How Experts Like Toronto’s Bo Zou Look At Design Thinking

There’s a large movement growing around customer experience design and strategy, and two of the best minds of our times on this front explained its importance most succinctly.

As Seth Godin put it: “Don’t find customers for your products. Find products for your customers.” The late Steve Jobs, who was the master at refining the concept, said, “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology, not the other way around.”

“Design thinking is a lot more than today’s buzzword du jour,” explains Bo Zou, a Toronto-based entrepreneur and customer experience strategist. “The greatest innovators in numerous fields – from music to engineering – have used design thinking to create transformative user experiences.”

The idea is to cultivate innovations from an understanding of unmet customer needs and wants, an approach that’s both holistic and empathic. As Tim Brown, CEO of innovation firm IDEO, writes, design thinking hinges on subjective concepts – emotions, needs, motivations and drivers of behaviors, versus more scientific methodologies like quantitative research.

Today, design thinking has been adopted by such leading brands as Apple, Google, Samsung and GE, and it’s being taught at leading schools. Businesses that fail to understand the premise or prioritize the customer’s perspective may end up paying a steep price.

Kodak was a case in point. Once a photography giant and innovator, it filed for bankruptcy in 2012 due to poor executive level decisions on the future of digital technologies. First, the company invested millions in digital cameras, but management didn’t market them due to the cost to its existing business. They also didn’t anticipate significant demand because of poor picture quality.

When Canon and Nikon moved successfully into the space, Kodak finally moved but again misread consumer sentiment: The superior image couldn’t justify the much higher price.

“What killed Kodak was not incorporating design thinking into their innovation and business development,” writes Ileana Stigliani, assistant professor of design and innovation at Imperial College Business School, in Forbes. “Being able to put yourself in the shoes of the customer always has been and still is vital for businesses to succeed. This is the essence of design thinking.”

In fact, it may be even more important now. Technology is driving ever more sophisticated products and services, and it’s important to preserve human-centered interaction through it all.

Bo Zou points out, in fact, that design thinking can do more than preserve such interactions. It can help build bridges in a digital environment between consumers and brands with which they typically might not want to interact. Like insurance.

“It can be challenging for insurance brands to build ongoing customer relationships,” Zou says. “Customer interaction is typically only when they purchase or renew a policy or make a claim.”

It led to his work with Manulife to find ways to integrate the insurer’s offerings in a positive way with customers’ daily lives. The outcome was a new offering altogether, Manulife MOVE. The mobile fitness app, compatible with popular fitness trackers, promotes a healthy lifestyle and rewards it with real financial incentives.

“Simple and elegant,” adds Bo Zou. “The more exercise you do, the cheaper your insurance becomes. It’s a delightful digital user experience that allows Manulife to turn around the negative associations of an insurance provider to build positive, ongoing customer relationships.”

Steve Jobs couldn’t have done it any better.

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