Design Thinking: Promoting Innovation


The movie Design & Thinking poses this scenario: Say someone hired you to build a bridge. Think of the types of questions you’d have to answer to do your job. What kind of bridge would it be? A suspension bridge, drawbridge or covered bridge? What materials would you use? Steel, wood or plastic?

Photo By The Creative Exchange on Unsplash

These are all necessary questions, but if you step back to look at the problem you’re solving, you see the true challenge: moving people and objects from point A to point B. With that new problem frame, you suddenly have access to new possibilities and new questions. Does it have to be a bridge? What if it was a zip line, boat or helicopter?

At Peer Insight, we help organizations ignite innovation by focusing less on physical design and more on “design thinking,” a human-centered approach to problem solving and innovation that puts the needs of the customer at the center.

The first step in the design thinking process is to understand your customer’s current reality. To do that, we often conduct in-person interviews with key customers at their homes, offices or other in-context environments to observe their day-to-day experiences and empathize with their challenges. We then work with the client team to analyze our observations and turn these insights into innovative products that solve those challenges.

There are four common pitfalls that everyone should avoid when taking on such innovation challenges.

Pitfall #1: Seeing the Technical Solution, Not the Human Problem

Often, when we engage in an innovation project, our clients have a narrow view of their business challenge or problem, which can block them from seeing otherwise obvious solutions. For example, we recently worked with Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) to build internal design thinking and innovation capabilities. The teams were open to applying a human-centered approach, but had a difficult time seeing past the organization’s “lens” of technology. When we asked them to explain a typical customer’s experience with one of their products, they would tell the story in terms of technological devices and data flows: “The data from tower A is going to get sent to the receiver over in tower B.” While a true depiction of how their business works, their scenarios left out the most important part of the service: the customer.

Map the journey. To truly understand both the experiential and emotional path your customers take, create a journey map, a visual diagram of a customer’s experience. For example, to understand a customer’s journey in a store, you would start by listing out all activities and steps a customer would perform. Don’t just look at what happens in the store, look beyond the in-store experience. Map the decision process to go there, their preparations and their travel. Examine what happened after they opened the door and when they were shopping around. Look at the checkout process, whom they talked to after they left and whether or not they returned. Journey maps help you empathize with the struggles and moments of joy the customer experiences.

To map their customers’ journeys, the CSC teams engaged in observational research. After just a single round, they began to understand that they’re not serving a digital process, computer or technology. They’re serving people.

Design thinking helps open up your view of a problem beyond what you already know and gives you a new way to frame it.

Pitfall #2: Working in a Silo

We’ve all heard of the lone wolf, who single-handedly brings new and innovative solutions to his company. But true lone innovators are few and far between. We can do a lot on our own, but ideas and solutions are always better with more heads in the game.

The Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society (Good Sam), a large long-term care provider, has campuses across the country—but the good ideas popping up at them weren’t funneling up to the main campus. Peer Insight was hired to create an internal innovation architecture, or centralized platform, where innovative ideas could be shared across the campuses and championed by Vivo, its innovation team.

One of the most important steps was picking the right team, which consisted of both external and internal team members. Good Sam recruited external individuals with design-thinking skills who could approach problems a bit differently. They also included “internal credibles” who knew the ins and outs of the company and supported these externals in understanding the needs of the organization.

Once you have the team in place, there is another constituent to consider: the customer. In order for a new product or service to be successful, the customer has to make the decisions. A good innovation team frames the problem with a prototype, then sets it up so the customers can decide what to move forward with.

Organizations are often nervous about this; they want to have the power. But when you put the decision-making power in the user’s hands, there is a clear winner every time. The energy and enthusiasm that surround certain features and concepts, will empower the team to move forward.

Pitfall #3: Focusing on Perfection

Organizations want everything they do to be perfect. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking has no place in the innovation cycle. The earlier you get an idea in front of users the better. It helps test your assumptions and the feedback ultimately helps improve the quality of the product.

One of the most difficult things for an organization to do is put out an imperfect, low-fidelity prototype. They often worry that giving customers a glimpse of an unfinished service or product will hurt the company’s reputation. But that’s not true at all; it’s about progress, not perfection.

During our training with CSC, we found that some of the managers weren’t comfortable with failure. By reframing assumption testing and prototyping as a way of learning rather than failure, we were able to give them permission to try out new ideas without fear. It’s not failing if you’re building upon what you’ve learned in each round and creating a better product or service. You have to be comfortable with throwing away your idea and moving on to the next.

Pitfall #4: Inability to Pivot

In a project for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), we developed a website to help baby boomers during times of transition, whether it’s retirement, empty nests, unemployment or buying a new home.

In-person interviews with baby boomers, showed us that there was a lot of anxiety tied to the recession at that time. People were most focused on what came next in their work lives, whether they were employed, retired, didn’t have a job or were “re-careering.” That led to the creation of the “Life Reimagined” portal, which included online tools to help with those times of transition.

We used a low-fidelity alpha test website, which included only “make-or-break” functions that were necessary for the product to be viable. The test website was open to the public for 90 days, and we promoted it through Google Adwords, the AARP conference and videos on YouTube. This process was scary for AARP, because although it was a functioning website, it wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing and not all of the links were fully functioning.

Interestingly enough, through this test, we found that although the service had targeted boomers, the people who were using the services skewed a lot younger.

It was an eye-opening experience to realize these were future AARP customers who are going to be retiring in the next 30 years. They need support throughout many transitions in their lives, not just the ones that we were thinking about. AARP still provides the site, but the messaging is for a broader audience.

The opportunity to pivot or refocus your innovation effort is another reason we encourage our clients to get out there and put things in front of users before they’re perfect. You might find yourself with a product or service that is very different from what you started with, but that might expand your customer base in a new way like AARP.

Don’t Innovate to Innovate

While overcoming these pitfalls can help you be a better innovator, you still want to make sure you’re innovating for the right reasons. Every organization wants to be at the top of their market with a product or service that redefines the industry, but even a really good idea cannot do that on its own. If the idea is not human-centered or aiming to improve the quality of life or the experience for your customers, then it’s not a sustainable innovation. You can’t just innovate to innovate; you have to innovate for the customer.


  • Jessica Dugan

    Jessica Dugan is a senior design consultant at Peer Insight, a Washington, D.C.-based innovation consultancy, with a passion for people and their stories. Drawing on her background in design research and business strategy, Jessica collaborates in the creation of innovative products and services. She holds master?s degrees in design and in business administration from the IIT Institute of Design in Chicago. She can be reached at [email protected].


Other Resources in this Series

Most Recent


What is Product Leadership? (With Job Titles, Skills and Responsibilities)

Learn the essential skills, key responsibilities, and common job titles in product leadership, and explore how product leaders differ from product managers.

Product operations: What is it and does your company need it?

Product operations is a key player in evolving product-centered companies, but why? And should your company consider using it? This article covers everything you need to understand about product ops.

Product Operations vs. Product Management

Explore product operations vs. product management, and learn how these roles work together to build data-driven products.

7 Critical Product Manager Interview Tips

Getting ready for an upcoming product manager interview? This article offers essential strategies and tips for showcasing your skills effectively and using research and practice to make a strong impression.

Women Product Leaders and Changemakers

In the spirit of Women’s History Month, we brought together the insights of product management leaders and Pragmatic instructors Cindy Cruzado and Amy Graham in a comprehensive interview that sheds light on their experiences, challenges,...
Category: Leadership

OTHER ArticleS


What is Product Leadership? (With Job Titles, Skills and Responsibilities)

Learn the essential skills, key responsibilities, and common job titles in product leadership, and explore how product leaders differ from product managers.

Product operations: What is it and does your company need it?

Product operations is a key player in evolving product-centered companies, but why? And should your company consider using it? This article covers everything you need to understand about product ops.

Sign up to stay up to date on the latest industry best practices.

Sign up to received invites to upcoming webinars, updates on our recent podcast episodes and the latest on industry best practices.



Pragmatic Institute Resources