Design Thinking and Innovation


What are the next steps after the lightbulb moment? How do these ideas come to fruition? In this episode, we lay out the definition of Design Thinking for the audience (adopting a human-centred perspective in creating innovative solutions while also integrating logic and research), and explore what are the key elements needed in order for a Design Thinking process to take off in a company?



Yvonne Chan: Welcome to futurepulse, a podcast series brought to you by IPI, your innovation partner for impact. Together, we will explore how ideas, creativity and collaboration drive impactful innovation.

Welcome to this episode of futurepulse - Design Thinking and Innovation. I'm Yvonne Chan and I'm joined by Mark Wee, Executive Director at DesignSingapore Council, and Welby Altidor, the Group Chief Creative Officer at Cityneon Holdings.

Welcome, Mark and Welby. In this episode, we want to outline the definition of design thinking for the audience today. How do design thinking ideas come to fruition? What is the value and benefits of good design for companies? And we'll also be taking a look at the key elements that are necessary for a design thinking process to take off. So I have a quote for the both of you here.

"Design, at its essence, is the process of imagining and planning for the very act of creation – the creation of objects, systems and solutions."

So Mark, what is the value of good design and how has the ethos of design thinking changed over the years?


Mark Wee: Thanks for having me. I think, you know, people have been hearing the word design thinking, probably in a couple of, at least in the last decade or so. But the way I see, it is quite simply human-centred design, or at least a human-centred approach towards business and how you think about your customers first, and ultimately, whatever you're creating should really kind of engage with them. And that's really, for me, that's the heart of design thinking, right?

Thinking of who you're serving, and ultimately how you're going to show up for them, in a way that's meaningful, rather than just thinking without talking to them, or just thinking of what will just make you money, or what interesting technology you want to push. And that's really the heart of design thinking in a corporate world. It's growing and understandably so. Obviously, how that shows up eloquently across an organisation requires a lot of, you know, kind of design, instituted processes and KPIs and all that, but that's really the base of it.

2:12 Yvonne Chan: So, the base of it, it's really putting thought into thinking about who you're truly creating and designing for. Welby, do you agree? Can you tell me more about your previous role at Cirque, how that inspires and influences your current role too?
2:27 Welby Altidor: Yeah, I fully support what Mark described, you know, when it comes to design thinking. In a way, you know, working from the angle of entertainment, you're always looking at ways to surprise and delight your audience. And in a way, it's really about generosity. How do you understand where your audience is? And how do you go above and beyond, so you can surprise them and delight them. So, you know, really, really agree with this notion of creating by understanding who you're serving and it's pretty much applicable to any kind of, you know, businesses or enterprises, to understand your customers, the ones that you serve and try to surprise them and delight them in different ways. 
3:21 Yvonne Chan: That is so interesting. 
3:22 Mark Wee: It's really human-centred innovation.
3:25 Yvonne Chan: Human-centred Innovation. I like that you also brought in the facet of generosity, right? How generous you are in wanting to delight and surprise the end user. So how do enterprises then use design thinking at different stages of their innovation journey, Mark?

Mark Wee: So, one obviously would be in, what you call, your user research. As you're starting to kind of figure out what you want to put out to the market, what kind of product or service and experience you want, go and study whom you're going to serve. What that means right, is to observe, talk to them and not just give out surveys, but really try to kind of have a conversation, ask them why, ask them how they will feel about what's important, and really you’re trying to find the sweet spot in which you could meet them at their needs. Different people have different needs. (You will need to) really understand the people you're trying to serve.

So, within the field of design thinking, you will hear of "Personas". Basically, it's about understanding who your users are, through their personality or their inclinations, as opposed to typically how people dive start in terms of demographic, income bracket, age groups, male or female, but really about you know, as they are as people, right? Is it someone who is an extremely anxious person or someone who is always very busy and short of time and really thinking along those kind of situations – human situations and human inclinations.

5:11 Yvonne Chan: A very human-centred design approach. Is it about doing away with the surveys? Enough of the surveys, (but instead) having a proper conversation about what's important?

Mark Wee: Well, I think right now, you probably need a bit of all, right? You would hear that this is very common within innovation teams, right? Service design, design of human-centred innovation teams, across companies, often they will say we want to get into deep dive interviews, right? We want to have real conversations that surveys cannot pick up simply because in the conversations, you get to ask why and read between the lines and all that.

And I think what that does is it provides a validation on some hypothesis of what are some important things of which if you need to confirm in a survey, you could influence your survey questions to really ask those things, and whether those things resonate. So, I would say you need a combination of tools these days and move beyond the focus group discussions, which is what everybody typically uses.

6:17 Yvonne Chan: Yeah, focus groups. Welby, can I have you weigh in on this as well?

Welby Altidor: No, I think it's, you know, in addition is that it provides you with insights. So, when you go deeper into conversations with the people that you want to serve, sometimes you discover in small little details, ways to surprise them and continue to delight them.

Sometimes I take the example of, you know, you want to plan a surprise for your loved one. Their birthday is coming. So you know, you might be asking questions. You might be wondering, well, you know, what are the interest? Or maybe you know, certain things because they've revealed those to you. In a way, it's a good metaphor for what you're trying to do when you're designing. You're using design thinking, and I would say, the parallel connection to that is design doing, to create that offer that would be memorable and relevant to that person.


Yvonne Chan: Moving the design thinking to the design doing aspect. But what are some of the challenges in driving effective design thinking in corporations here? Mark, you earlier alluded to it being somewhat instituted?


Mark Wee: Yeah, I think firstly, as a culture of an organisation, how do we build that into the process? It means how can we always be very deliberate in really trying to understand your users and being able to allot time and of course, sometimes resources to understand them first, before you sort of just jump in and start a solution and figure out, oh, let's just drive this out in the market. So, I think instituting that in the product cycles require time and resources, that's important.

The other one is also I think, equipping people with the tools to be able to do that, and that's really with training to be able to know how to engage to really get insights.

I mean, I know of a professional design researcher. He's a friend of mine who used to be an engineer. And I said, "What do you do for your job?" and he said, "They send me all around the world, I go and figure out markets." And I'm like, "What does it mean is this?". And this is before COVID, right? He said, "Yeah, I went to Vietnam, and I was trying to study how they were dealing with our purchasing platform. So, I literally went into a small village and I sat next to the guy who, you know, a convenience shop guy, and I found he was finding it so hard to use the app. And I'm like, "Really?", and so he's been trained, right? So, he kind of like studies these things. But I think just on a very basic level, to try to understand, how do I understand my users? How do I facilitate conversations where people would really kind of open up? How do I know when to identify opportunities for design? Those things are skills.


Yvonne Chan: Some really important questions to think about and raise. Welby, your thoughts on this to please? The challenges in driving design thinking in our corporations?


Welby Altidor: You know, sometimes it's just about trusting that process. When you dive into exploring, I think that many corporations might have a tendency to, a little bit like what Mark was referring here, to find, to look for that solution. And, you know, to jump to the solution. But really trusting you know, the part which is more about exploring, what are the options? And part of that exploration is really about knowing the people that you are creating for.

You know, I think there are numbers from studies like the ones from McKinsey, where I think that something like 40% of companies who are creating products of all kinds of services, never consult the people that they're creating for. I mean, think about that. That means that these are products that potentially could have been much better by having some form of input from the people who actually will buy them, engage with them. So, it's really something quite simple but not that easy to do on a day-to-day basis.

10:41 Yvonne Chan: You say 46% of the products were designed and built with no consultation from the end user?
10:50 Welby Altidor: Yeah, something like 40%, where there's never, at any moment of the cycle of creation, there's never a consultation, you know, with the people who ultimately will buy or use the product or the service. 
11:04 Yvonne Chan: Gosh, so how then can we encourage or nurture a design-driven mindset? Is this something that should be taught at schools? Or is it already been taught in schools? Start young?

Mark Wee: Well, it is definitely being taught in schools. I mean, you start to see design thinking innovation modules showing up in business schools. I know, even the National University of Singapore (NUS), they're going to roll that out as a core module. So, you're starting to see that as a recognition of a set of skills that are important across the board for all sorts of disciplines. You could say that what that is showing up is the need for almost design literacy or this idea of design thinking literacy. And why it's because successful organisations recognise, and are instituting this, and employees need to kind of come into the skills to be able to help facilitate and drive and at least understand the language used.

I think to add to what Welby was also saying, another thing that's important in organisations is, apart from the user research upfront, it's really the ability to test and prototype the ideas, back with the users to get more feedback, ultimately, to refine it. And that is, again, it feels so normal. But actually, it's very unnatural in organisations who have a view that we have enough brains, we can figure it out. And then after that, we'll just put out a great product, and then that's it. As opposed to thinking about whatever they put out there, there's a constant learning to it, there's even beta versions to it, and that will eventually lead to a real kind of final thing, right?

12:59 Welby Altidor: And you know, sometimes it's the bottom line that creates that tension, right? You want to bring that product, you want to bring that service, that experience as soon as possible to the market, because you have some targets, you have some financial objectives. But really securing a little bit of space to really test, even earlier on, even a rough prototype, is always useful to learn a little bit more. I always say to my design teams, it's always time to present our proposal or projects or concept when we feel that we're not ready to present. That's always the perfect time to present because we know we'll get some of the best feedback in a context like that.
13:49 Yvonne Chan: How interesting. So, don't wait till you think the product is perfect and then present it, but be open to the possibility that you're going to get feedback that you don't really want to hear or feedback to make it better? It's so painful.
14:03 Mark Wee: Isn't that good?
14:05 Yvonne Chan: That's true.
14:06 Welby Altidor: By the time that you think that the product is perfect, one of the issues is that whether as an organisation or individually, you start to become defensive to the feedback that you will receive. It's perfect. In your mind, it's perfect. So, you actually are struggling to hear or to use creatively the feedback that you could receive.
14:28 Mark Wee: Yeah, and this idea of prototyping means that you could get the idea out in a really rough manner. Even if it's on a sketch, to just a quick short video or whatever, enough to communicate the intention behind that idea with your customers to see are you on the right track? Is there a resonance? Or are you totally just been barking up the wrong tree.
14:50 Welby Altidor: Which means that from a mindset standpoint, this skill of humility and the courage to be vulnerable is quite important, because you will, along the way, the journey of designing something great that people will actually love, you will probably a number of times receive feedback that is, “I don't get it, this sucks, this is not great”.

Yvonne Chan: Not something we want to hear, but it's good to know, right? Early on rather than too late. And this brings up what you both gentlemen just shared really resonates in the sense that it comes back down to what design thinking is all about, right? Very human centred. So, you brought in things like humility, being vulnerable, and being open to perhaps feedback that's negative, and ultimately thinking about who it is you're designing for?

Welby, I just want to come to you now and ask you this question, really. Artistic relevance and commercial success. Given your background in entertainment before working for Cirque, I mean, some say that these two, artistic relevance and commercial success, are really contradictory ingredients to a company's growth strategy. What are your thoughts on that?


Welby Altidor: I wholeheartedly disagree. In the sense that, no, of course, you know, ultimately, things resonate or not with people. And, you know, often if you look at some of the biggest blockbusters too, you know, obviously, projects and products, and, you know, great entertainment finds its own audience. To me, there's no contradiction between the two, especially if the work comes from a place of generosity. You can create something that is artistically very elaborate, very deep, and yet, you know, reach great success commercially as well. I think it's a really false dichotomy, it's a false tension that's been created between the two.

17:00 Yvonne Chan: False dichotomy. Okay. Mark, do you have any comment on that?

Mark Wee: No, they shouldn't be at odds, right? Because I mean creativity, originality, that's what captures human imagination. And if you think about it, if we just put it in our day to day, we always talk about how humans are rational. I mean, the truth is, we're emotional creatures, and we make a lot of our judgments and our decisions based on that.

I mean, not to just flog it, but I mean, a lot of people use Apple as an example, but the very reason why you buy it is because there's an emotional resonance with what they offer and what the brand stands for. A very simple one, if we look at Apple ads, they never show the technology or maybe at the end, but they always show the human story. And those things are kind of creative, kind of endeavours on how to story tell and how to capture your heart.

And of course, I mean, I think we all can go on and on about experiences that we remember and have made a mark, and often I think there's a creative genius behind that, right? There's a creative perspective behind that actually knows what ticks and what would resonate with people, and I think that's really the difference. The artistic (aspect) that is regardless of people, and just purely kind of vanity versus those that really understand what people's needs are and are able to connect to that.


Yvonne Chan: Sounds like quite a tall order though, and I think that requires a lot of effort to really dig deep and find out what is it that people need. Can you both share some examples where companies have implemented innovative solutions using design thinking? I mean, how has this led to corporate regeneration? This is really for some of the companies and business leaders who are tuning in right now who are maybe thinking about changing their approach.


Welby Altidor: I remember a very simple example. I was in the business conference a number of years ago, and this was at the time, you know, to use a Mark's example, where the iPhones didn't have as much of a big life battery. And I remember that around maybe three o'clock, there was this group of ambassadors that swarmed the entire floor of the conference, and they had those batteries. And those batteries were essentially those powered up, you know, batteries that you could connect to your phone.

And suddenly, you know, this was really just an intervention about giving, you know, a little bit more life battery to people's phone but there was so much in terms of the design thinking behind it, because really it was about thinking. You know what, around three, four o'clock, people would have spent a lot of time discussing and it's possible that a lot of those phones will be close to no batteries. So, let's have a moment of an intervention where we will actually boost literally the phones of the guests. But what happened is that it actually boosted the energy in the room, people were, you know, like that energy literally, that was coming out of nowhere, became this sort of great moment, experiential moment beyond something very practical, which is charging your phone.


Yvonne Chan: And the extra energy had nothing to do with the extra battery power, right? But that's a wonderful story and anecdote to share. Thank you for that, Welby. Mark, corporate regeneration?


Mark Wee: Yeah, I was trying to think of examples that I guess people are familiar with in their everyday lives. So three came to mind, but one was, if you're a DBS customer, you can actually check the balance of your account at the front page of the app, through just pressing on the item. I think before the current iteration, you would swipe it. And it didn't require you to kind of like spend at least the extra maybe two, three steps to kind of get into your account. That really came from understanding that people just want to know how much money they have, in their account, at their convenience, right?

I had a colleague saying that, you know, when he wakes up in the morning, he checks to see how much money he has in the bank to know whether it's worth getting out of bed every day. But just really think about that as a human kind of thing, right? That this thing, I just want to be able to look at it, I don't want to go through all the security and this and that, just to get to that information, and that really came from inside.

Another one that I am fond of is that the NTUC group has been doing some great work with the format. I accompanied my parents to the new big store at Parkway Parade and I know that the team who was doing a format behind it, and what I found really kind of wonderful was there's a section there where there are Indian spice men whom you can go and then…

22:30 Yvonne Chan: Are you talking about the one at Parkway Parade? 
22:32 Mark Wee: Yes.
22:32 Yvonne Chan: Yeah, I've been there.
22:33 Mark Wee: Right? Isn't that great? And you tell them what you want to cook and he'll mix the spices for you. 
22:40 Yvonne Chan: On the spot.
22:40 Mark Wee: And he will give it on the spot. My mom said that they used to have it in a wet market. And they brought it into kind of more comfortable kind of like supermarket environment.
22:51 Yvonne Chan: AC environment. Aircon.

Mark Wee: Right? And for me, there was that connection to how my parents would shop, that connection to now us still having access to this service where you know, someone with a wealth of knowledge, can really still help us in being able to create good meals at home. So, I think that also came from understanding users and what their needs were.

And then the last one was just a small one. I think if you are a fan of the Wildlife Reserves, or the Zoo, I know that the team and I know that one of their big design challenges now is how do you engage people to come to the Zoo or to interact with the Zoo, without being able to come to the Zoo physically. And they've done that through, maybe if you have children, there's this thing called My Animal Buddy app, which allows you to adopt animals and basically engage with animals without actually being at the Zoo, but you know, being in your own home. For me, who is trying to refrain from buying a small dog for my daughter, I think it's a pretty good alternative for the time being.

24:00 Yvonne Chan: During COVID, when my kids couldn't go anywhere during the circuit breaker, yeah, we were one of the first few to sign up for that, right, the buddy thing? 
24:07 Mark Wee: Yeah.
24:08 Yvonne Chan: And true, I'm also trying to refrain getting my kids a pet. So I said why don't we just have a budgie from the app? So again, it’s definitely helping parents on that front too, but great examples.
24:20 Mark Wee: And they're all basically with design teams thinking through, what are the human needs and how can we connect with them.
24:27 Yvonne Chan: These are really, really fantastic examples and stories. Thank you, Welby and Mark. But now, the essence of today's conversation, tell us what key elements then are needed in order for a design thinking process to really take off in a company, Welby?
24:42 Welby Altidor: There is, unfortunately, not one thing. But you know, as with any journey, you start with one step. And I think that if anything, if you don't do surveys, then maybe start to do surveys. If you do surveys, then, you know, why not integrate perhaps a little bit more of design observation, you know, to maybe meet some of your customers and understand them a little bit deeper. If you don't prototype any of your projects, you know, well, maybe it's time to do that. So, in other words, for me design thinking is a set of tools and you can always improve your own process by just adopting one more practice, one more tool along the way. 
25:34 Yvonne Chan: Great. Thank you, Welby. Mark, your key elements?

Mark Wee: I always believe that leadership is key because it's not just leaders who don't just think, "Oh, I have my team in the corner, let them do their stuff". But really, what you're trying to drive is a much sort of larger cultural change around orientating your company to really be almost obsessed with who your customers are, understand what they're thinking, and how do you ‘consistently do‘ to serve them.

And if we start to think about that, in the context of a large organisation that requires reorganisation sometimes requires looking into KPIs that drive behaviour, that looks into resourcing, and these things are critical. And you see the best examples when leadership is aligned with the Chief Creative Officer or the Chief Design Officer. And I think that's what's clearly showing up in institutions like DBS and you see it at Changi Airport. I mean, a number of these successful organisations is because of leadership, right? So, I think that's really key.


Welby Altidor: Absolutely. And maybe I would add one thing and that is I think, to start small to maybe find a one project where, you know, some of these good practices can really shine and influence and inspire the rest of the organisation to move into a broader, you know, direction of design thinking.


Yvonne Chan: That one project, right? That North Star. Gentlemen, if you still had to convince a business leader that good design leads to good business, what would you say to them today? Mark?


Mark Wee: That's easy. Now there're clear facts and evidence that good design drives business growth. So, I would say first, in 2018 there was a study by McKinsey for the business value of design. It’s a public report that studies 300 public listed companies, and were able to arrive at real kind of evidence, strong evidence that companies that were most, you could say, design mature, were really driving competitive advantage, clear outstripping their competitors. I think it's something like on profits, they were exceeding like 30% and then on long-term shareholder value, something like 40% above the competition. So really, there's a lot of business evidence to it. I think that we don't need to convince them. It's really then understanding what is the hard yards? What does that mean for your leadership? What does that mean for your organisation, and then start to invest into that.

And there's a free survey that you can take that assesses (companies’ design readiness/performance) and we at DesignSingapore have formed a partnership with them, to work on how to help companies through that. So, we are here to talk to business leaders, and we are here to share stories, even to folks like Welby and the great work that we are seeing on how they are driving value through design.


Yvonne Chan: Super. So, if you're a business leader still needing some convincing, go talk to Mark Wee and Welby Altidor will be here too to answer your questions. Welby, of course, before we go, I want to know too what would you say to them?


Welby Altidor: You know, I think I would quote Scott Galloway in his book, Post Corona. There's something really interesting about the fact that maybe right now, we're leaving the brand age and we're entering into the product age. And the big difference is that in the brand age, the marketing enough could really, you know, you could thrive, you could have great marketing and essentially thrive, even if your product is not so great.

But in the product age, which we're entering now, well, your marketing, your branding, as great as it is, if your product is not great, you will not survive. This is because the crowd, the audience is out there, it’s online and exchanging about your product as you are sleeping, and the pressure on really making the offer that you're having in the world, great, is mounting every day. So, I think I would say design thinking is a super tool to really meet the challenge of, you know, connecting great marketing, the great story about what you're selling out there in the world, and the relevance of what you're offering, actually in the real world.


Yvonne Chan: Yeah, absolutely. I think the pressure for a great and magnificent product is definitely mounting, especially as your audience now, your users are a lot more discerning with so much more information out there for them to review, compare, and to give feedback.

Mark and Welby, thank you so much. It's been an absolute pleasure speaking to you both today. I think this conversation has left us with a lot to think about. The benefits and value of good design, that's apparent, but the key elements of leadership, a concerted effort for capacity building, and the ultimate goal of who you are designing for has to be crystal clear before embarking on this journey of design thinking. And of course, making sure too, that you secure a space to test out a rough prototype to see if, whatever you're designing, that product actually resonates for your end user. So thank you so much, gentlemen.

31:20 Mark Wee: Thank you. Can I do a quick plug? I know we'll be releasing a study on design lab cultures in the coming months, where you know, hopefully we boil it down to 20 principles of what makes a great design lab culture.
31:32 Yvonne Chan: Hey, I'll be looking out for that. Yeah. 20 principles, huh?
31:35 Welby Altidor: And Mark, I'll take it personally if you don't send me a copy, okay? 
31:38 Mark Wee: It's on the way. It's on the way.
31:41 Yvonne Chan: Thanks, guys. This is a great conversation. Thank you.
31:44 Welby Altidor: Thanks so much. 
31:45 Mark Wee: Thank you. 
31:46 Yvonne Chan: I'm Yvonne Chan and thank you for joining us. We'll see you next time for another exciting and insightful episode.