Design Thinking for Enterprise

Recently I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how design thinking relates to enterprise business. Design thinking has been around a long time; it is loosely defined as the ability to combine empathy, creativity and rationality to meet user needs while driving business success. Unlike analytical thinking, design thinking is a creative process based on the “building up” of ideas rather than “breaking them down.”

One of the first design thinkers was Thomas Edison. Edison created the electric light bulb and then wrapped an entire industry around it. According to Change by Design author Tim Brown, Edison’s Design thinking genius lay in his ability to conceive a fully formed marketplace, not just the discrete device that provided the catalyst. The light bulb had already been invented, but it was of no use to anyone without the creation of an entire system to generate and distribute electricity. Sweeping cultural changes occurred once users were able to light their homes and businesses. Suddenly, night became as viable as day for getting things done. All of this had a profound effect on consumers and forever changed user behavior. Edison’s invention sparked one of history’s greatest enhancements to the human experience (if you believe a longer work day is an enhancement :)).

Designing a Better Customer Experience

Much like the design thinkers on Edison’s team who enhanced the human experience with electric lighting, a new breed of enterprise designers are creating systems with customer experience at its core. While the old enterprise model created software to smooth processes and increase efficiency for administering back-end systems, the new enterprise model starts with a user-centric approach to improve customer experience for front-end customers.

Why the focus on customer experience? Companies see customer experience as a competitive advantage. Forrester reports that 67% of companies surveyed view customer experience as a way to differentiate themselves within their industry. What’s more, great customer experiences affect the bottom line. Positive customer experiences foster a willingness to buy more products, a reluctance to switch brands, and improve the likelihood for customer recommendations to their social graph.

A downturn in sales is often a trigger for a new focus on reviewing the user experience. A few years back Shimano, a Japanese bike manufacturer was facing lagging sales. The company’s success in the past had been built on technology innovations. Shimano decided to engage with IDEO, a global design consultancy to study the user market. What they discovered was that customers were intimidated by the retail experience of cycling. The specialized clothing, accessories, and the cost of the bikes were all barriers to purchase. This information was uncovered through human-centered exploration, which enabled Shimano to discover a large untapped market of consumers who wanted simple bikes and a better experience. Many of the world’s most successful brands have arrived at breakthrough ideas through a relentless focus on enhancing the customer experience.

What is Design Thinking for Enterprise?

As Fast Company once said, design thinking is a protocol for solving problems and discovering new opportunities in business. At Adobe we have been doing this for some time in the enterprise space, with a team specifically focused on advancing this new approach to building solutions. Last year a team from Adobe, Lab49 and Morgan Stanley utilized design thinking and design-led innovation to produce Matrix, a trading platform that blends human-curated content with machine-filtered content from the massive river of financial information that flows to traders. By engaging design-thinkers in the process of understanding how analysts and traders generate ideas and insights, Morgan Stanley was able to go-to-market with a disruptive experience allowing traders to “turn ideas into action” and execute trades from within a single, compelling and highly productive platform.

Today, user–centric design needs to be on the agenda of every enterprise company. This is a white space for capturing new opportunity for business. As Mark Twain once said, “Supposing is good, but finding out is better.” It’s time to roll out design thinking across all enterprise business and focus on how to unlock the best possible user experience. Technology innovation is just the first step in the new digital enterprise. The software industry must put the ideation, creation and design of solutions into the hands of designers, and focus developers and engineers on their realization. This will yield significant benefits in a data-rich, consumer driven economy.

For additional perspectives, follow me on Twitter: @RTarkoff.


  1. Jacob Morgan

    Interesting post. Another recent study by American Express found that customers are willing to spend an extra 9% for a product or service provided that they will get better customer service. Social CRM (as I’m sure you know) has been quite an interesting topic as of late – with a strong focus on user experience and advocacy. I’m quite curious to see what Adobe does in this arena.

Rob Tarkoff

Senior Vice President and General Manager, Digital Enterprise Solutions As senior vice president and general manager of the Digital Enterprise Solutions Group, Rob Tarkoff leads Adobe's development of comprehensive, integrated technologies and solutions for the desktop and enterprises who want to engage their customers and constituents with information more efficiently and effectively. He oversees the Adobe Acrobat Family, Customer Experience Management solutions and Adobe Connect. Before joining Adobe, Tarkoff held several executive positions at EMC Corporation, including senior vice president and general manager of the EMC Captiva Software Division and senior vice president of business development and channels for the EMC Software Group. Previously, Tarkoff was executive vice president and chief strategy officer for Documentum, Inc. and senior vice president of worldwide business development at Commerce One. Earlier in his career, he was an associate attorney at the law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. Tarkoff is a member of the board of directors for the Lawrence Hall of Science, the largest public science center in the U.S. and has previously served on the board of directors for Borland Software Corporation and Onyx Software. Tarkoff holds a juris doctorate from Harvard Law School and a bachelor's degree from Amherst College.