Design Thinking is not a new concept, yet it’s not widely applied to B2B communications. But if you really need to connect with highly technical audiences, you should get to know this flexible approach to innovation.

Why Design Thinking? Because engineers and other technical professionals recognize empty marketing in a heartbeat, and they hate to be marketed to. They will scan right past generic headlines, over-produced video or splashy graphics. They have questions and need answers, not ambiguity. Design Thinking is a process that helps you explore what your audience cares about and, working collaboratively with your team members, to connect with them.

The best part is you can start to apply Design Thinking principles in your B2B communications process right away. Start with the first step and adopt the process as you go.

So, let’s get started.

What is Design Thinking?

It’s not hard to adopt Design Thinking because it’s based on a straightforward idea: the important thing is not about what you want to communicate, it’s about what your audiences care to learn about and how they learn. Start your strategy with them in mind.

IDEO is a world-leading product design firm that advances this approach. Tim Brown, president and CEO, describes it this way:

“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.”

Typically, a Design Thinking practice will follow a five-stage model commonly associated with the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. The “” defines the five stages of Design Thinking as these:

  • Empathize: Work to fully understand the experience of the user through observation, interaction, and immersing yourself in their experiences.
  • Define: Process and synthesize your findings to form a user point of view that you will address with your design.
  • Ideate: Explore a wide variety of different solutions, so you can step beyond the obvious and consider a range of ideas.
  • Prototype: Develop your best ideas so that you can experience and interact with them and, in the process, learn and develop more empathy.
  • Test: Use observations and feedback to evaluate your solutions, learn more about the user, and refine your original point of view.

Don’t be concerned if this seems like more work than your traditional, more linear way of building a communications program. It is, but it is also a more flexible way to get to your best marketing results. And remember the famous quote attributed to John W. Bergman, retired Marine Corps officer and U.S. politician:

“We never have enough time to do it right the first time, but we always have time to do it over.”

Applying Design Thinking Methodology to Your B2B Communication Strategy

Start with the first Design Thinking step, empathy, the one we believe is most consequential. The more you can understand and empathize with your audience, the more naturally and convincingly you can communicate with them. If you can fully relate with the audience, every other step in your program gets better.

How to build this empathy? At Publitek, we have a number of ways to help our clients define their customers and explore their worlds, concerns and motivators.

  • Workshops: We are doing more and more workshops with clients to define their customer personas, understand their user journeys, and develop messaging that speaks to their concerns and aspirations. These workshops are very useful in collecting the combined insights of an entire team into one shared understanding. We have found also that just the act of doing the workshop helps focus our clients on the one who really matters: the customers. What are their lives like? How do they solve their problems? And so on.
  • Research: It’s no surprise that, to understand an audience, it is a great idea to simply ask them. We sometimes augment our workshops with formal or informal research methods, typically using email surveys. If we need to move faster, speaking with a sample set of customers on the phone or at a conference also yields useful insights.
  • Experience: Publitek has been executing communications campaigns in the tech B2B space for many years. We know engineers, IT professionals and other technical experts very well. Chances are, we’re already run a campaign (or ten) in your market. In addition, with our proprietary reporting tools, we can see which messages, offers and content types are most valued by tech B2B audiences.

Output of design thinking b2b workshop

The Impact of Design Thinking on B2B Communications

Once you have adopted an empathetic, audience-focused approach, move on to the next phase, Define. While I’m sure you use project brief documents today (you do, don’t you?), with a Design-Thinking mindset you’ll see how to make them more focused on audience definition, key messaging and calls to action (CTAs).

Continuing on to the Ideate step, a richer project brief will help your team to think of more ways to connect with your audiences. Keep in mind that this step takes some time, so you may need to expand your schedule for collaboration among all team members: strategists, writers, designers, digital marketers, social marketers, and so on. But as we noted before, you will increase the odds of having communications that hit the mark in new compelling way.

Similarly, Prototyping a communications approach may be hard to imagine. Approach this step as you would A/B testing or bringing new materials to a sales meeting or conference to run by a small sample of your market. Once you get more feedback, refine, launch and Test.

We hope you can see how Design Thinking can augment your current communications process and contribute to campaigns that speak directly to those you want reach. Let me recap some of the characteristics of using Design Thinking in B2B Communications:

  • User-centered: Design Thinking is a user-centered approach to problem-solving that involves empathizing with the end user and gaining a deep understanding of their needs and pain points.
  • Collaborative & creative: Design Thinking is a collaborative process that involves varied teams working together to generate and try out new ideas. This inevitably leads to more creative ways of communicating.
  • Iterative: Design Thinking is an iterative process that involves testing and refining solutions based on user feedback and insights. Every iteration improves your program.
  • Holistic: Design Thinking takes a broader view of the whole interaction, expanding your thought processes from “I need to launch this product” to “I can help you (the tech B2B audience member) solve this particular challenge.”

Design Thinking can be particularly useful in B2B marketing because the decision-making process for B2B purchases is often complex and involves multiple stakeholders. By using Design Thinking to create marketing campaigns, B2B marketers can consider all the steps in a decision-making process and help more stakeholders to understand the benefits of the product or service.

How a Design Mindset Affects Tech B2B Communications

Why aren’t we talking about “design” when we talk about Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a process that can improve almost any business activity by focusing on the end user of a service.

We also want to point out that Design Thinking opens the door for designer professionals—such as art directors, graphic designers, web designers, videographers, and so on—to contribute their insights and techniques to improve your campaign. Too often design may be considered as an afterthought, a step to take once the offer is set, the media strategy mapped out, and the downloadable content and emails written.

Yet design is largely responsible for the experience of your audience with your campaign. A skilled designer can greatly enhance the meaning of your communications through careful use of layout, type, color, organization, brand elements, motion, interactivity, and so on. Design adds emotional depth and reinforces connections among elements in your campaigns.

Design Thinking opens the door to designers becoming an equal member of your communications team. At Publitek, we try to include a member of our design team right from the project briefing Define stage to offer their perspectives and pose questions that the rest of the team may not be considering. For our Ideate processes, we are increasingly making use of visual collaboration tools such as Miro to help the team not just think of innovative solutions, but to see them as they take form.

The Next Step in your B2B Communication Innovation Process

That said, not every project has the luxury of a schedule that accommodates every aspect of Design Thinking. But that’s OK. As we said earlier, add in the Design Thinking steps that make sense with your project, whenever you can. You will be increasing the effectiveness of your B2B communications and making your audiences happier too.

If you would like to read more B2B related articles, we have also written about rethinking companies’ approaches to trade show presences.