L’Oreal VP on the Effective Use of Design Thinking in Business

By Pamela Bump |  July 3, 2018

“Competition is fierce,” says Jackson Wang. “Innovation is tough. How do we drive more speed to market, a better success rate, and cost saving at the same time?”

One answer to that question is the methodology known as design thinking. At this year’s Front End of Innovation conference in Boston, Wang shared his advice on the most effective ways to use design thinking, highlighting lessons from his work as L’Oreal’s Vice President of Retail Design, as well as past positions as a Design Director at Procter & Gamble in China and a Creative Director at Ford.

Jackson Wang, Vice President of Retail Design, L’Oreal.

Wang makes the case that design thinking is an essential tool for every innovator’s toolbox — especially when it is applied to what he calls “wicked problems,” those that are “difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements.”

Early Lessons in Design Thinking

Wang noted that design thinking starts with demonstrating empathy for the consumer. He reflected on one of his most memorable workshops with P&G. During the three-day session, he and a team of colleagues were sent to Hunan, China, with a goal to conceive of new body care products for rural customers.

“We would live, eat, and sleep for three days with the consumer in rural China, where there’s really no toilets and just an outhouse,” he said. “We learned about the lifestyle and how tough it is when you don’t have cars or fresh water. You have a bed that is made with a layer of straws and no heater. It was a life-changing experience for me.”

“Design thinking isn’t just an approach to generate ideas, but it’s an approach to change culture and mindset,” he said.

Wang highlights seven steps that successful design thinking workshops often follow:

1. Identify the Wicked Problem: “Designate a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize… This is the hardest part.”

2. Find Consumer Inspirations: “It starts with the consumer — the prework. We’re not seeking ‘target consumers,’ we’re actually looking for the extreme users and the non-users. That will fuel the conversation. That will fuel the friction and tension as we start to dig deeper into ideas.”

3. Explore Emotion and Natural Responses: “What are these triggers? We don’t ask, ‘What product do you use?’, or ‘Can you talk about the product?’ We talk about relationships. We ask, ‘How’s your home?’, or ‘What’s your daughter like?’ We get to know the customers on a personal basis. We start with that as a basis for the emotional connection.”

4. Ask, “What is Necessary for Participant Interaction With Consumers?”: “The participants in this case are the business owners… Their interaction is critical, and we have to be very mindful of the participants who are very familiar with the business and the consumer side, versus people who are not.”

5. Use the Insight Recipe: “Insight is a combination of consumer truth, motivation, and tension.”

6. Reframe the Problem: Assess the problem from different angles, and in different contexts. This often entails “more dialogue, deeper dialogue, and rapid prototyping.”

7. Improvisation: This involves “acting out the story of the product.” How will consumers discover it and use it? What problems does it solve?

A L’Oreal retail location in China.

The Wicked Problem

Wang says that in business, with time and resources always a constraint, problems are often understood only superficially before teams jump into shaping solutions. “We don’t spend enough time on the ‘wicked problem,'” he says. “As Einstein says, ‘We will spend 55 minutes thinking about a problem and then five minutes thinking about a solution.’ We [design thinkers] have the tendency of rushing in and wanting to execute.”

Wang added that a good problem must have the following attributes: 

  • The problem is specific about the issue, but broad enough not to specify how the issue can be solved.
  • Solving the problem would benefit multiple stakeholders.
  • The problem is inspiring to the participants [company employees] and consumers who are part of a design thinking activity.

Changing Culture and Working as a Team

Wang laid out several criteria that make design thinking sessions most successful. Along with a “wicked problem” and empathy, this criteria includes: 

  • The right team with the right skillset. This team should include members from multiple departments with a variety of diverse skills.
  • A facilitator who can draw out each team member’s strengths.
  • A location conducive to your work, with room for techniques like improvisation and prototyping.
  • Full engagement from the team during design thinking sessions.

‘The Courage to Say No’

Wang noted that the toughest challenge when practicing design thinking “is the courage to say no. There’s a desire as problem-solvers to help. There’s a sense of curiosity and wanting to do things.” But the ability to filter and say no to certain directions or options is vital.

Because design thinking workshops may have a handful of participants from different areas of the company, Wang concluded his talk by highlighting the importance of choosing a strong workshop facilitator. This leader must be able to handle challenges, such as a participant who’s being pulled away by their supervisor, or an employee whose unique ideas get crushed by the rest of the team. According to Wang, a good facilitator should be: 

  • A good listener
  • Agile
  • Able to guide a team through pitfalls
  • Well-versed in multiple disciplines
  • Skilled at understanding the nature of the wicked problem
  • Good at managing team dynamics
  • Able to support the team and enable open debates