Discovery: Engage Customers with Authentic Curiosity

This is the second post in our Design Thinking series. Start with our overview post to get the big picture. 

Discovery is the foundation of the design thinking process. Upending reliance on “common knowledge,” this phase involves intentionally slowing down to gather new information by empathically observing and immersively engaging with customers, front-line employees, and leadership.

When we work alongside clients to teach their teams about effective innovation, we emphasize three core principles of Design Thinking during the Discovery phase:

  • Curiosity, which is rooted in pushing beyond the customer’s initial response by asking, “why?” four or five times and uncovering the thought processes and values behind each answer.  When in doubt, “tell me more,” keeps the conversation moving and hones in on valuable Insights.
  • Empathy arises from genuine curiosity and provides a window into the customer’s experience. We build a mental map of their routines, needs, and challenges; we understand their frustrations and joys. Thus, empathy gives us a glimpse of opportunities to better serve the customer, to maintain our market position against new entrants, and to open a new front against our competitors.
  • Nonverbal cues are more informative than verbal responses. Mirroring these actions conveys empathy and creates space for the interviewee to revisit and question his or her assumptions. 

Sometimes the observations made during Discovery yield immediate inspiration for the business opportunity at hand. Other times, the Discovery process helps us create a broader map for thinking holistically about customers’ needs and how to profitably meet those needs.

So, how could Toyota utilize their existing dealer network to guide the human experience of transitioning from owning cars to buying mobility?

The goal of Discovery is to gather diverse perspectives related to the problem at hand through desk research, surveys, one-on-one interviews, and group conversations. Toyota would prepare by working with elected officials, policy-makers, and car dealerships, then expand to community residents (anyone at the local coffee shop will do!), gas station owners, service stations, and electricity/power companies.

One of many deceptively simple Discovery questions is, “if you had a magic wand, what would you change about our product (or service)?”

Get creative when thinking about who to interview. The more diverse your Discovery, the more likely you are to avoid confirmation bias. For example, Toyota may find it interesting to speak to Jaime Ortiz Mariño about his experience growing the Ciclovía movement in Bogotá, Colombia, a weekly Sunday ride during which more than 70 miles of city streets are taken from drivers and given back to bicyclists, walkers, runners, roller skaters, and skateboarders.

Whatever the outcome of your Discovery work, this first phase of the design thinking process will reorient your focus towards addressing your client’s most urgent needs.


At The Berkeley Innovation Group, we are co-creators, working shoulder-to-shoulder with your team on immersive design thinking projects to solve core business challenges. Moreover, individuals on your team are empowered with enhanced skills and a common language to continue using design thinking methodologies to unlock innovation and value for the long run.

Want to work together? Contact us using the form below.