Design Thinking, Research, and Utility Innovation

November 21, 2019
Author: K.C. Boyce

In mid-October I had the privilege of presenting some of our new research findings at Uplight’s Customer2030 conference in Denver. During the day-and-a-half event, attendees were challenged to create innovative solutions for consumers related to utility rates, smart home, and EVs. The exercise used design thinking as a framework for solving customer problems. Design thinking is an explicit process that puts innovators in the shoes of customers and draws on lateral thinking to spur creativity.

The five steps of design thinking are:

  1. Empathize. Innovators need to deeply understand customer realities and step into customers’ shoes to understand what customers are thinking, feeling, doing and hearing from others. Moreover, innovators need to understand their customers’ goals and anxieties. Market research is key to this step because it helps uncover these conscious—and sometimes unconscious—drivers of customer behavior. Attendees at Customer2030 used customer personas, which are a great way to distill research findings into relatable “customer stories” that drive empathy.
  2. Define. In this step, innovators frame the opportunity based on a description of the customer, his or her needs and insights from the empathize step. Although it can take some time to come up with the right framing, the end product is a simple sentence or two such as, “how might we create a solution to help Doug, a new college graduate, address his interest in smart home technology. In his world, he anticipates moving frequently between apartments and is constantly connected to his friends.”
  3. Ideate. Based on the defined problem, innovators brainstorm potential solutions. At Customer2030, attendees used a cross-industry transfer exercise to think about how non-energy companies delivered stellar experiences and to figure out how that can be applied to the customer’s problem. After a fruitful brainstorming session, the ideas are winnowed down to find a solution that lies in the sweet spot of customer desirability, technical feasibility and business viability.
  4. Protoype. In this step, innovators create a storyboard for their solution, literally drawing or listing step-by-step how the customer will experience it.
  5. Test. Finally, the storyboard is presented to others for feedback. This could be to other internal stakeholders who have gone through the first step (empathize) or even to the end customer via a focus group. As with the empathize step, testing is an area where quality market research can be crucial to ensure that the feedback is useful for improving the final product. Based on feedback, the storyboard can be iterated (and retested, if necessary) to make sure there’s a solid offering that meets the target customer’s needs.

While other industries, notably technology companies, have long embraced design thinking as an innovation framework, it is relatively new to the energy industry. However, we believe today’s business environment calls for a human-centered, contextual approach that allows companies to tackle issues and challenges head on – a challenge design thinking is ideally suited for.

Design thinking is a creative approach that leads to opportunities for success that would not be evident without a foundational understanding of people, their experiences, and the world they live in, making customer research the foundation upon to build. Without a deep understanding of your customers, truly understanding their needs and what solutions will create value for them is a complete shot in the dark. For instance, at Customer2030 I presented new findings from Escalent’s new EV-centered research that indicates the next generation of EV buyers is much more likely than existing EV owners to regularly take longer road trips. For energy utilities, this implies that high-speed corridor charging will become more important over the coming years—something that’s not obvious outside of research findings.

There’s no one “right way” to approach developing customer personas as the foundation for design thinking. Qualitative interviews with customers can help uncover latent needs and help design thinkers empathize with customers, but so, too, can customer stories developed from quantitative “truth.” A quality research partner can help determine the best approach to meet your goals around depth of customer insight, budget and timing.

If you’d like to talk about how Escalent can help support your company’s innovation efforts, please reach out to me.

 

K.C. Boyce
Senior Product Director, Energy

K.C. Boyce is senior product director for the Utility Trusted Brand & Customer Engagement studies from Cogent Syndicated. In this role, he manages the development and delivery of syndicated studies and best practices with a focus on helping utilities create valuable relationships with their business and residential customers. Throughout his career, K.C. has worked across industries and sectors to develop innovative solutions to complex problems and translate subject matter expertise into actionable insight. Before joining Escalent, K.C. was senior vice president at Chartwell, where he led industry and consumer research, conference production and marketing. He also served as the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative’s assistant director, leading its consumer research program. K.C. holds an MBA from Georgia State’s Robinson College of Business and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Colorado College.