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User-Centric Outsourcing: Design Thinking in Software Development

Design thinking shifts the focus from the inner workings of your company towards the end user, offering them a better product or service as a result of that brand new focus.
Daniel Zacharias

Sean Whitley

November 13, 2023

You’re looking to outsource software development. You surely have good reasons for it, from saving money to accessing talent not available in your area. Perhaps you have a small project that requires a unique set of niche skills for a brief period of time. 

All of these reasons are business-oriented. They cover funds and operations — the inner workings of your organization, which makes a whole lot of sense. But consider this: if you’re dealing with software development, shouldn’t your outlook be a bit more outward? While being more cost-efficient or developing faster are great goals, most meaningful and impactful solutions are ultimately user-centric. So, why not aspire to a more customer-oriented outsourcing strategy?

If you don’t know what that implies, don’t worry, I have you covered. For now, it’s enough to say that customer-oriented outsourcing is where design thinking steps onto the scene to offer a new way of mapping out the stages of innovation and development.

3 concepts you need to know

Before getting into the thick of it, it’s important to note that we’re dealing with three core concepts here, three pillars of a successful innovation strategy that you have to know intimately. These are: 

  • Outsourcing. One organization or company hires an external individual, team, or entire company to deal with a certain task or project. The two most common forms are nearshoring and offshoring.
  • User-centered software design (UCD) is also known as user-driven development (UDD). Planning, development, and testing are all focused on the needs of the user. It’s fully independent of technologies or specific interfaces.
  • Design thinking. A set of cognitive, strategic, and practical procedures employed to enrich the process of designing products or services. It’s closely tied to UCD and soon you’ll learn how.

A slightly more in-depth look

Design thinking has, in one form or another, been around for decades. Still, it wasn’t until Tim Brown’s 2008 article for Harvard Business Review made a splash in the digital world that the concept truly gained traction.

Basically, design thinking is a mindset, an approach, a way of finding solutions to modern-day problems. It puts the user at the center of the digital universe in every step of the way. Design thinking shifts the focus from the inner workings of your company towards the end user, offering them a better product or service as a result of that brand new focus.

The approach, then, isn’t problem-oriented but solution-based. Who is using your app? How will it impact them? Those questions are the essence of the quest for innovation in a user-centric strategy. 

5 core elements of design thinking

Here are the characteristics that make the process work in app development, product design, or just about any other niche.

  1. Human-centered. You must develop empathy towards clients, customers, and users in order to understand their true needs.
  2. Creative. A healthy dose of playfulness creates an open environment in which you can consider possible approaches. Imagination is key here.
  3. Iterative. Innovation should be re-evaluated over and over again. User feedback will fuel further transformation.
  4. Collaborative. A diverse, multidisciplinary team brings different perspectives and fresh ideas. This is where design thinking and outsourcing connect into a seamless whole.
  5. Prototype-driven. Creating a physical representation of the solution can help present and test data. It gives you (and your team) a chance to share and receive meaningful feedback.

4 phases of effective innovation

Designing for change and consequently producing new value lies at the core of 21st-century software development. The imperative is to anchor abstract ideas in concrete thinking so that the solution will serve its purpose. It requires a methodical approach, something that design thinking and its four-phase innovation framework can provide. Here’s what that looks like. 

1. Clarify

The goal of the first phase is to narrow down the focus in order to identify the problem and any roadblocks. It shouldn’t take too long. The trick is to ditch the usual “objective” detachment in favor of a more empathic approach. Put yourself in the users’ shoes. Understand their needs. Synthesizing your findings in the form of problem statements can make things easier.

2. Ideate

Toy with ideas without making quick assumptions. Brainstorming can be a particularly powerful tool here as it can open the floodgates of creativity. You can also leverage the idea of systematic inventive thinking (SIT) in order to overcome cognitive fixedness.

3. Develop

You might also call this the experimentation phase. It’s an opportunity to critique the entire range of previously ideated solutions, the perfect time for inexpensive prototyping, thorough testing, and bias-free investigating. Naturally, some parts will work, others won’t. Don’t stress over it. It’s all in a day’s work.

4. Implement

This is the final phase in which everything comes together and you get to try out your solutions. This, however, won’t signal the end of crafting and testing. After all, design thinking is very much a non-linear process with lots of reiterating, alterations, and refinements involved. This makes it more suitable for long-term planning rather than as a one-off solution.

What does all this have to do with outsourcing?

Traditional BPO (business process outsourcing) is all about harnessing intellectual resources, boosting automation, and cutting costs. However, such a focus on operational excellence and inner workings will only take you so far.

User-centered outsourcing is a strategic approach that prioritizes the needs of end users or customers. It requires an effort to understand user behaviors and empathize with their pain points. The approach also involves iterative feedback loops and close collaboration with cross-functional teams.

Empathy, iteration, collaboration… Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? These are the areas in which user-centric outsourcing and design thinking overlap and reinforce each other. Both are creative, flexible, and questioning — and place the user front and center.

The benefits

Business, government, education, nonprofits, and, most importantly for us, software development can all reap the benefits of this new frame of mind. We’re talking about cognitive computing, robotics, automation, mobile platforms, and big data analytics. Leveraging design thinking and implementing a user-centric outsourcing strategy can help you:

  • understand unmet needs.
  • inspire a willingness to experiment.
  • reduce risks of launching new ideas.
  • avoid incremental solutions and instead focus on potentially revolutionary ideas.
  • enable faster learning and iteration.
  • improve collaboration.
  • build greater customer satisfaction and loyalty.
  • gain a competitive edge in the market.

Will it work for you?

If you’re wondering whether this is the right solution for your business, consider these three factors:

  1. Desirability. Assume the human point of view. Will it work for the people? Does it meet their needs?
  2. Feasibility. Is it technically and technologically possible? If it won’t work in the near future, maybe you should look for other options.
  3. Viability. Is it a sustainable business model? The financial side of things is, after all, one of the requirements for success.

Should you start thinking about design thinking?

User-centered outsourcing and design thinking are simple mindset shifts that reinforce each other. Both represent a set of tools for problem-solving and innovation that work best in a collaborative environment. They allow you to tackle problems in a new way, especially in a fast-transforming sector such as software development.

In this empathic approach, you start with people and work your way towards technology, not the other way around. It can serve as a catalyst for innovation and drastically improve business outcomes in the long run. As things become more unpredictable, building resilience and boosting adaptability could prove to be your best bet for sustainable and inclusive growth.

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