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Rethink Business Apps with Design Thinking

In today's constantly changing world filled with uncertainty and unforeseen challenges, companies are looking for new ways to innovate and improve their products and services. One approach that has gained popularity in recent years is design thinking. It's all about diving deep into what people really need and want, and then crafting solutions that make sense for them – and that's what drives a business forward.  With over 5 years of studying, practicing and teaching design thinking and more than 15 years creating Dynamics 365 and Power Platform solutions, the most successful and smoothest business application projects are those where design thinking has played an integral part.


In this blog post we explore design thinking in the context of business applications (Dynamics 365 and the Power Platform). We look at what design thinking is, why is it important for business applications and the common issues with business application projects that it helps overcome.


What is design thinking?

Design thinking is human-centred approach to business transformation that uses the mindsets, tools and activities of a designer. It is an iterative & collaborative approach that places the end users at the centre of the problem-solving process and aims to balance the needs of people, the possibilities of technology and the requirements to business success.


For more views on how people define design thinking take a look at How do people define design thinking by IDEO.


Diagram that shows design thinking balancing human desirability, business viability and technical feasibility.
Balancing human desirability, business viability and technical feasibility.


The design thinking process


Design thinking process diagram
The design thinking process

The design thinking process is typically broken down into five stages:

  1. Empathise: In this stage, the focus is on understanding the needs, desires, and challenges of the users. This involves observing, engaging, and empathising with the users to gather insights and information about their experiences and needs.

  2. Define: In this stage, the information gathered during the empathise stage is used to define the problem or challenge that needs to be addressed. This involves clearly articulating the problem and establishing a clear focus for the design process.

  3. Ideate: In this stage, the focus is on generating a wide range of potential solutions and ideas. This involves brainstorming, lateral thinking, and exploring different possibilities.

  4. Prototype: In this stage, the ideas generated during the ideation stage are turned into tangible prototypes that can be tested and evaluated. This typically starts by creating low-fidelity prototypes that can be quickly built and tested with users.

  5. Test: In this stage, the prototypes are tested with users to gather feedback and insights. This involves observing how users interact with the prototypes, gathering feedback, and using the insights to refine and improve the design.


The design thinking process isn't a strict set of steps that you have to follow one by one. What's important is the way you think and the methods you use. Many organisations that implement business applications think they can't use design thinking because they already have their own project methodologies. But once you start learning about design thinking and using its methods and mindsets, you'll see that you can tweak your current ways to include design thinking. It's not a case of all or nothing.


How to approach design thinking


Iterative

Design thinking is non-linear and iterative. This means that the stages of the design thinking 'process' do not have to be done in order and each stage should be repeated multiple times as the design is refined and improved. Using small iterations, building scrappy prototypes and testing early increases the chances of success and reduces the risk that is often seen in large scale waterfall projects.


Collaborative

Design thinking thrives on the diverse perspectives of a cross-functional team, each member bringing their unique expertise and viewpoint to the table. When approaching design thinking, it's essential to foster an environment where collaboration is not just encouraged but is a fundamental part of the process.


Divergent and Convergent Thinking

Within each stage of the design thinking process, allow time and space for different modes of thinking. Divergent thinking for being creative and coming up with lots of ideas, opportunities or problems to solve. Convergent thinking to apply rigor and be more analytical, to decide on which idea, opportunity or problem you will continue with.


Divergent and convergent thinking diagram
Make space for divergent and convergent thinking

Design thinking mindsets


There are several key mindsets that are important in design thinking for business applications. I find that these mindsets do not come naturally to developers and consultants who work in the business applications space (myself included!). We often need to remind ourselves of these mindsets and make space to practice and reflect on them. These include empathy, embrace ambiguity, progress over perfection, and iteration.


Empathy is the ability to understand and put yourself into the shoes of others. In design thinking, empathy is important because it allows designers to truly understand the needs, desires, and challenges of their users. By empathising with users, designers can gain insights and information that can help them to create more effective and user-centric solutions.


Embrace ambiguity refers to the ability to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity. It is particularly important in business applications as technology and the world around us is changing rapidly - no-one is certain what the future holds. In business applications, ambiguity is often uncomfortable and seen as a risk we should avoid. This results in the same old solutions and ways of doing things that do not evolve with the times. In design thinking, ambiguity is often seen as an opportunity for creativity and innovation. By embracing ambiguity, designers can explore a wide range of possibilities and generate more creative and innovative solutions.


Progress over perfection is the idea that it is more important to make progress and move forward, even if the solution is not perfect, than to strive for perfection and potentially get stuck. In design thinking, this mindset encourages designers to experiment, take risks, and learn from their failures. By focusing on progress rather than perfection, designers can iterate more quickly and more effectively.


Iteration is the process of repeating a cycle of design, prototyping, and testing in order to refine and improve a solution. In design thinking, iteration is seen as a key part of the problem-solving process. By iterating, designers can learn from their failures, gather feedback from users, and continuously improve their solutions. Iteration enables business application professionals to spot issues early and reduce the risk of building the wrong solution.


These mindsets are essential in the design thinking process, as they help designers to focus on the needs of their users, embrace uncertainty, take risks, and continuously improve their solutions. 


Importance of design thinking for Power Platform and Dynamics 365

In this section we will look at some examples of typical problems that design thinking solves for business application projects and where else design thinking is used in business technology.


Include the end user

One of the biggest problems that I see in business application projects is that, often, the people involved in representing the users and defining requirements are managers and team leaders which can be two or three steps removed from the end user. This results in the project team working with second hand information, a high chance of building the wrong thing and increased risk of poor user adoption. It is common knowledge that a lot of business application projects fail due to poor user adoption. Design thinking's core principle of being human-centred and designing for the end user is the key to this. Including the end users at the very start of a project and have them involved all the way through helps ensure greater user adoption and increases project success rates.


Bespoke components require a different approach

For the first few years of Canvas apps made on the Power Platform you could look at an app and see that it was clearly a canvas app based on the fact that it did not follow any standard design principles. Functional apps put together quickly without any thought for the user interface or the user experience. This led to poor user adoption and a bunch of apps that did not deliver value. Coming from a Dynamics 365 background we are used to working with model-driven apps that have a lot of constraints and boundaries that help maintain consistency in design. However, I notice that we really struggle with anything custom, like Canvas apps because we do not have the skills, tools or approaches to design custom applications. I believe design thinking is a great answer to this problem.


In recent times, Microsoft has recognised the importance of design and are continuously making changes to canvas app controls by aligning with the Microsoft Fluent 2 design system. This is great from a UI perspective, but we still need design thinking to ensure a great human-centric user experience.


Design thinking at Microsoft

Microsoft use design thinking internally, and this can be observed by the way they engage with the community through preview programs and continuously test ideas and seeking feedback.


I've noticed that Microsoft is also starting to promote design thinking to others. Microsoft use design thinking in their Microsoft Catalyst framework which helps Microsoft Partners work with business decision makers through a design-led thinking approach, helping them shape the future state of their business and identify how to deliver on their vision.


The 2024 Power Platform Community Conference says that it is "dedicated to bridging the gap between humanity and technology" and the call for speakers page talks about "Learn and connect with key innovators as they incorporate human-centered design via Power Platform". For me, this is genuinely exciting and shows that design thinking has a strong future with business applications.


Recently, Microsoft have also released Power Platform Well-Architected, a framework to help make informed decisions about the design, planning, and implementation of modern application workloads with Microsoft Power Platform. One of the four pillars of Power Platform Well-Architected is Experience Optimization, which aims to provide meaningful and effective experiences through design principles that align with design thinking.


The value of design thinking

IBM has an Enterprise Design Thinking practice to help their clients design better solutions. A Forrester Total Economic Impact Study (2018) found that:

  • Project teams doubled their design and execution speed.

  • Project teams leveraged better designs and user understanding to reduce development and testing time by 33%.

  • Organizations slashed the time required for initial design and alignment by 75%.


IBM also makes their design thinking training courses and toolkit available for free. A great way to learn more about design thinking and how to practically apply it.


More to come!

At AppRising we are on a mission to revolutionise business application design by making it more collaborative, innovative, and user-focused. This is design thinking. In this blog post, we've barely scratched the surface on why designing thinking is important for business applications.


If you are interested in learning more about how you can practically apply design thinking to your business application projects, there will be more content from AppRising coming soon. Subscribe to our newsletter and we'll send you updates.

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