Design thinking

Active Listening & Customer Research: A Practical Introduction

The last piece in this series provided a conceptual look at how to practice active listening when facilitating customer interviews. Our advice was to “simply be present”; though anyone who’s attempted any sort of mindfulness practice can tell you how complex this really is.

Practically speaking then, how do you start practicing Active Listening in customer interviews now? This is what we aim to discuss here. To do so we’ll share the steps to Active Listening which we follow in our research efforts [1, 2]:

  1. Listen to Comprehend

  2. Retain and Feel

  3. Respond

  4. Repeat

We start with listening intently. By practicing our scripts, having our recording mechanisms set up, and ensuring we maintain composure and eye contact with the participant, we remain present and are able to listen completely.

We then utilize our empathy skillset to feel each participant response. This allows us to retain more understanding of it.

Once we’ve empathetically processed the participant’s point of view, we encourage them with responses which restate or clarify their points. This not only helps the participant to be more open, but it helps train our brains to retain even more.

Finally, we repeat these short steps consistently throughout the interview allowing us to get the most out of each session.

Sounds easy enough, right? But, how do you know you’re doing it right?

In our opinion, the best way to know if you’re doing it right is to know when you’re doing it wrong. And that’s exactly what we’ll be discussing next!

  1. Grohol, John M. Psy.D. Become a Better Listener: Active Listening. Retrieved from

  2. Common Good (2016, July 14). Practicing Active Listening & Empathy Workshop. Retrieved from

  3. Wikipedia. Active Listening. Retrieved from

Design Thinking ≠ Innovation

Design thinking does not guarantee innovation.

It’s a process structured to get you thinking in a different way; to get your siloed teams to think differently together; to focus on your customer or whatever human you’re serving with your product/service; to get you out of your stale comfort zone; to get a fresh perspective on your business; to put existing parts of your business into new strategic combinations.  

All that may result in innovation, but only when you put down the resources and commit to bringing your validated ideas to market. That requires lots of hard work by multiple teams in your organization. That’s innovation.

And yet, what Design Thinking does guarantee is a path to innovation; the first few well-travelled bricks on the yellow brick road in the right direction. It’s a guaranteed way to connect you to your customers (or whoever your product/service serves). And, it’s definitely a tool to rewire your brain and your company’s DNA in the process to become more human-centered in your decisions.

Viewing the method of Design Thinking as one that guarantees innovation will leave you disappointed. You’ll miss the journey in the way to your destination. And, the journey here matters a lot.  

How Long Does It Take to Get Started with a Design Thinking Partner

You’ve done your research, and you know the best way to generate and test ideas for innovation is to take the human-centric approach Design Thinking brings. You’re ready to find the best Design Thinking partner for your team, but before you can secure the necessary resources you need to answer one key question for yourself and for your management team:

How long will it take to bring on a Design Thinking partner and get the work started?

As with many design based questions the short answer is “it depends”. As many of you are aware, there are often multiple moving parts which need to align when trying to get any effort started. With so many different variables to keep in mind, it’s impossible for us to give you a concrete answer that will apply to all scenarios.

Instead, we’ve examined the stages (and overall timing) our clients go through when trying to secure a Design Thinking partner. Typically, these are:

  1. Research: There is a lot happening in this stage. You are taking all the actions necessary to find potential partners (searching online, reaching out to your network, etc), and you’re also considering what criteria the potential partner will need to succeed when working with your team. In addition, you’re starting to gather information you’ll need to secure management buy-in, finalizing the details of the internal team who will work on the project, and defining high-impact project constraints.

  2. Outreach: At this point you’ve found several potential partners to follow up with and interview. While evaluating these partners against the criteria you set in the Research stage, you’re also communicating project status with your management and internal teams while further defining project goals & success factors.

  3. Partner Secured: Now it’s time to check potential partner references, introduce candidates to management and the internal team they’ll be working with, get the legal contracts together,  and negotiate and sign the papers.

  4. Onboarding: The contracts are signed and the team is sold, you now need to download any company and industry information to your new Design Thinking partners. This is also a heavy logistics phase. You’ll need to secure meeting space, travel, and gather workshop materials.

  5. Project Kickoff: Finally, it’s time to get started! All the resources are in place and the teams are ready to go. As you ensure the teams understand the process, you plan on being heavily involved and continuing to update your management along the way.

Depending on many factors (the speed of securing internal resources, the number of players who are involved, any other company politics at play) we’ve seen this process take a minimum 3 months and sometimes last for a year or more.

So, the question remains: how can you make the process more efficient?

You can’t control others. What you can do is be as prepared and informed as possible, and take action in the above stages wherever you do have control. Here’s a list of steps we’ve seen others take to speed up the start of a Design Thinking sprint:

  1. Research and learn more about Choosing a Great Design Thinking Partner. Doing this can help make your research and outreach phases much more effective.

  2. Learn more about Selling Design Thinking to Management in order to gather the proper information and have it ready when the time comes.

  3. Figure out who from your organization should be included and start reaching out to them as early as possible. This can help decrease internal team on-boarding time.

By taking control of the areas you have influence over you tip the scales in your favor in regards to lessening the time it takes to get started with a Design Thinking Partner. You won’t be able to change everything and everyone, but you will be able to better set yourself and your team up for success.

We’d like to hear from you!

What’s been your experience in hiring a Design Thinking partner? Was the process you went through different? Are there steps or insights we didn’t mention hear that you think are important? Please let us know in the comments!

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.