Design Thinking Theory: a roller-coaster ride

‘Design a new competitive and sustaining value proposition for Vekoma Rides Roller coaster Manufacturer’. The MaastrichtMBA students (following the module Sustaining Competitive Advantage) work on this challenging assignment during the educational week in Maastricht. They do so using the principles of Design Thinking Theory, for which they are taught the steps and associated tools step by step during the week. “The sessions were dynamic with excellent time management”, says student Laura Galante.


The educational week kicks off with an interesting lecture by Carmen Vonken on the first step in Design Theory: Customer Empathy. Carmen is senior project leader, innovation coach & trainer at the Service Science Factory (part of UMIO). She explains: “The Design Thinking method takes the customer as the starting point of the innovation and design process. Design Thinking is a mind-set, a process and a toolkit that stimulates to find, test and validate new ideas leading to better products and services.”


Before Carmen goes on to explain Design Thinking, she briefly explains the concept of innovation. Most innovations (core innovations) are about optimising existing products for existing customers. The most far-reaching innovation is transformational innovation and is about inventing completely new products or services for markets that do not yet exist. An intermediate form is adjacent innovation in which the company expands from the existing business into ‘new to the company’ business. The companies with the best innovation track records have a clear innovation ambition, have the right tools and capabilities and know how to find the balance between the three forms of innovation. The reality is that much innovation does not get off the ground because ‘the shit of yesterday is holding us back’.

Customer empathy

The first step in the Design Thinking process is ‘Customer Empathy’ or: getting to know the customer through and through. “This goes far beyond doing a market survey,” Carmen cautions. “It’s about getting to the core of customer needs. What roles does your product or service play in the customer’s work and life? Is it about fulfilling emotional, social or functional needs? What are your customers’ pains and gains?


To illustrate, students are given the task of designing a toothbrush for children in a few minutes. The ideas are creative and have in common that they assume smaller dimensions suitable for small children’s hands. Wrong! By simply observing children brushing their teeth, Oral B discovered that the brush handle should in fact be thicker because children still lack fine motor skills and hold their toothbrush differently than adults. This insight earned Oral B the best-selling toothbrush for 18 months.” “Moral of this story: it’s all about discovering the “why”. It’s not (just) about what we see, but what we need to understand about the customer; behaviours, opinions, needs, values, personality,” Carmen said.



Value proposition canvas

The Value Proposition Canvas is a useful tool allowing you to map (latent) needs and the way your product/service meets those needs. The value proposition also shows where things are not going well and how your organisation can improve. It helps segment customers based on demographic, geographic, psychographic (aspirations, needs, values) factors and behavioral characteristics. These characteristics, in turn, form the basis for personas that helps the organisation think human-centric and better understand the customer.”


MBA student Laura Galante (42), of Italian origin and living in Belgium, decided to start her own company after working 15 years in the staffing and consultancy industry. “The different steps of the Design Thinking method help me to further build up the services of my company. After the educational week I feel comfortable to think about new services following the Design Thinking Theory. I also appreciated working on the Vekoma case. People from Vekoma were available and helpful. It made the experience interesting and insightful. The first meeting made us deep dive in the rollercoaster industry which, at the end has the same business struggles than other industries.” All in all, it was an eventful week in which many valuable insights were gathered.



This article displays the student insights and experiences of the core module our On-Campus MBA on the topic of Sustaining Competitive Advantage. Our On-Campus track has an on campus learning format and is part of the executive modular part-time MaastrichtMBA programme. The programe has a Triple Crown accreditation and is aimed for professionals with at least 5 years of working experience.

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