design thinking can help improve customer experience and make you a more innovative and agile brand.

5 Brands That Show How Design Thinking Pays Off

Superior customer experiences are informed by data and insights—that we know.

And we also know that brands' ability to put themselves in their customers’ shoes to understand what motivates them and why they behave the way they do is also a big part of creating the best experiences and engaging with audiences.

Put together, it's clear why companies are embracing design thinking for customer experience innovation. On top of helping them approach problems from a customer’s perspective, design thinking sets them up to develop more unique and creative solutions to people’s needs. To quote University of Virginia professor Jeanne Liedtka, “Defining problems in obvious, conventional ways leads to obvious, conventional solutions. Asking a more interesting question can help teams discover more original ideas.”

Crucially, design thinking encourages brands to recognize and remove unconscious bias when creating customer experiences. With a firsthand view of how people from all backgrounds use their products and services, companies can gain a complete picture of their audiences and are more likely to deliver inclusive experiences that speak to every individual they serve.

Below are five brands that have turned their design-thinking strategies into tangible returns, proving that it pays to put people’s needs first. 

Airbnb Pioneers Design Thinking In Travel

Most people think of Airbnb as a multibillion-dollar tech unicorn, but the company’s founders are also design-thinking pioneers. Airbnb was on the verge of flatlining after it launched in 2009, barely scraping by on just $200 per week of revenue. That was until co-founder Joe Gebbia and his team took a closer look at the site and realized it was full of low-quality user photos. Seeing a clear gap in their initial business model—“For the first year of the business, we sat behind our computer screens trying to code our way through problems, ” Gebbia told First Round Review—they decided to visit each listing themselves and replace the user-generated photos with high-quality images. The rest is history.

Today, Airbnb’s ethos is that designers must become “the patient” to build better products.

“If we were working on a medical device, we would go out into the world … we would have the device applied to us, and we would sit there and feel exactly what it felt like to be the patient,” Gebbia said, “and it was in that moment where you start to go aha, that's really uncomfortable. There's probably a better way to do this.”

Ford Takes The Long Road To Success

When Ford CEO Jim Hackett took the reins from his predecessor in 2017, he took on the task of steering the world’s oldest automotive brand away from traditional vehicle design and toward a 21st century vision of personal mobility. That meant going up against the likes of Tesla, Google, and other tech players, in addition to fellow auto manufacturers, and proving that Ford can design “smart cars for a smarter future.”

Design thinking sits at the core of Hackett’s turnaround strategy, which focuses on electrification and more sustainable modes of transport.

“Design thinking is about addressing a number of layers in a problem,” he told Business Insider, adding that with the convergence of new technologies and changing customer demand, manufacturers like Ford have a unique opportunity to reimagine mobility for a more sustainable future.

For example, Ford’s electric vehicle (EV) group, Team Edison, recently set up shop in in Detroit, injecting a much-needed economic stimulus in America’s automotive heartland. The location is also close to the young, urban thinkers the company needs to bring its EV initiatives to life—a decision that was also driven by design thinking.

Microsoft And Logitech Democratize Gaming

Earlier this year, Microsoft released a major gaming innovation: the Xbox Adaptive Controller. With larger buttons and additional ports where users can plug in their own specialized controllers, the device made Xbox games accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities.

As Fast Company journalist Mark Wilson put it, “Most products are built to work the same for everyone. The Adaptive Controller is meant to work differently for everyone.”

The Adaptive Controller kicked off a revolution in game and controller design that promises to yield a whole range of inclusive products and experiences. For example, Logitech joined forces with Microsoft to develop the Adaptive Gaming Kit, a fully customizable collection of add-on buttons that players can plug into their Adaptive Controller based on their particular needs. In the spirit of design thinking, Logitech worked with therapists at gaming disability charity Special Effect to appreciate the pain points affecting differently abled gamers. It was from this experience that Logitech went with a customizable product, rather than a one-size-fits-all solution.

Barclays Leaves Its Legacy Behind

Digital disruption has rocked the U.K. banking system, with fintech players like Monzo reshaping customer expectations through their slick mobile apps and digital experiences. But, as Barclays has demonstrated, design thinking done right can help even the oldest companies overcome their legacy issues. The bank’s mobile app is recognized as one of the world’s most user-friendly, and a 2019 consumer poll ranked it as the best mobile app of any of the U.K.’s traditional financial institutions.

The app remains a customer favorite because Barclays lets users try and comment on new features before they go live. All of this takes places on the company's Launchpad app, a test-and-learn platform that serves as both an innovation space and a forum for customer feedback.

Barclays’s continues to invest in design thinking, both financially and culturally. The bank has had a chief design officer and an in-house design team for some time now. Together, they have dedicated themselves to putting customer needs at the center of Barclay’s services and technologies.

Nike Reminds Us That Everyone Is An Athlete

Nike has always been revered for its understanding of athletes and the passion that drives them. In 2017, the sportswear giant combined design thinking with a positive cultural agenda when it released its first-ever performance hijab. The hijab was designed in partnership with Muslim female athletes, bringing performance apparel to a segment of the population that had previously been underserved by sportswear brands.

Nike doubled down in 2019 with a new range of modest swimsuits. The company went to great lengths to ensure the suits would perform while respecting each wearer’s cultural nuances. Indeed, it came up with 55 prototypes for its high-performance Victory Swimsuit before settling on a design that would stay put during laps. 

“We were schooled,” admitted Nike creative director Martha Moore in an interview with Glamour. “We were basically told, ‘No, it’s not about body conscious, it is about body skimming.’ And that really was a new paradigm for us to think about.”

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