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Letting Go of the Status Quo with Design Thinking

Have you ever thought about why Uber wasn’t invented by anyone in the taxi industry or why a veteran hotelier didn’t create Airbnb? This got me thinking about why it takes someone from the outside looking in to inspire industry-disrupting change. Are we so laser-focused on the way things have always been that we can’t recognize opportunities to innovate?

Granted, there is risk in the unknown, which can make the status quo seem like a comfortable place to stay. But there is also risk in standing still. That is why it’s vital for utilities to continue to innovate. By not doing so, they put the future of their business in jeopardy, opening the door for third parties to come in and disrupt the industry for them.

We’re in the age of the customer. Putting the customer first in all aspects of the utility business model is critical to future growth. It means designing programs that also meet the needs of the people participating in them, not just the needs of the grid (although that is important too). At the recent AESP 2017 National Conference, Bill LeBlanc of E Source along with Danielle Marquis of AM Conservation Group gave a great presentation on how utilities can create demand-side management (DSM) programs using human-centered design - a process called Design Thinking.

“Design Thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” —Tim Brown, president and CEO, IDEO.

Adopting Design Thinking will arm utilities with an empathetic perspective, a cross-functional design process, rapid prototyping, and an ‘edge’ for discovering problems. All of which is a recipe for a culture of innovation. Danielle Marquis recommended these first steps to adopting Design Thinking:

  • Understand your customer - Just as Derreck Kayongo of The Global Soap Project mentioned in his opening Keynote at AESP 2017, observing the customer and putting yourself in their shoes is paramount. How can any business be inspired to innovate without a full understanding of what their customer is experiencing?

  • Designate someone as the ‘voice of the customer’ - This is not meant as a full-time position, but having someone on the team specifically tasked with keeping the customer POV top of mind will help keep everyone focused on their needs.

  • Adopt Rapid Prototyping rules - This means finding the quickest path to experience. Put a prototype together, see how the market reacts and improve from there. 

Shifting the focus to the customer is incredibly important to improving brand relevance and customer satisfaction, while remaining the trusted advisor in an industry primed for disruption. Not only will utilities enjoy fewer call center calls, but regulatory approvals also become easier. And to be honest, putting the customer first is simply the right thing to do. John Hazen of JD Power said it best in his presentation on customer satisfaction: “If we’re going to increase revenue and grow beyond what we do today, we need to make sure customers really like us and will recommend what we do...we live in these communities, we don’t want to have to hide our shirts.”

If you’re interested in taking a deeper dive into Design Thinking, check out this webinar from Stanford University on Applying Design Thinking in Your Work.




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  • Demand Response
  • Disruption
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  • HERs
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