We have recently run a number of innovation workshops based on the Design Thinking approach.
One success factor that clearly emerged from all of them:  access to the users or – even better – direct involvement of users in the design process leads to more innovative and creative results.

There are two points in the Design Thinking process where we have observed the most tangible impacts:
– validation of the identified problem
– early prototyping and testing

Validation of the problem hypothesis happens towards the end of what in d.school terminology would be the “Define” phase or – for those of you who follow Liedtka/Ogilvie’s process model – at the intersection of “What is?” and “What if?”.

According to our observations, teams started into a much more productive ideation if they had obtained user-confirmation with respect to what they thought was the problem-to-be-solved. Talking more to users and asking in-depth questions helped in that clarification process. Listening to the users’ stories often allowed to reframe the perceived issues and widened the opportunities for novel approaches to a solution.

As indicated above, we also noticed a substantial change of focus of various proposed solutions when entering the prototyping phase and actually working with materials. Again, the impact of discussing with users, having them try out early low-fi prototypes and provide feedback, can not be overestimated in our experience. In some instances we had prototypes being adapted almost on-the-fly in discussions with end-users.

Interestingly we find that in many companies challenged in their ability to deliver successful innovations, even access to customers is limited to very few individuals. Conversely we have seen the opening up of broader communication channels to end users become a critical success factor in turnaround situations.

Key takeaway: user access is critical to successful innovation. Paired with a highly iterative approach like Design Thinking, projects will be significantly de-risked if end-user feedback is readily available to the innovation or product development teams.