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Overview of design consulting

Covers the basics, types of projects and the design thinking process

Annie Hsu, Director at Nike, ex-Frog Design Director, ex-Google
Published: August 21, 2020

Basics | Project types | Design thinking process | Roles and firms

As part of your process researching consulting firms, you may have come across a specific subset of the consulting world - design consulting.

In this post, we'll cover some of the basics of this industry, the type of work design consulting firms handle, how teams are composed, and some of the top design consulting firms.

What is design consulting? (Top)

When you hear the term 'design consulting,' it typically refers to a consulting firm or practice that integrates design thinking and a human-centered design process into how they solve client problems.

In its simplest form, human-centered design starts with understanding the human needs at play in the problem you're looking to solve - whether its an end consumer or an enterprise business user, employing both qualitative and/or quantitative research approaches to understanding those human needs, synthesizing insights from that research, and using those insights as core anchors for generating new ideas.

Further along in the process once ideas have been prioritized, teams typically prototype these ideas and take them back to potential end users to assess viability. This is done, of course, along with other feasibility assessments, including technical, financial and organizational feasibility.

There is a wealth of resources available to learn more about design thinking. Here are a few to get your started if you're interested in learning more:

  1. What is design thinking? (IDEO-U)
  2. Design thinking: understanding the process (LinkedIn Learning)
  3. Design thinking (Interaction Design Foundation)

What type of work do design consulting firms handle? (Top)

In reality, a design thinking approach can be applied to any problem. However, like any tool, it does have an optimal environment where it can be leveraged to attain its maximum potential. In practice, you'll see that the vast majority of projects that come to design consulting firms can be distilled into one major theme:

Create a new product or service.

There are times when firms want to seek outside help and inspiration to build their future pipeline of products and services. This can be for myriad reasons, ranging from:

  1. The existing product or service portfolio is stagnant and may start to decline in the coming years
  2. The technology space we're in is changing rapidly and we want to be ahead of the curve
  3. We want to be able to serve a new consumer segment but don't know how

What is the typical process employed by design consulting firms? (Top)

Creating a viable new product or service isn't easy, but leveraging a human-centered design approach ensures that you're always keeping the end consumer in mind while designing and refining the offering, maximizing the potential that your final output will be compelling to those you're designing for. A typical design consulting approach includes:

Question framing

If you're familiar with the term 'garbage in, garbage out,' you'll understand how important problem definition is. It's critical to scope and define a question that is researchable and solvable. 'How do we increase our bank's revenue?' is not an inspiring problem to solve. 'How might we offer a self-service savings tool for our younger consumers?' is.

User research

Understanding human needs is a critical part of the design thinking process. User research can be done in many ways. For the purposes of this conversation, we'll focus on qualitative methods. Some of the most popular methods design consulting firms leverage to learn more about user needs include:

  • In-home interviews. This is when you'll typically come to a potential user's home and walk through a planned research protocol of no more than 90 minutes, which will be a mix of open-ended questions and exercises.
  • Tag-alongs. For situations where you're looking to research a service or physical space, tag-alongs can be extremely useful. For example, if you're working for a physical retailer, planning a shop-along with a shopper to see how they prepare to go to the store, how they move through the space, and what they do afterward can provide a wealth of context around the new services you could offer in that consumer experience.
  • Diary studies. A diary study is a method where you ask your research subjects to record or journal observations or actions over a specific period of time. For example, if you want to learn more about how people plan vacations, a diary study would be a powerful tool to consider since this typically happens over multiple sessions and involves multiple resources.

Synthesis

Synthesis is the act of bringing together all of the research you've conducted - including qualitative user research, quantitative research, competitive research, etc. - and distilling that all into higher level insights and opportunities to focus on. It also serves as a useful moment to align with the rest of your team on the most salient areas to focus on in the remainder of the process.

Ideation

Call it ideation, call it brainstorming, call it whatever you want - this is the moment when you create as many ideas as you possibly can, based on the insights and opportunities you prioritized in the previous step. This is the time to focus on generating a lot of ideas and building on the ideas of others on your team.

Prototyping

To help validate some of the highest priority ideas, it's important to prototype them to see how they might work in their full-fledged forms, and to put these in front of potential users to gather feedback and understand market viability.

Execution

You made it! By this point in the process, you and your team have a set of ideas to move into production/execution.

What types of people do design consulting firms hire? (Top)

There are many nuances of different firms, but firms typically hire from this framework of profiles:

  • Designers. Designers can be visual/graphic designers, brand designers, industrial designers, or interaction designers.
  • Strategists. Strategists can include business strategists, brand strategists, or design strategists.
  • Technologists. Technologists can be mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, or software engineers.
  • Project Managers. Project managers help run day-to-day operations on client projects to ensure delivery is on time.
  • Business Development. Business development focuses on sourcing, vetting and selling in new client projects.

What are the top design consulting firms? (Top)

While there are many high quality design firms across the world, here are the firms (or divisions of firms) that are typically associated with the design consulting world. You'll also see that some refer to themselves as innovation consulting firms.

Conclusion (Top)

In summary, if you're interested in leveraging human-centered design approaches to solve business and user problems, design consultancies may be a useful avenue to explore throughout your career search.

P.S. Are you preparing for consulting interviews?

Real interview drills. Sample answers from ex-McKinsey, BCG and Bain consultants. Plus technique overviews and premium 1-on-1 Expert coaching.