Design thinking teaches us to observe situations without bias, understand context of operations, think of multiple means to impact the users' experience and select the ones that are most likely to succeed within the constraints we have.

That's my paraphrasing of the process after studying various models proposed by IDEO, Luma and the Darden School of Business.

The key to the process is to observe situations in their entirety, understand the context and then propose solutions.

While researching design thinking, I recollected a personal experience where intuitively, we ended up applying a similar thinking process with interesting results.

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Earlier in my career, I was working for India's leading digital navigation company, MapmyIndia. I was handling product & portfolio, but was also actively involved in helping the sales team with their pitches/demos.

As part of our sales efforts, the team had planned a sales booth at an Auto Expo to be held in Bangalore during a weekend in 2009. The sales team at Bangalore arrived at the event early in the morning, and setup our stall to facilitate interactions with customers. We had a stock of portable navigation devices (PNDs) to sell during the event.

An Auto Expo is an amazing event. Car manufacturers often use the event to launch new models. Others display futuristic concepts to grab potential customers' interest. Crowds swarm in through the day, jostling to get up close with latest and greatest technology in automotives.

For the first couple of hours, we waited at the stall.

A few interested people stopped by to see our portable navigation devices, but by and large we realized the crowds walked past our sales booth.

Our primary target customer was the young professional who was interested in buying new technology for his car. From earlier experience, we knew that the target customer was almost always male, a majority of whom were married, had a car that both spouses used occasionally, and who loved to travel. While the guy was the buyer, the lady was often the influencer in the decision making process. She had to nod her assent to the purchase. In most cases, they came across a PND for the first time at the stall, and it ended up being an unplanned/impulse purchase. 

A couple of us quickly decided to quickly trail some of our target customers through the event to see how they navigated the expo.

We quickly noticed some interesting insights after noticing some of the couples walk, stop and engage at stalls.

One: It was hot at the expo despite the avenue being air-conditioned, due to the sheer number of people walking around. There were almost no places for people to sit and rest. Attendees had parked their cars outside the venue, and ended up walking to and around the venue for a couple of hours. Mid-way through the walk, they were tired, but pushed themselves to go see the new models.

Two: In case of most couples, guys were more interested in the event. When their partners were with them, it seemed as if there had been a prior negotiation of how much time they would spend at the expo. Given the sheer size of the expo, the guys were keen on spending this time at the new car launches rather than at accessory stores. In many cases, we could see the impatience in the women's faces when guys stopped at crowded stalls - they felt adrift in the  crowd, largely male, where the discussions were all about horsepower, technical features & model variants.

We could see some of the women tugging at the shirts of their companions if they stopped too long at a stall. In turn, the guys would try hurrying through the next few stalls to abate their companion's ire.

(Please do not read any sexist interpretations here - these were our observations at the event, nothing more. I'm not claiming all events are the same - just noting what we saw and what we did)

As we discussed this at the stall, the team came up with a couple of simple but ingenious solutions.

Firstly, we kept a large water dispenser at the front of the stall. A couple of sales folks would offer water to anyone who walked by and appeared tired.

If a couple stopped by, a sales girl would walk to the lady, smile and ask about her experience at the event. We found that the ladies were keen on talking something other than cars and technology, and welcomed this diversion. The sales girl would then talk about places to visit in and around the city, how the couple spent their weekend, and more.

Meanwhile, with the lady distracted, the man would find a little window where he could talk about things he liked: technology, cars & accessories. Many of them were happy that their partners were engaged for a while, and used the opportunity to explore our stall.

We would tell the guy about features of the devices, but also keep highlighting how his companion could use it (most guys ended up pretending as if they didn't need a navigation device as they knew their way around town, but wanted it for their wives. Male vanity, we chuckled internally, but we went along the game). We would highlight features like it being easy for anyone to use, the safety aspects of it, and intersperse it with info like it having a Bluetooth phone speaker and ability to playback videos.

This two pronged approach worked phenomenally well when it came to footfalls and interest. I don't remember the exact numbers now, but I do remember that we sold out our stock easily that day, and had a bunch of good leads to follow up after the event. We also built a positive brand image in the visitor's minds.

To think that it all started with a glass of water....