5 ways to use design thinking for a better customer experience

A headshot of Steve Denning

by Steve Denning

Cartoon figure of head surrounded by fun shapes with a pencil in the centre.

"If experience isn't your strategy, you're doing it wrong." That's the blunt and valuable advice included in PwC's 2018 report on building a strong and loyal customer base.

But how do you build a great customer experience?

You don't.

You design it.

The difference between building and designing starts with mindset. When you build or engineer a solution, you have a fixed goal. Design is a process through which you discover the solution.

Read on to learn 5 ways to apply design thinking to create a better customer experience.

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is both an attitude and a methodology. It allows the creation of outcomes when there are no fixed rules.

Think of building a house. You engineer the structure using absolutes and fixed equations. You follow a blueprint.

But you design the facade and interior. There are infinite possibilities for how those aspects of your house can look and feel.

With design-thinking, you use imagination, intuition, systemic reasoning, and logic to discover and create the outcome.

There are five phases to design thinking:


This initial phase is about uncovering and understanding what your customers expect from your product or service. Get to know their pain points so that you design them away and exceed those expectations.


You can't know exactly how the customer experience will manifest because only time and experience can reveal that.

Yet, you need to decide where to direct your focus and energy. Many times, you'll make course corrections along the way and can end up somewhere else. That's okay if it's where the design process takes you.

Download our free Guide to Customer Participation to learn how to apply design thinking and co-creation to improve the customer experience.


This is the phase where you can let your creativity run wild. When you learn how to ideate effectively (especially with help from others), it's an energizing activity that fuels the design process.

Don't mistake ideation with any other ol' brainstorming session. Effective ideation should turn creative thinking and the consumer insights required for innovation into a more focused, structured process. It can also include participation from employees and customers (with the right platform and tools of course).

At the end of good ideation session, you'll have the foundation for the next phase.


Design is all about turning vision into reality. And this is the phase where that happens.

You take the idea you decided was most worth trying and turn it into a real product or service. You'll create something that can be used in the context for which it's intended.


This is where the rubber hits the road. Testing your prototype gives you insight and information.

You'll learn what works and what doesn't. You'll modify your prototype and repeat until great customer experiences are the norm.

Designing a Great Customer Experience

As we get into 5 ways to apply design thinking to the customer experience, remember that design is biased toward action.

In other words, spend more time on building prototypes and testing than coming up with ideas. It only takes one idea, and then a series of prototypes and tests, to transform your customers' experience with your brand and products.

1. Outside-In Development

Want to design a better business? Design your customer experience from the outside in.

The only way to 'wow' your customers each time they interact with you is to put them first. In every way. To do that, you need to know them from every angle. That's why design involves contributors from different functions.

From the start of your effort to design a great customer experience, get input from people who represent a variety of perspectives. These could include:

  • Marketing
  • Customer Service
  • Accounting / Billing
  • Sales
  • Reception (if you have a storefront)
  • Field Offices
  • Product Development
  • Quality Control
  • Manufacturing

Avoid the mistake of only including leaders from each function. Many times, front-line staff have more accurate and valuable insights into the customer experience.

This is also a great opportunity to tap into your social media channels, or even better, your owned brand community to connect and collaborate with your most engaged customers.

2. Pay Attention to What Doesn't Work

Most of our most valuable lessons come from mistakes and unintended consequences.

Shaping a great customer experience includes noting and addressing what didn't work with your prototype. Condition each team member to review those outcomes and assess if that feature should be stopped, continued, or modified.

The picture all those perspectives forms will direct the creation of the next prototype.

3. Bring Design Thinking to Employee Matters

To get your team thinking like designers, give them a chance to learn the fundamentals. Stanford offers a free, online course you can use to get everyone's feet wet.

Then you have to let them practice.

A good homegrown way to improve the customer experience through design is to start with the employee experience.

Showing is often more effective than telling. Get to know employee pain points, then prototype and test different solutions. That shows employees how design thinking works and how its application is an iterative, not absolute process.

People who benefit from design thinking and see how it's done are more likely to apply it to their own work.

4. Let Your Customers Know What You're Doing

Don't let designing a great customer experience be a secret. Many customers love knowing that companies strive to improve. Especially when improvements benefit customers.

Embrace that enthusiasm.

You can also take things to the next level and boost engagement through customer co-creation as you ideate, prototype and test.

The key is to keep the parameters for customer involvement clear and specific. When opening the door to ideas for improvement, provide time limits. You can ask questions to gain responses to pre-existing ideas but also offer a limited amount space for organic ideas.

You must also "report back" to customers to gain and retain trust and engagement. That loop of information, transparency and circle of trust is crucial. 

Give them behind-the-scenes glimpses at how their ideas are assessed. Share overviews of prototype creation. Let them know who can test the prototypes and when the results will be revealed or implemented.

5. Don't Worry About Innovation

Too often, people think innovation means creating something absolutely new. In most situations, innovation comes from small improvements to an existing product or service.

When small improvements solve a pain point to the extent that it disappears, it feels like something that's never been done.

That's the kind of innovation that can transform a customer experience and lead to a stronger business.

Design-thinking won't always lead to innovation. But innovation always comes from design thinking.

Design a Better Business

You can apply design thinking to any part of your business. But when you use it to create wow-worthy customer experiences, you are also designing a better business. Because without a loyal and growing customer base, you don't have a business.

It's never too late to start thinking like a designer.

Try identifying a small, low-risk aspect of your customer journey that causes pain. Then gather the right people to design a solution that helps form a great customer experience.

You're sure to discover the power and value of design-thinking.

At Chaordix, we help enterprise brands connect with their customers and employees on a deeper level, and solve unique business challenges.

Our approach supports design-thinking. With it, we have facilitated product innovation, process improvements, and enhanced customer experiences for some of the world's most admired brands.

Ready to take your customer experience from good to great? Request a demo of our software and proven methodology for innovation + creativity today!

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