How to Measure the ROI of Design Thinking

New research out of Stanford’s identifies innovative ways to measure the impact of design thinking.

Have you ever worked in an environment where the sales team becomes irritated, even hostile, with engineering or marketing team? Or have you worked for an incompetent manager? Have you ever worked in a place in which petty politics creates friction and slows progress down?

I am assuming here that you’ve said “yes”. Well, design thinking helps teams to cooperate and collaborate again to find better solutions. It’s that simple.

When clients ask how they should measure the return on investment (ROI) for using design thinking, it’s so important to communicate the quantitative and qualitative value.

Through experience, I know design thinking workshops increase productivity and performance: saving time and money. It helps product teams work more harmoniously and leads to better product outcomes. Measuring its impact requires a Butterfly Effect framework, one that reasons through the impact.

Nevertheless, how do you measure the effect on the bottom line by averting building out technology that would have failed to meet user needs? How do you measure the impact of establishing a culture focused on customers, rather than on efficiency and productivity alone?

Fortunately, new research offers clearer frameworks to measure the impact of design thinking in the context of business.

By Reasoning through Multiple Perspectives to Measure the Impact of Design Thinking

In 2015, a research team associated with Stanford’s famous surveyed 403 design-thinking practitioners (most from larger, for-profit businesses). Their paper, titled Measuring the Impact of Design Thinking, affirmed that organizations continue to struggle in determining ROI. However, it also found that those most committed to the task recognized that design thinking can’t be measured as a single concept. (Köppen, Meinel, Rhinow, Schmiedgen, Spille, 2015)

The companies surveyed seem to acknowledge a Butterfly Effect from design thinking, and practitioners reported attempts to track it from a variety of perspectives:

Customer Feedback
—customer satisfaction, net promoter scores, response to specific campaigns, usability metrics, client feedback

Design Thinking Activities—number of projects, people trained, coaches trained

Quick Results
—concepts finished, projects launched, projects funded, projects in development

Anecdotal Feedback—evaluation forms, qualitative feedback at each stage of the design thinking process, surveys

Traditional KPIs—Increased Sales, ROI per project, and other financial measures

Culture—team efficiency, engagement, collaboration, motivation

Linking ROI to Business Drivers for Design Thinking

Earlier this year, Bernard Roth and Adam Royalty, two central figures from the published separate papers, entitled Developing Design Thinking Metrics as a Driver of Creative Innovation. In it, they suggest ways beyond “execution oriented” metrics to those that would track “creative behaviors” instead.

First, they identified three main drivers leading companies to pursue design thinking:

1. To better understand customers or end users
2. To protect business share from disruption and startups
3. To develop more innovative methods and team dynamics

Then they devised new metrics for each driver.

Measuring Empathy

A key tenant of design thinking is cultivating empathy with customers/users to discover unanswered needs. The idea is that if we better understand needs, we can design better solutions and increase revenue or save money.

Roth and Royalty suggested the following metrics for measuring a project team’s empathy with customers/users:

* Track the number of days the team goes between observing or interviewing customers or users (with the goal of reducing time between interactions).

* Track the number of customers or user interactions over the life of a project.

* Track interaction back to user personas to measure the diversity of customer or user insight.


Measuring Business Value

Another focus of design thinking is creating innovative products and services that add value to organizations.

Roth and Royalty suggested measuring value and novelty of project outputs on a grid where the vertical axis endpoints are “Valuable” and ”Not Valuable” and the horizontal axis represents ”Novel” to “Not Novel”.

The goal of the measurement is to understand if design thinking projects are perceived as valuable to the company and if they take the company in new directions. (The authors recommend that team members vote anonymously and that scores are averaged to determine grid placement.)

Measuring Innovation

According to Rother and Royalty, an earlier study (Dow & Klemmer, 2011) showed that more iteration leads to stronger prototypes, and stronger prototypes lead to better products. So they proposed two ways to measure how well a team iterates on an idea.

Measure the number of prototype iterations per feature. Measuring per feature is important because it allows for comparison between projects, regardless of the size of the project or feature set.
Measure the number of concurrent prototypes. Another study (Dow et al, 2010) suggests that developing prototypes in parallel (rather than in series) results in stronger outcomes.

Getting Beyond Cost Savings to Show Broader Benefits

One of Rapid Reasoning’s clients, a large Silicon Valley tech company, began using human-centered design thinking two years ago.

Initially, they focused on traditional measurements of the cost savings created by more seamless digital content, systems, and infrastructure we helped them create for their engagement initiative. This measurement wasn’t directly attributable to the design thinking work alone, however, the user-centered processes we established clearly contributed to overall savings.

Once they could show the cost savings, the company was able to focus on how design thinking impacted other aspects of their work. Today, they focus less on reporting cost savings impacts and more on team efficiency and satisfaction. In the long term, these metrics are probably better indicators of how well the county provides services to residents. (This is especially pertinent as the county faces the prospect of a smaller workforce following a large trend of baby boomer retirements.)

Evolving Metrics that Work for Your Team

Software company Intuit is another example of an organization that’s embedded design thinking deeply throughout its culture and operations.

The 2015 study mentioned above (Köppen, Meinel, Rhinow, Schmiedgen, Spille, 2015) describes how the company evolved a story-based approach to evaluating its effectiveness. Intuit began with some of the metrics mentioned above but found that as design thinking regularly reframed challenges, the metrics also needed to be reframed. As a result, they now craft narratives that capture both qualitative and quantitative information into a broader evaluation of the business benefit.

Measuring the impact of design thinking is multi-faceted, however, it’s necessary to gain traction for the methods we practitioners see working Day-in and Day-out. The takeaway here is to start with an array of metrics that you know you can begin tracking immediately. Then tweak your measurement systems as your projects and processes evolve, always with the goal of proving long-term organizational value.

Want to learn more about how you can start measuring the impact of human-centered design? Or want to share what’s working in your company? Contact us at


Köppen E, Meinel C, Rhinow H, Schmiedgen J, Spille L (2015) Measuring the impact of design thinking. In: Plattner H, Meinel C, Leifer L (eds) Design thinking research. Springer, Switzerland, pp 157–170

Roth B, Royalty A (2016) Developing design thinking metrics as a driver of creative innovation. In: Plattner H, Meinel C, Leifer L (eds) Design thinking research. Springer, Switzerland, pp 171–183

Dow SP, Klemmer SR (2011) The efficacy of prototyping under time constraints. In: Design thinking. Springer, Heidelberg, pp 111–128

Dow SP, Glassco A, Kass J, Schwarz M, Schwartz DL, Klemmer SR (2010) Parallel prototyping leads to better design results, more divergence, and increased self-efficacy. ACM Trans Comput Hum Interact 17(4):18

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Habit Design: The Subtle Art of Micro-Habit



Did you know that the brain behaves like a room full of light bulbs flashing like fireworks; firing neurons with hundreds of conflicting impulses, lighting up the mind in a spectacle of intentions?

This shows that our desires are seemingly countless and competing for attention, and so are the thoughts that act as messengers for these desires. People rarely want to do one thing at a time in sequence. We want to do all the things at the same time. We simultaneously want to do ab crunches, learn French, check our Facebook messages, etc. All these independent neurons light up in the room of our mind, each one flashing to attract our attention to focus on them.

This happens all day, everyday, we passively look at the prettiest light and go to the next one. This is how most people live their lives. The room of our mind is always busy. We never have enough time to focus on one thing exclusively. What happens to us is our attention is constantly moving from one distraction to another, overpowering our ability to focus consistently.

Now is the time to refresh and relearn the art of focus through rapid reasoning.

The curse of the ‘big idea’

Imagine if 20 years ago you were the innovator who had the idea of starting up Uber, Google, and Tesla. You just invented three of the most transformational business ideas of the 21st century. If you had started any one of them, you know you could now be worth billions. However, if you were determined to do all three simultaneously you’d still be at the very beginning and have accomplished NOTHING.

It’s not enough to have excellent ideas. Lets face it! Lots of people have excellent ideas and yet fail to follow through, its better to be conservative. The problem is that too many big ideas cancel each other out. This is why a committee of intelligent people can create circular debates: leading to an impasse. The more lights calling for your attention the more dazzled and distracted you are.

How you can achieve the impossible

It is not improbable to achieve what some call the “impossible”; however, neither is it easy. All you have to do is imagine an ambitious goal for yourself. For example, you want to change the world through innovation, so people have the same framework for making decisions…sounds like an intelligent thing to do! Or, build a virtual bridge that spans the oceans to create access to silicon valley’s all over the world. That’s a great idea! Everywhere in the world is trying to copy Silicon Valley, why not just make the information and education easier?
If you absolutely had to do that – if your life and the lives of everybody you cared about depended upon it – how would you? How could you? You’d simply drop everything else. You’d become one giant light, projecting out in to a single path and you’d act immediately:

One point is the concentrated focus on a single goal is perhaps the ultimate success stratagem you need to understand. It’s a pattern found in everyone from Elon Musk to Alan Turing to Sir Richard Branson. When you’re able to focus on a single goal, with ruthless prioritization, your achievements reach as far as they really can possibly go.

Another thing is that most people aren’t failing because of their potential. They’re failing because their potential is spread in too thinly. However, a fact is that you can channel the flashing lights into a constant and achieve what you want regardless of what you dreamed to be.

How to channel the flashing lights

You will always want to accomplish more than you can achieve.
Nevertheless, focusing on too many ideas is the single quickest way to ensure failure. Furthermore, putting your all into a single direction is the quickest way to ensure success.
Therefore, use rapid reasoning, and try these:

1. Aim for a higher purpose: A higher purpose is paradoxically more likely to become part of your routine because they’re compelling enough to eclipse the smaller motivations. If your ambitions are fragile they’re easily overpowered.

2. Select three: Three is the magic number. Keep up to three lists
for different aspects of your life – for example ‘work’, ‘workout’ and ‘personal growth’. Each list only has a singular clear and concise objective. If you absolutely must have more, just know that each addition reduces the odds of at least 25%.

3. Reserve your time: Anything which isn’t an urgent priority now can be attended to later. Elon Musk realized with co-founders to start PayPal first before attempting to build something else. In his case a commercially viable electric car, Tesla. Your goals are the same, you’re just usually too attached to them in the moment to notice.

4. Beware of distractions: Be mindful and look out for other things that you also want e.g. become a great basketball player. They will feel familiar, easy, and automatic. However, they are silent and deadly. One new direction will reduce what you can accomplish by over 25%

5. Line up your lights:You may not be able to build the next Virgin Galactic, an electric sports car or design a new way of thinking at the same time. However, you may be able to concurrently become, an innovative and fit CEO. Success and fitness can be compatible goals: a healthier person can be a better leader. They’re like two lights, layered on top of each other, making the emanation stronger for it.


The few people who have achieved the most innovative, accomplished things with their lives didn’t do so by dividing their intentions. They aimed for a higher purpose, channeled their lights in line, and said no to all the other opportunities that life presented them. If you want the power to follow your dreams, you have to refuse all the alternatives. It’s not easy, but if that’s for you, at least you know the price. You must never forget forgoing one opportunity at the expense of others. It is not just the way of great innovators, it is a reliable way to be successful in whatever dream you have set out for your life.


Now we have demonstrated the power of rapid reasoning, there’s no upside in waiting any further, so it’s your time to act…now!