Do you remember when you were a child and at nursery school you spent hours and hours scribbling and doodling away, using all the coloured crayons, pencils and stickers you could grab? You were always able to let your imagination go wild and put down on paper all the endless pictures and ideas popping up in your head, with no order or meaning, but just with the freedom allowed by a yet unrestrained creative mind, full of life and rich emotions. It did not matter whether your designs resembled what you were trying to portray, or indeed whether they were meant to portray anything at all, other than being the fruit of your imagination and the expression of your emotions. My mum always had numerous of my A4 masterpieces, proudly displayed on the fridge door. And a few times, the occasional mural suddenly appeared on the walls too, when the power of imagination could not wait long enough to find a piece of paper. You cannot restrain the flow of children’s impetuous emotions and endless creativity.
The lost focus on creativity
Then we moved to primary school, and Design became timetabled in our schedules, narrowly squashed between Maths and English. That dictated the specific time of the week when we could be creative, but outside those sessions we had to focus on adding and spelling, on building our thinking and logical mind, on learning about the world and what others thought about it. Creativity was placed almost on a secondary level of importance, subservient to the other more structured subjects.
When we arrived at Secondary school, the Design subject turned into Art, focused on learning the history and techniques used by the masters of the past, and trying to replicate what they did and how they did it. Our artistic mind had to express itself within the parameters of specific techniques and styles, constrained by an end result that would get assessed based on its compliance and adherence to the curriculum task and exam marking scheme. A few years on, the Art and Design subjects became optional choices for GCSEs and A Levels, still considered weaker options compared to the more academic maths, science and humanities subjects, which the top universities preferred to see from prospective applicants. Possibly the only exception was Design & Technology, but simply because it was based on the rigor of maths and physics and the engineering skills of prototyping, more than on creativity and innovation.
But when did creativity lose its importance and become unwanted? When did innovation become a logic-driven process? Why does it seem that top universities do not value the power and endless opportunities unearthed by the more creative and emotional minds?
The rediscovered power of design
Yet, I now increasingly hear businesses using the word ‘design’ as the new solution to every problem. Last week, I spent two days chairing the CX Exchange Telecoms conference organised by IQPC, and ‘design’ was probably the word which was most used by all presenters. Customer Experience Design. Customer Journey Design. Proposition Design. UX Design. Design Thinking. Design Lab… It was extremely refreshing to hear that, finally, ‘design’ was clearly acknowledged as the key to creating innovative and emotionally engaging customer experiences.
I have always believed that good CX does not happen by magic or by chance. A bold brand promise cannot translate into the reality of the customer experience only through loud and expensive advertising and communication activities. Wishful thinking and strong intent are not enough to transform how an organisation relates to and engages with its customers.
Only a clearly designed customer experience can deliver the promises of the brand and achieve the ambition for stronger customer loyalty.
The art and science of Customer Labs
But CX design cannot be only about a logical and technological process. It needs to combine the power of the emotional and unrestrained creativity of children, with the ideas and logical thinking of the educated adult. Free from constraints and open to ‘what if’ ideas. Rich with the art of the possible and supported by the science that makes the impossible a reality.
The use of Design Labs is increasingly proving to achieve this balance. Many organisations have created a Customer Lab within their premises and host a regular flow of customers to empathise with their needs, stimulate creativity, shape thinking and design innovative solutions – whether in workshops with the CX teams or through more structured sessions, videoed and observed from the control room behind the viewing mirror. Customers are involved across the whole process, from research and ideation to prototyping and testing, informing new propositions, better strategies, easier customer journeys and technological solution development.
To an outsider, the Customer Lab might look like a nursery school – with groups of people in casual clothes sat on beanbags and poufs on large fluffy carpets, huddled around long strips of brown paper, playing with coloured post-its and pencils, tracing lines with pieces of string, drawing pictures with sharpies, creating shapes with Lego bricks and Play Doh. They are tapping into their deepest emotions and needs and using their unrestrained creativity and freedom of thinking to identify the most unlikely options and outcomes. Nothing is out of bounds or impossible. No constraints. No prejudice. No rules. Like kids play.
Within this free context, Design Thinking techniques provide an essential guiding framework to channel creativity through incremental phases, amplifying idea generation rather than stifling it with traditional process design. Some of the leading companies like Apple, Google, Samsung and GE have rapidly adopted the Design Thinking approach, which is now also taught at leading universities around the world.
In a way, Design Thinking provides the science to emphasise the art. It is an iterative process which seeks to understand the deepest needs and emotions of the customer, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions, which might not be initially apparent or discoverable through traditional process-driven techniques. It is about a way of thinking and working, as well as specific working methods – like questioning, re-framing, brainstorming, sketching, exploring, experimenting, prototyping and trying out. It releases the child-like approach to designing and creating, and guides it through the creative strategies that designers use.
Also, Agile ways of working are essential, to ensure work remains iterative and fast. And I’m keen to point out that ‘working in an agile way’ does not mean ‘working from home and at flexible hours’, like some organisations seem to believe. It means exactly the opposite! Agile working implies people to be co-based and co-creating at all stages of development, working together, in cross-functional teams where strategists, designers, product owners, digital developers, frontline employees and, most importantly, customers can explore, ideate, design, build and test new concepts and solutions together – in a continuously iterative way.
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