2019 MedAdNews Awards Agency of the Year Finalist


by Vaishali Veldurthy

What if there were a process that focused on the end user at all times and not just at the end?

Well, “Design thinking” is one such process that emphasizes the connection of the unmet and latent needs of the consumer through deep empathy. Design thinking allows a brand to leverage the insights based on this connection and make an idea tangible in the form of a draft or prototype of the proposed solution. It is heavily inspired by the work of designers and can trace its origins to different disciplines across the sciences and arts such as engineering, architecture, and business. This positions design thinking to be uniquely relevant across a wide variety of industries.

Not just another fancy word

Design thinking is more than an amalgamation of the words design and thinking. It is a problem-solving technique that is iterative, exploratory, and solution oriented. The fundamental approach of this methodology is to focus entirely on who we are solving for and defining their pain points before ideating or implementing a solution. The emphasis on the people facing the problem, rather than the problem itself, makes it significantly different from other approaches to tackling challenges.

Design thinkers acknowledge that there is no single way to move through the process of problem solving. They consider significant milestones or touch points along the way but view innovation in the form of a “mental map”: a number of overlapping steps that feed into each other. This is in contrast to the relatively rigid scientific method of solving a problem that follows a stepwise approach starting with a big question and therefore is focused on the problem. The design-thinking process is iterative and continuously moves from inspiration, ideation, and implementation. After receiving feedback from the intended audience, the design team may go back to the inspiration phase in order to test the original assumptions.

Empathy, observation, and insight are key to a successful solution

According to Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, the key elements of a successful design-thinking project are empathy, observation, and insight. Empathy involves getting into the customer’s shoes and viewing the world through their eyes, invoking a conscious effort to overcome one’s own biases and experiences. Observation, the author cautions, does not mean relying on the bell-shaped curve and focusing on the bulge in the middle because it only reinforces what is readily apparent. In order for that observation to translate into a key insight, it is essential to focus on the edges of the curve that can teach us important features to incorporate into a product or process.

Empathetic observation leads to deep relevant insights that look at the customer as a whole person, not just someone who engages with the product/service we market for a few minutes or hours a day. Insights at this level establish an emotional connection with the end user and promote continuous engagement with the solution we offer. Design thinking advocates that those whose lives we have set out to improve must be observed and understood with deep empathy. People can articulate their unmet needs passionately but that is often not enough; their unarticulated acute needs must be discovered as well. Latent needs are those that the consumer/end user doesn’t realize.

It is possible to uncover latent needs when we are mindful of the fact that our core audience is faced with many challenges besides the one that we are solving for. Their lives are complex in myriad ways and their individual experiences dictate how they utilize the solution that is designed for them. Insights into the consumer’s utilization of a product or interaction with a service are merely consumer insights. Understanding their fears, hopes, and aspirations helps to identify emotional insights that allow for the product or service to connect with the consumer and become a part of their identity. As an example, it is worthwhile to explore Apple’s latest emphasis on privacy in their current campaign. Though the campaign may face cynicism in the wake of blatant breaches of privacy by leading tech companies, by choosing to message on privacy, Apple may have uncovered a latent need as the implications of privacy are still being hotly debated. While the choice of a gadget may have been driven by technical specifications up until now, privacy may become a key driver in consumer choice as consumers increasingly realize that they should not have to give up connectivity in exchange for security. Here’s Apple’s latest on “What happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone.” Once the needs of the patient are uncovered, it is essential to place context around these by studying the interactions of people within groups and the interactions between groups as a whole. Group dynamics in the form of media, internet, and smart mobs influence the consumer experience with products or services.

Effective implementation is important

The nature of design thinking places value on the ability to develop ideas and tinker with the details without keeping the original assumptions set in stone. This open-ended format encourages exploration and experimentation, but it is not without its risks. Without a system in place to identify the ideas fit for further advancement, teams may become stuck continuously refining ideas with no final solution in sight. The effective arrival at a solution for the initial problem thus depends on:

  1. Enthusiastic acceptance of a framework of constraints, put in place before the start of a project
  2. A particular iteration of design that resonates with the end user, within the boundaries of the above constraints

Constraints are critical to designing a solution and provide fertile ground for innovation and creativity. In the book Change by Design, Tim Brown outlines these constraints to be:

Desirability: Are we solving for the right need that the customer has?

Viability: Is this solution sustainable in the long run?

Feasibility: Is this solution reasonably achievable with the resources on hand?

Although various innovators and thinkers have provided a road map on considerations and steps to engage in the design-thinking methodology, the pharma industry has yet to embrace this in a holistic sense. A key realization that dawns upon most institutions that set out to adopt design thinking is that innovation cannot happen in silos and empathy cannot be the “finish” that’s applied as an afterthought. As noted by Tim Brown, every organization is a “Team of Teams”; however, this should not be interpreted as a compartmentalization of the steps of design thinking.

In other words, inspiration, ideation, and implementation may be divided within the organization in terms of responsibilities, but the essence of the empathy behind these overlapping phases must be shared among each individual. Adoption of these concepts allows for true innovation to happen from the ground up instead of a requirement that’s crossed off a checklist. Sharing of ideas, knowledge, and processes within the company plays a significant role in grounding all efforts in empathy for the end user at all times.

On the surface, design thinking may sound like a simple process. If one were to consider it at face value, they might question what the difference is between “design thinking” and “design” in general. Or perhaps they feel as if “design thinking” is just the unimportant preliminary stage before you can jump in and get your hands dirty with the “design doing.” But the “thinking” part is what’s most important. It requires deep empathy and insight in order to develop a design or solution that is focused, relevant, and addresses the active and latent needs of the consumer. It requires a conscious effort to identify the deeper emotions and motivations that drive consumer actions in order to build upon that solid foundation. While it can be a difficult endeavor to find these deeply rooted customer insights, when they can be uncovered, they go a long way toward developing a product that can stand the test of time.

Written by Vaishali Veldurthy, PhD

Senior Medical Director

We are a full-service, independent, healthcare advertising agency that provides end-to-end, sound strategic thinking and creative, multichannel solutions to pharmaceutical and medical device clients.

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