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How design thinking gave a young firm an early advantage

For a while, “design thinking” was business world’s most fashionable concept. Companies tried it, sent their employees for training, and so on. Then things changed. Now Google’s frequently used search phrases include “design thinking is bullshit” and “design thinking is dead.” If you read the naysayers' articles, the common rant is “there’s nothing new.” I do not agree with the Google phrases, but I do agree with the claim that there's nothing new in design thinking. Here's why.

Design of experiential marketing

Beginning in the late 90s, I created and upgraded experiential marketing for a young software firm where I was employed. This is not about brochures, white papers, and such standard things of questionable value. This comprised the following set of items designed and laid out in a purposeful and human-centric way:
Gallery: A casual, standup conversation facility. Here, we had
conversation-starting posters. The posters had quotes by customers and others. Some showcased thought-leadership in terms of innovative methods, publishing, speaking, biographies, media coverage, and conferences organized. The gallery also had the optionality of projecting slides on a wall.
Show-and-tell lab: The usability lab I set up doubled as a marketing tool. Nearly every visiting prospect/customer was given a walk-through. The “touch, feel, participate” nature helped prospects/customers believe in our claims we made about our method and talent.
Try-me interactive: Pre-programmed interactive stuff for customers and employees. It allowed people to work with the Before and After of a software application and immediately computed and showed productivity and dollar savings based on their actual performance. Essentially, it demonstrated what a customer could typically expect from software reengineered by the firm. A lot more effective than a traditional self-running demo. 
Giveaway: A copy of my 90s book published in the US. For Western customers visiting India, this was many times more credible than claims made via presentations, white papers, etc.
ROI proof-of-concept: In the sales cycle, we created a small prototype of a prospect's or customer’s software. Most organizations do this. Here's what we did differently: we demonstrated a customer’s potential business benefits in terms of cycle time reduction and dollar savings.
Besides the gallery and the lab, which were laid out to promote customer tours, the layout also included team workspace, my office, and conventional conference room. The layout was located in a piece of real estate that the firm considered its most prestigious at the time. The firm is Cognizant and today it has annual revenues of over $10 billion.


This old Cognizant case is remarkably similar to the relatively new IBM case described in the book Solving Problems with Design Thinking. IBM transformed its trade show experience for customers "from spectacles into conversations, from monologue to dialogue. This was achieved by a combination of seating and standing areas, public and private spaces, and formal and informal settings to accommodate different learning styles of audiences." (More)

My learnings primarily came from a mid-90s human-centric design course that ACM Lifetime Achievement Award winner Richard Anderson taught at UC Berkeley Extension. My learnings also came from my visits to museums in various cities in the US. I not only enjoyed interacting with the exhibits, but took pictures of display techniques and passed them on to the firm that did the building/interiors that housed the layout.

Clearly, there’s nothing new about design thinking.


The more important question though is, is there value in using design thinking? The answer, in the case of Cognizant, is: if you constructed a strategy map, you will see an upward pointing arrow linking my “experiential marketing design” to customer acquisition and retention. You will also see other arrows connecting to that success. These arrows will link from customer-facing folks and from the method and talent used in project execution. Always, specific assets and processes must come together to deliver the kind of customer value that can result in positive business outcomes.


  1. Dear Pradeep: Thanks for your thoughts. There were others who pioneered this approach before it became fashionable. I appreciate learning of your efforts. Sincerely, Aaron


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