What do Airbnb, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, and other iconic industry leaders have in common? A belief in human-centered design as the focal point for innovation. In “design thinking,” genuine empathy for the user leads to a deep understanding of their needs and their goals, and ultimately the journey that they are on. This is what drives the development and ongoing improvement of a successful product or service. This method of innovation is not new, but recent trends to utilize this approach within large technology companies has brought it to the forefront of innovative thinking. The iPhone, for example, debuted with a highly intuitive interface at its launch in 2007, allowing it to rapidly unseat incumbents like Nokia and Blackberry, who cared only about function. The rest is history, and the iPhone is the single most successful product ever. This ethos is widely credited with Apple’s success. Apple’s design thinking mindset precedes the iPhone. For example, the tightly integrated iPod and iTunes offering, which focused on the user’s end-to-end experience in discovering, purchasing and enjoying music, allowed Apple, a computer company, to become the world’s largest seller of recorded music. Such is the power of design thinking.

One of the most successful examples of a company’s commitment to design-thinking in innovation is at IBM. Within this international technology corporation, a design team of over 1,000 professionals are trained in design thinking. There, instead of coming up with an idea for a product and later marketing it to the customer, the design team starts with understanding and appreciating the customer’s needs first before beginning the invention process. Research and development follow only after identifying how the product’s design addresses the needs of the customer. The success of this approach is measurable, with the company itself reporting the time required for design was reduced by 75%, while return on investment increased by 301%. IBM’s design-thinking website itself promotes this method for innovation, stating “design thinkers have been trained to address uncertainty, work within constraints, and create human-centered solutions. People with a human-centered mindset are primed to solve problems together, with empathy and humility.” 

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