • Increased willingness to discard solutions that did not work as planned.
  • Increased changes in organizational culture to make it more customer-centric.
  • Increased changes in organizational culture that made risk-taking more acceptable.
  • Increased employee motivation to work on a project to make an impact.
  • Expanded definition of innovation within the organization.
  • Increased sense of ownership and acceptance of a solution.
  • Increased appreciation of the use of data for decision making.

Positive individual psychological benefits on users of design thinking.

  • Increased sense of security to try new things.
  • Increasing employees’ confidence in their own creative abilities.
  • Support for those interested in trying new things, networking and supporting each other.
  • Increased willingness to try new things.

Improved use of existing resources and networks.

  • Established new intra-company relationships that continued after a project was completed.
  • Expanded access to new resources for individuals and teams.
  • Pooling of resources to achieve greater impact.
  • Increased willingness of other stakeholders to collaborate on new solutions.

Increased quality level of solutions.

  • Teams that were supported saw problems in new ways, which led to more promising solutions to problems.
  • Increased engagement, of employees involved in the design thinking process.
  • New and better solutions emerged that were not visible at the beginning of the process.
  • User knowledge was increasingly incorporated.
  • Design Thinking helped the participants to question their own preconceptions.

Increased trust within teams and at stakeholder level.

  • Building trust between team members.
  • Building trust between problem-solving teams and other stakeholders.

Due to the fact that the test persons filled out the questionnaires independently, these are always only self-assessments. This should always be kept in mind when looking at the results. Nevertheless, the results are a very good indicator that Design Thinking achieves positive effects.

Results consistently positive

But now finally to the research results. What effects could now be determined through the use of Design Thinking?

Across all company types, improvements were perceived in team development, collaboration, and the ideation process. Prototyping and experimentation also experienced improvement, but lagged significantly behind. This can probably be attributed to the fact that prototyping requires appropriate technical knowledge, which cannot be replaced by design thinking.

This also identified five “super practices” that found increased application through the implementation of diverse design thinking methods.

  • Building diverse teams
  • Emphasis on active listening
  • Conducting real experiments
  • Focusing problems on the user perspective
  • Development of versatile ideas

Depending on how much experience had already been gained with design thinking in advance, this also had different effects on the results. Very experienced design thinkers were able to achieve the best results. But even those with little to no experience were able to achieve positive results.

It pays to apply Design Thinking

The results clearly show that positive effects can be assumed when Design Thinking is integrated into work processes. A comparison to other methods was not worked out. It is therefore not possible to say whether Design Thinking would perform better or worse in comparison.

It can also be assumed that the subjects used for this study had already been involved with Design Thinking before the survey and may even have already achieved positive results with it. Subjects who tested Design Thinking and then did not continue are most likely not represented in the results. Nevertheless, the research results show that it is worthwhile in any case to try out Design Thinking methods and to test the extent to which positive effects are achieved through them – even if one has had no or only moderate experience with them so far.

(originally posted on my other blog in German here: