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LEAD Innovation Blog

Read our latest articles on innovation management and innovation in a wide range of industries.

Date: 12-Oct-2018
Posted by: Michael PUTZ
Category: LEAD User Method

What is design thinking and what role do LEAD Users play?


Everywhere there is talk of design thinking. A hype in the start-up jungle? Certainly not, because design thinking is indeed an extremely effective innovation method that enriches the existing innovation processes of young and established companies with new methods and principles.

Design Thinking excels above all in three ways of working:

  • Strong customer and user orientation
  • Iterative learning processes with loops
  • Continuous testing with "unfinished" prototypes

Due to the intensive involvement of and orientation towards users and customers, LEAD Users also play an important role in design thinking.

Handbook LEAD User Method


Design Thinking Basics

Design Thinking is an all-round method that is used to solve problems, create concepts of all kinds and above all to develop products, services, processes and business models. The ultimate goal is to meet the needs of customers, users and other stakeholders with inspiring solutions and experiences.

Design Thinking was adopted 25 years ago by IDEO from science into practice. The method is experiencing a boom today, not only because it is being driven forward by start-ups, but also because it can be used to create unique user experiences, which is particularly important in the age of digitalization. In addition, design thinking also solves established problems in innovation projects, e. g. lack of customer orientation, lack of customer benefit, lack of differentiation, poor cooperation, and much more.


6 steps of the design thinking process

Design thinking is an iterative process, which means that it does not run step by step but in loops. Each process step provides new insights and thus an idea is refined in repetitive loops. At each step, the way back can run over several stations at any time, e. g. tests show that you have to redefine the initial task. This is not at all problematic, but an effective learning process and it also ensures the flexibility that innovation projects require.

For the design thinking process, there are different ways of displaying the individual steps. The following figure in six phases is common:


1. Understanding

Every successful project starts with a good and goal-oriented question. In the UNDERSTAND step, the project goals are defined with questions. The questions must be defined without solutions, must be specific enough, but must not restrict the solution area.

2. Explore

In the second step, EXPERIENCE, as much information as possible on the topic, customers, users and other stakeholders is collected in order to understand the needs and basic conditions. Many empathic and user-centered research methods are used. Important methods and approaches are Personas, the Customer Journey, focus groups, interviews, participating observations and self-experimentation, process analysis, collection of emotions and the LEAD User method. What is important is not only what is said, but above all what has been experienced in order to understand the actual needs.

3. Synthesis

In SYNTHESIS, the essence is then worked out from the entire pool of information by interpretation, analysis and condensation and transformed into findings.

4. Ideas

On the basis of these, IDEAS are subsequently collected using creativity methods such as brainstorming and brainwriting. The ideas are evaluated and a handful of ideas are selected for further processing.

5. Prototypes

The ideas must be made tangible in order to touch them, try them out and develop them further. For this purpose, very simple prototypes made of paper, cardboard or plasticine are developed in order to demonstrate the function and test it with potential users. In the beginning, we start with very low-resolution prototypes which are easy, fast and inexpensive to produce and which only demonstrate the most important or most critical functions. The more concrete the solution becomes, the more detailed the prototype will be.

6. Tests

Prototypes are used to carry out TESTS of ideas and collect customer feedback. Working with prototypes has many advantages: Ideas are clearly defined and communicated, they become better conceivable, problems and challenges are revealed, new ideas are derived, insights are gathered and risks are reduced.


Three important principles of design thinking

Design Thinking is not only a procedure for carrying out innovation projects, it is above all a mindset for innovations, which is based on the following working principles:

User-centered: Learning about users and their problems, needs and tasks is the focus of every phase. Empathy is an important element to really understand customers and users. And users should be involved in the innovation process as early as possible, not only for researching the requirements but also to test the very first ideas.

Team focus: A core team of four to six people is constantly and intensively working on a design thinking task. It requires diverse expertise with broad knowledge and perspectives. The team is given a high degree of freedom of action and decision-making in order to move forward flexibly and quickly. To promote collaboration and creativity, the team should work together in a common space where all information, results and prototypes are visible and tangible.

Agility: With design thinking, you don't navigate step-by-step through individual phases, but rather you reach your goal by constantly repeating loops of exploratory prototypes. This involves an intensive learning process in order to avoid making false assumptions. This is accompanied by the culture of unfinished prototypes, where ideas are designed and tested immediately by a simple prototype. True to the motto "Fail often and early and fail forward".


LEAD User in Design Thinking Projects

The research step is a key phase in design thinking projects. A success factor is the understanding and anticipation of customer needs and general conditions as a basis for innovations that are intended to inspire customers and bring significant benefits. Therefore LEAD Users also play a very important role.

Lead users are leading and advanced users. They are the pioneers who are the first to accept new products and thus have the greatest benefit from innovations. This puts them a few steps ahead of the mass market in their needs. Therefore, you should also focus on LEAD Users in design thinking, as they bring a high benefit:

  • They understand exactly what they need and offer a deep insight with new and extensive insights into customer needs.
  • They have extensive experience with the existing solutions, from which you can benefit perfectly.
  • Their progressiveness also helps to forecast the future.
  • And they also have a high level of solution competence to develop new ideas.

For these reasons, LEAD Users are important and indispensable partners in all phases of design thinking projects. They provide important insights, are solution partners and important for prototype tests. This not only leads to better solutions, but also reduces dangerous risks.


Conclusion: What is design thinking and what role do LEAD users play?

Design Thinking is a very powerful method for innovation projects, whether incremental or radical. The success of the method also reflects how important the intensive involvement of customers and users is. Therefore, LEAD Users also play a very special role in design thinking projects. Their wealth of experience, their progressiveness and their solution competence provide important insights into the customer requirements of today, but above all of tomorrow.

4 Phases of the LEAD User Method

Michael PUTZ

Born in the Salzkammergut. After working for Shell and Porsche, he concentrated on innovation management as a study assistant at the Innovation Department of the Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration. In 2003 he founded LEAD Innovation and manages the company as Managing Partner. Lectures at MIT, in front of companies like Google or NASA.

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