Stonehill President Discusses Design Thinking and the Future of Customer Experience

Design thinking is a problem-solving framework that has been steadily gaining popularity in the last decade as organizations strive to become more human centric. The hallmarks of design thinking–empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping and testing—influence major companies like PepsiCo, Charles Schwab, and Walgreens to solve problems for a better customer experience. These companies were among the many attending this year’s Design Thinking Conference in Austin, including Stonehill, a Tampa-based strategy and innovation firm. As one of the event’s sponsors, Stonehill is dedicated to the education and implementation of design thinking for innovative solutions in today’s world of rapid economic and technological change. Troy Atlas is president of Stonehill and helps the company’s clients use design thinking to create competitive differentiation. We sat down with Troy to discuss insights from the conference, trends in this field, and what’s in store for the future use of design thinking.

Q. How would you differentiate between user experience, customer experience, and design thinking? And how do all these concepts fit together?

A. Let’s use the example of traveling on an airline. My user experience will occur when interacting with the airline’s app. I use the app to book my trip, select my seat, and get my boarding pass. I am a user of that system. That’s my specific user experience. But my customer experience is much broader. It’s going to the airport, checking in, getting on the plane, learning whether my bag arrived at the destination in a timely fashion. Is my flight comfortable and easy, or overcrowded and unpleasant? How am I greeted by the agents, pilots, and flight attendants? That’s the overall customer experience. Using that analogy, I could have a fantastic user experience where the app could make purchasing a ticket very easy, yet my customer experience could be awful when my checked bag is lost.  And the reverse could also occur – I could have tremendous difficulty with the app, but when I call the airline for help, the agent could be extremely helpful and pleasant and find me a less expensive routing that wasn’t listed online, thus leading to a better overall customer experience.

These two concepts, user experience and customer experience, do not necessarily directly relate to design thinking. Design thinking as a mindset and as a methodology can be used to improve both of those things. Where customer experience comes into design thinking is right at the beginning stage of the methodology. To empathize. When we’re empathizing with customers, we are trying to determine what human beings care about – and as we develop strategy maps with our clients we help articulate what their customers, employees and stakeholders care about.

Q. After you’ve empathized and defined the problem, the next step is to ideate. What is ideation, and how do you facilitate this portion of design thinking?

A. Ideation can be a fancy word for brainstorming. One of the things we try to do in design thinking is go wide, not deep when coming up with ideas. We’re not trying to solve anything in the ideation process. People come up with the craziest ideas in this stage, and we encourage that. We want to write all these down, no matter how far-fetched. We can filter this list later, but the crazy ideas make the process more fun and help break down assumptions. I recall one client team who worked on new ways to deliver their large bulky product by helicopter, by barge, and by self-driving vehicles. None of those were practical, viable ideas, at least in terms of today’s costs and technology. However, those ideas led us to recognize and address the real issue which was about their customers’ desire to have access to the product on a 24/7 basis. The radical ideas led to a more feasible solution—adding staffing to deliver the product outside of traditional business hours.

The second part of ideating is prototyping your ideas. For this process we work with our clients to create simple prototypes using relatively basic materials. You could argue the cruder the better. If I were going to give you a perfectly finished prototype that looks and works great in a lot of ways, the amount of negative, actionable feedback you’d give me would be minimal. But if it’s made of cardboard or legos, you’re more likely to give constructive suggestions. There’s something about the crudeness that makes people more comfortable with critiquing it. We also want to minimize the expense of a single prototype so that we are not fully investing in one solution. Remember, we are going wide, not deep, at this stage.

Ideation and prototyping are exciting, so it’s disappointing when companies sometimes stop the process and leave their ideas on the shelf. At Stonehill, we encourage companies to prototype and test, even if the prototype fails, because it’s these small inexpensive failures that provide opportunities to learn.  We try to guide many iterations of the prototype until it can be test marketed, and it’s about a number of small, rapid steps.

Q. Where does design thinking come in during an economic downturn?

A. We’re in an experiential economy right now, and I think design thinking speaks to that environment. I’ve read articles that people are buying less stuff, doing more travel, and enjoying more experiential sorts of things. That’s not necessarily a sign of a down economy, but it is a sign that people are being more selective, as they would in a recession, with how they are spending their money. We want to maintain a loyal customer base and deliver a brand promise that addresses that experiential desire.

This reminds me of a conversation with a friend who is the market president of a well-known bank. Banks right now are trying to determine how to serve five different generations of customers. Some are traditionalists who expect to walk into a bank and see marble floors and mahogany, whereas millennials are more intrigued by what’s going on with the new Capital One Café. I recently learned that the Capital One Café concept came about from a design thinking process, and I wasn’t surprised by that.  What Capital One learned was that having a location, even if it isn’t a traditional branch, is important to a certain subset of customers, as opposed to offering all services online and nowhere to visit for help.

Q. What does the future look like for design thinking?

A. I absolutely think the future for design thinking is bright. At the conference this year, the number in attendance had doubled once again. I met great representatives from a lot of companies. Some that come to mind are Allstate, 7-Eleven, Wells Fargo, E Trade, Walgreens, Volvo, and Starbucks. These are all companies who were represented at the conference by their UX and design department leaders.

A big thing about design is trying to make things human centric.  I’m thinking of a presentation by a representative of PepsiCo. They were really focused on sustainability and climate change. PepsiCo recognized that improving sustainability is important in this market for a lot of reasons, and large-scale manufacturing of bottles and cans presents a challenge for the industry. They showcased creative drink dispensers where customers could bring reusable bottles back to the dispenser, rather than having trash end up in landfills or our oceans. Customers care about sustainability and the environment, so they used design thinking to try to solve that problem.

R. Troy Atlas is President of Stonehill.  Specializing in design thinking and change management, Troy is a “recovering” CPA and former financial services executive who enjoys creating opportunities for innovation with solutions built on the principles of design thinking and customer empathy. Connect with him on LinkedIN or at

Stonehill is a strategy and innovation company that helps businesses to identify opportunity, implement change, and accelerate growth.  Our teams consist of an innovative blend of creative, strategy, technology, and change management experts that allows us to unite the functional silos of business in the common objective of creating differentiated customer experiences.