Designers at McKinsey—vive la différence!

Our acquisition of product and industrial-design firm LUNAR captured attention. What's less well known is that we have been quietly assembling an impressive corps of design talent. LUNAR aside, more than 50 McKinsey experience and digital designers are now working with clients in multidisciplinary consulting teams. Design studios are up and running in Berlin, London, New York, San Francisco, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney, and Tokyo.

Why introduce experience design to the consulting mix? "The rise of digital and mobile is a big part of the answer," says Hugo Sarrazin, a Silicon Valley–based director and leader of Digital Labs. "Every company has opportunities to reimagine how it interacts with customers, suppliers, and employees. It is now often the source of new competitive differentiation or the trigger to build a new disruptive business model. Design thinking and rapid prototyping can be paired with our industry and functional expertise to form a pretty potent combination."

As Hugo concedes, however, getting designers and consultants to work together effectively isn't always easy at first. Design thinking is very different from the analytic style in which most consultants are trained. The trick is to focus not on what separates them but on what they share. Both use iterative problem solving approaches. Both are focused on client impact.

"Designers aren't people who simply create wire frames or apply colors; they are problem solvers and strategic thinkers who lead with people," says Jennifer Kilian, a digital VP based in New York who honed her skills at companies including Apple, Facebook, Frog Design, IBM, and Intuit.

Not unlike our typical engagement, the archetypal design process starts with immersion, using a variety of research techniques—such as interviews, field research, and ethnography—to develop a deep understanding of customers.

However, it is done to build true empathy for customer needs, pain points, and aspirations. Jared Braiterman, a Tokyo-based design VP and Stanford PhD anthropologist, puts it this way: "Design is essentially about people, no matter the product, service, or business."

Next in the design process comes ideation: looking at adjacent situations, combining ideas, and using lateral thinking to address the pain points and identify possible solutions. The ideas that emerge are often diverse, so they need to be grouped and presented in some kind of framework, without which structured discussion is difficult.

The last step is iteration, the process of testing and learning that refines prototypes into products and services that are ingenious and beautiful—while also being delightful (in the sense of fulfilling an unmet need) and incorporating signature moments (recognizable elements of the experience that a company can own). This last step is critical, rather than to seek a singular answer we create a process that maximizes learning with our clients.

Empathy? Beauty? Signature moments? These elements may seem foreign to anyone with a strong left-brained orientation. Then again, the emphasis on customer insight, problem solving, logical framing, and above all getting to an answer that works is something every McKinsey consultant can embrace.

"We're not trying to turn McKinsey into a design-centered institution," says Hyo Yeon, a digital partner with Digital Labs whose pre-McKinsey career included senior roles at design agencies including Fjord and Razorfish. "But we've found that by incorporating design thinking into how we serve clients we can significantly increase our collective impact as a team."

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