Once Upon a Design: Using Design Thinking to Elevate Communications

There once was a person who, in search of a tasty snack, bit into a SunChip. But before it could be fully enjoyed, the oversized chip crumbled into pieces — leaving a mess in its wake. Other consumers had the same experience. While the chips packed a punch of flavor and crunch, the poor user experience overshadowed the appeal.

Soon, the snackers abandoned the chips.

But that’s not where this story ends. Instead, a plot twist called design thinking swooped in and saved the day.

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is an innovative, human-centered, problem-solving methodology focused on the details of the user experience. With roots in the 1970s design world, today design thinking has helped evolve cars, tech and, yes, even the size of the aforementioned SunChip.

While design thinking involves the following five steps, it is an iterative process. This means it might require the repetition of steps, as well as performing them out of sequence or even working on more than one at a time.

  1. Empathize: Put yourself in your users’ shoes. Spend time in their environment, using your product or service in the same way they would.
  2. Define: Analyze the user experience insights to identify problems. Focus on the needs of the user, not the needs of your company.
  3. Ideate: Brainstorm to problem solve. In this step, there are no wrong answers.
  4. Protype: Identify your best ideas and develop them into prototypes.
  5. Test: Test, gather user feedback and refine the prototypes. Wash, rinse, repeat until the right solution is found.

Design Thinking in Communications

Now more than ever, putting your audience front and center and understanding them on a granular level is essential to crafting successful communications. Here’s how to adapt the design process to achieve that goal:

  1. Empathize: Conduct focus groups and/or surveys to get to know your audience and the way they interact with your brand. Know your current key performance indicators (KPIs) such as open, read and click rates. But in these sessions, dig deeper. Don’t underestimate the details of your audience’s experience. Do they prefer reading social media posts to watching videos? Listening to podcasts instead of reading articles? Would they like to see more visuals interspersed in written content? What kind of tone and voice will resonate for them? What images represent the brand to them? Learn their likes, dislikes and emotional reactions to your brand.
  2. Define: Use the feedback and preferences to identify gaps. Are you missing crucial opportunities for connection? Are you too serious with an audience that appreciates humor? Can you improve upon the vehicles you already use?
  3. Ideate: Brainstorm ways to close the gaps and enhance what you’re already doing.
  4. Protype: Select your best ideas and create content that addresses the issue(s) you’ve identified. For example, if your audience feels “talked down to” by your content, create content that connects with people.
  5. Test: Test the impact of your prototypes by again engaging your audiences. Conduct follow-up focus groups and surveys and measure the progress of your KPIs. If you foresee frequent testing, engage a small group of user champions who can be your “beta testers.” Use the feedback to refine your prototypes until you’ve found a winning solution. If your solutions don’t catch fire, remember that starting over is often part of the process.

As you set out on your design thinking journey, don’t be afraid to evolve. For SunChips, a smaller chip size was the answer to improving customer satisfaction. Doing things the way they’ve always been done is a popular fallback, but it flies in the face of design thinking. Whether it’s a broken chip or a stale communications strategy, following the trail of crumbs to innovative solutions will improve your product, audience engagement and the story of your brand.

What steps can you take today to bring a design thinking approach to your communications strategy? Share your ideas below.

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