Design Thinking in Hospitality

Diagram based on the Stanford d School methodology

Diagram based on the Stanford d School methodology

Design thinking, a methodology for innovation, has risen in popularity over the years. From AirBnB to reinventing Oil of Olay, Bank of America’s Keep the Change program  has made its way into numerous fields and hospitality is no exception. The challenge is that it is still nebulous what design thinking actually is and what it entails - in part because it is best understood when it is experienced.

The core principle in design thinking is to place the human need in the center of the problem. All too often, we get carried away by a technology or process and lose sight of the human need. One example of design thinking is the iPhone. When it was first introduced, many technologies such as touch screens, camera phones and music players had been around for several years. What was unique was that the device addressed human needs - the need to communicate, take pictures or listen to music - in a way that made it remarkably easy for users to do those things. The result was a revolution in smartphones.

Design thinking principles are flexible enough to be applied well beyond technology to many industries including hospitality. For example, Hyatt Hotels has been working with design experts at the Stanford d school. They examined the front desk experience and realized that there was a long wait through a process that required 143 keystrokes. The company spent two years developing a new system that could assign a room within a few taps and greatly improved the experience.

Crowne Plaza engaged the leading design firm IDEO to better cater to the modern business traveler. IDEO’s  insights were that today’s work requires flexibility to be able to collaborate and create in a comfortable spaces via smartphones, tablets and laptops. They translated these into a free-to-use, innovative new meeting and working experience, called Ignition. Housed in the lobby of the hotels, every aspect - space, food beverage, service and digital - is designed to meet the customer’s needs. The result is a space that caters to guests and the locals, attracting people to meet, and work, irrespective of whether they’re staying.

A powerful design thinking methodology is the design sprint. Typically a five day process, this takes participants through the design phases outlined by the Stanford d School; empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test. It can help launch a project or accelerate existing efforts. In going through a design sprint participants diverge as more ideas are explored in empathizing with the user. They then converge in defining the problem they want to solve. They diverge a second time during idea generation and then converge again in choosing an idea to prototype and test. The UK Design council dubs this the Double Diamond framework. Tools like this enable even non-designers to take advantage of the incredible potential that design thinking has.

The application of design thinking in the hospitality industry is already starting to bear fruit. We are in an exciting time as this is still early days. It will be interesting to see the innovations that come out of this powerful combination.


Madhura Bhat