Design Thinking in Action

January 3, 2013 by Susan Galer

Photo: Fotolia

Not long ago when customers bought an SAP software product they had to wait months, even years before they could use it at their company. That’s changed with the advent of design thinking at SAP. This approach speeds up the development of technology solutions designed to delight users. At its core is the “developer 2.0” who bears little resemblance to familiar stereotypes. Design thinking developers want to know as much as they can about user needs and desires. These developers iterate quickly, in a matter of hours if necessary, and always as part of a new kind of team where the end user rules.

Providing customers direct access to the process

The Deployment Cockpit is one example of design thinking in action. Currently in pilot phase, this collaborative tool gives customers who have purchased an SAP Rapid Deployment Solution (RDS) instant access to everything they need for timely implementation. It’s an online portal that contains not only documents like a step-by-step implementation guide, but equally important, real-time access to every SAP consulting team member. There’s no searching or guesswork. Customers know who to contact at every stage of the process because they can see who’s working on which task and the status. With teams often scattered across multiple countries in various locations, instant access is crucial to on-time deployment.

According to Ariane Skutela, product owner and design thinking coach at SAP, this translates to smooth collaboration between project leads, technology consultants in IT, and business application consultants. “Customers who’ve seen the tool understand the difference it can make. They know SAP has changed. It’s easy to implement our RDS solutions,” she says.

Next page: Design thinking speeds up development process

Skutela coached the design thinking team from research and prototyping through development and delivery. Job number one was making sure the Deployment Cockpit would give users the features and functions they wanted most. “In the past, teams might build tools people didn’t use,” she recalls. “We used design thinking to talk with consultants to find out first what they really needed before we developed something.”

Design thinking speeds up development process

Given the new approach, Nabi Zamani, a developer on the team, wasn’t certain they would meet the project deadline. However, prototyping based on continuous user feedback actually sped up the process. Traditional development typically separates the product definition and development phases. But with design thinking, the entire team works together from defining the product through implementation. “Most other projects I’ve been involved with had predefined requirements,” he says. “Combining the design phase with implementation gave everyone a sense of ownership, a shared purpose.”

The design evolved as they collected feedback from over a dozen people globally who would be using the tool. These conversations revealed findings sometimes at odds with initial design directives from the internal management team at SAP.  For example, the management team suggested using a new application programming interface as an interface. However, consultants didn’t want to use what they viewed as a complicated interface that also lacked the content they needed. The management team emphasized the importance of early reporting. But the consultants said early reporting made no sense since everything would be documented in the tool over time.

In the end, the developers went with a tool to meet the needs of the three most important team members who work with customers: project leads and IT and business application consultants. These users wanted something that made implementation easy and fast with all the information in one place so everyone can collaborate.

Next page: Skepticism changes to acknowledged success

Srinivas Reddy was another team member who appreciated the clarity that early and continuous user feedback provided. “Requirements can be nebulous. This way guesswork was reduced, and development was faster because the requirements were clear,” he says.

Originally, the team had submitted a long list of features. But when users saw the prototype, they said they only needed about 10% of the proposed functionality. “We realized we didn’t have to develop everything that was technically feasible, but rather only what’s needed,” recounts Reddy. “We were empowered to make decisions by ourselves.”

Skepticism changes to acknowledged success

Skutela admits the team had no clue where it would end up when they began. “There were some concerns about the methodology – that we had no clear list of features and functions,” she recalls. “But the process has resulted in a tool people want to use.”

Zamani believes design thinking fosters creativity through camaraderie. “Collaboration with the people interviewing customers and updating prototypes gets everyone talking so they contribute more, and the team generates the best quality design,” he says.

The Deployment Cockpit went live this fall, with an English language version being used by teams in Germany, North America, Columbia, Australia, and the United Kingdom. With numerous requests for it, SAP plans to introduce additional languages and expand to other SAP software solutions.

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