Digital Publishing Guest Columns
5 mins read

Opinion: Design thinking in Publishing and Media

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Ask an author who they write for, and you’re likely to get as many answers as there are authors.

But when we’re planning campaigns and strategies, we really need to keep one person in mind: the eventual customer or consumer.

In reality, this isn’t always the case. Strategies and creative approaches, look, feel and content are all influenced by many factors: multiple stakeholders with competing priorities, the wishes of the author or IP owners, what our competitors are doing and what the ‘norm’ is.

Design Thinking offers us a way to cut through all of this, explore potential, test campaign ideas afresh that keep the needs and interests of the customer front and centre. Handily it can also end up being faster, more collaborative, less risky and more fun. So what is it?

Put simply, Design Thinking is a creative problem solving approach, adapted and popularised to help businesses innovate by Stanford University’s Design School and IDEO in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Since then it’s been applied to help design everything from buildings, to machines, to software and products, such as the Apple Mouse.

While the exact definitions and applications vary, it’s centred around a few core principles and stages:

The first is human-centricity, or developing empathy for your customers or audience. This means ensuring you have a clear understanding of their wants, needs, jobs to be done and the context of use of your product or content, achieved through observation, interview or other forms of research. These insights can radically change your understanding of the problem – for instance observing the limited amount of space most commuters have, particularly if standing, Penguin Random House recently launched a range of mini, mobile-phone sized classics to meet their need.

The second is divergent ideation. Allowing yourself to go wild and wide with your ideas rather than jumping too early to one solution – a few years ago we imagined if we could beam up Star Trek fans. Technically not possible (yet) but with creative use of augmented reality we ended up helping them to disappear on a specially designed stage.

And finally, there’s an emphasis on test-and-learn, achieved through creating simple prototypes that are put in front of real users, before committing any significant budget to proper production – for example mocked up posters or images of a website. Just enough for it to feel real so that you can get feedback.

While the approach and techniques were honed on physical products, it’s equally adaptable to brand strategies, marketing campaigns and creative content.

Design Thinking has many benefits. It’s focus on the customer can help align and cut through competing stakeholder agendas and increase the chances that what you create is something that your customers or audience actually wants.

It allows you to consider riskier ideas and reduce risk at the same time. Through prototyping and lightweight, iterative testing, you can allow yourself to have and develop innovative new ideas without committing big budgets until you’re confident in the solution.

There’s a whole academic discipline around design thinking, with a wide range of tools and approaches which can seem daunting.

However, there is an easy way in. A few years ago, the team at Google Ventures developed a cut-down collection of the ‘best bits’ of design thinking, and condensed these into a five-day process that was easily adopted and adaptable to a wide range of problems.

They called the process Sprint. Over five days a small team of six or so people explore a problem in depth from the customer’s point of view. They’ll look at lots of examples of how that problem has been solved before, by competitors and more left-field references. They’ll come up with dozens of potential solutions, before taking one, or the best bits of many, and rapidly build a ‘goldilocks quality’ prototype, before testing it with five customers.

It’s an intense, fast-paced, tried and testing approach. At CreateFuture we have used it dozens of times to create innovative campaigns, such as a 3D sound tour of the States for Brand USA and Expedia called Sound Travels, to develop new financial services products and to help Adidas engage their sneakerhead community.

We adapted it at Penguin Random House to bring a diverse in-house team together – from marketing, editorial and content production – to develop a strategy for using video to sell more books. Previously video content was sporadic, formulaic, repetitive and often author-led.

By putting the customer’s experience first, we identified the different ways in which video could support them – from broadening their horizons to learning something new, connecting with authors or delving into the world of stories.

As a team we’ve developed dozens of ideas for new content formats ranging from one-offs, to potential series and high-profile, global campaigns. The favourite candidates were worked up into storyboards for testing with customers, before we brought everything together into a new strategy and roll-out plan. End to end the process took two weeks.

Sprints, or Design Thinking, however is not a silver bullet. It has a few potential pitfalls. It’s great for developing and testing new ideas, but further effort is always needed to take those ideas into production.

Bringing wider stakeholders into the process can help gain alignment and investment in the eventual outcome, however many may not be comfortable contributing ideas (or, frankly, be very good at it).

And while the pace of design thinking means you don’t get too attached to ideas until they’re tested, sometimes the best ideas come if you slow down a little and give them a bit more thought.

In an industry where new channels are constantly emerging, where tastes constantly shift and the competition gets fiercer every season, there’s a lot of potential benefit to be had from applying design thinking to publishing and media challenges.

What’s stopping you?

Nathan Fulwood, Founder and Strategy Director, CreateFuture

Nathan Fulwood is one of the three co-founders of creative consultancy CreateFuture. Nathan has a 20-year career in digital innovation, helping to develop and take to market some of the Press Association and Orange Telecom’s first digital products. He was Marketing Technology and Business Development Director at one of the UK’s largest digital agencies, before moving into brand innovation, and founding CreateFuture.

Main image used with the kind permission of Festoon House