Choosing a Great Design Thinking Partner

So you’re looking for someone to guide you and your team through the Design Thinking process. There are thousands of consultants out there, offering various takes on the process and personal spins for a range of budgets. How do you choose?

You can go the traditional route: budget first, align dollars available with a vendor, and pray it works out. 

For others who want to hire a true design thinking partner, here are a few key things to consider: 

  • A Flexible Approach. Design Thinking is a loose construct. It’s a general framework to get from idea to customer validation, with many steps in between. Any design thinking practitioner who follows the process by the book doesn’t have enough field experience to know otherwise. Look for people who are flexible and comfortable in deviating from the “proscribed” textbook steps. They are the ones who will catch you when you inevitably fail at something. 
     
  • Customized, 360-Thinking. Yes, the design thinking process steps will be similar, but every business is different. There are a lot of designers out there unable to think in business terms. Yet, you’re hiring them to help you come up with solutions for your business. Look for practitioners who understand your business and team needs. People who can process what design thinking as a method means for your team, business, and industry. They’re the ones who’ll be able to customize the process to you.
     
  • Full Process Approach. Design Thinking can’t be done in a vacuum, and it can’t be done in a 1-day “workshop.” Sure, you can learn the basics in a 90 min class. If you’d like to do that, here’s a link. It’s free. For teams who want to use design thinking to solve real-world business problems, look for practitioners who offer longer training timelines. Think about it. A core advantage of design thinking as a method is to better understand your customers needs so you can design better solutions. To understand your customer needs, your team needs to get out of your office to connect with these customers. For that you need time. A month is minimum when it comes to really learning the design thinking method through practice. Customize your budget to that. 
     
  • Listening Skills. The experts you’re hiring are “experts.” Be careful of those who believe their own hype. True design thinking practitioners know that this is a growth process; you’re always learning new things and making the best decisions given present facts. The good ones know to listen to your needs, and adapt the process based on what they hear. Remember, it’s a malleable process as long as you give it enough time to take root. 
     
  • Real-World Experience. As with any academic theory, Design Thinking sounds like an easy, smooth process to sail through. It’s hardly ever lives up to that in the real-world. Things often go wrong, interviews can’t be scheduled, prototypes break down, ideation sessions veer into crazy debates, and so on. Lots of things can go wrong. Experienced practitioners who have not only taught the method to others, but have actually practiced it themselves in a business context can steer the design thinking ship to calmer waters. 
     
  • Great communicators. As surprising as this may be, a lot of design thinking practitioners are not great communicators. They may be great designers themselves, yet have trouble concisely explaining abstract concepts to non-designers. As trainers for your team, they need to be able to communicate not only the “how,” but also the “why” of design thinking. Furthermore, at some point, you’ll need to sell (or re-sell) your progress to upper management. It really helps to have your design thinking guides there with you to offer support either behind-the-scenes, or in the room alongside you. 

As you’re looking for vendors keep the above checklist in mind, and adjust your budget accordingly. It’s easy to get lost in snazzy bios and shiny past-client lists as you sift through available options. Don’t lose sight of what really matters. You’re looking for a partner, someone to guide and support you and your team through the process and catch you when you fall through the cracks.