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design thinking

Why Accountants Should be Using Design Thinking


Innovation is more crucial than ever if you want to stay competitive in this fast-changing world. Unfortunately, that statement isn't usually followed by an explanation of how accountants can innovate.

30th Jun 2022
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Accountants are often being told to “innovate” these days. Many of the articles I’ve worked on recently with writers are all focused on helping professionals stay competitive, especially after two years that really made it clear an advanced tech stack is a necessity to business success these days. But, most of what people are saying doesn’t explain HOW innovation works – in other words, what the process, the workflow, looks like. As AccountingWEB takes the next step with our readers into the future, I started looking for explanations I could pass along to you about how to innovate successfully.

Interestingly, I found one possible answer in the business space. At his “Innovation Lab: How to Prototype Your Firm’s Future” session at AICPA Engage earlier this month, Matt Rampe talked about design thinking. Essentially, this is a cognitive strategy that helps professionals improve a product – in the case of the accountant, the service offering – so the client or customer has a better experience and so you increase your profits. A quick internet search showed me it’s got three to five steps, depending on who you ask, and they’re mostly pretty simple.

But before that, a quick dive into some background information: as Matt noted, design thinking is a concept that was developed at Stanford University during the 1950s and has been refined over the years. It’s used by some of the most successful, big-name companies in the world, including Bank of America, Nike, Starbucks and Nordstrom. Wow, right?

I’ll admit, I was rather skeptical of design thinking when Matt first mentioned it and revealed it was the focus of his session. How well could a strategy used by companies that sell shoes and coffee really apply to the needs of accounting and finance professionals, who offer a different form of product? I wondered. As it turns out, it works just fine for accountants.

Matt talked about four steps, so that’s what we’ll go with here:

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideas
  4. Prototype


By “empathize,” Matt, said, he means to think about the person you’re designing the product or service for. Sure, you might think a “financial advisory services package” would obviously appeal to specific clients and be used in a couple of specific ways, but actually, your clients may have very different uses in mind. Matt recalled a previous experience watching the “empathize” step as it played out at a cleaning company. Before selling anything, they’d set up a fake bathroom and have real customers use their products to clean it. They found people had all kinds of different ways of going about this process. The lessons? Don’t assume you already know, and don’t assume something is just obvious. While you don’t need to build a set of an office, you can ask clients you know really well and have a great relationship with to offer you feedback so you understand what your end user might want. You can even go and observe them at work, if that’s possible (which it might be, especially with business clients, so ask).


This step is pretty interchangeable with the previous one, and it’s easy to see why. You might find you need to figure out who the end user will be and which of their problems you’d like to solve first, before you start thinking about things from their perspective. Matt offered an example to help accountants translate this step to their own field: Let’s say you’ve decided to offer a new consulting service. Ask yourself things like, how might we define who will benefit? If you have a niche, how do you help your clients improve their operational performance?


Matt had one important point that bore repeating when he got to the stage where you (and your team, if you have one) come up with ideas for the offering you’re working on: When you start, no idea should be too “out there.” Just churn them out; grabbing a board and sticking post-its on it or using a Jamboard from Google are two great ways to just write down ideas without much distraction and to put them somewhere and look at them all together later. Let’s say you’re working to help a small business client deal with tech overload. How could you be of assistance? What new product could you offer to solve this issue for them? Write down 100 ideas. Go broad first, and refine it later.


With this step, you’ll start simple: Come up with something – a document, a slideshow, even a picture – that represents the solution you think might work for the user. Then, show it to them and get feedback. Make sure you get enough detail as you work so you can learn about exactly what the finished product should look like. From there, you’ll go on to design your final product and roll it out.

As you’ve likely read on AccountingWEB, accounting and finance professionals are facing down lots of challenges these days: hiring and retaining employees, working on their digital transformation, learning about new software, figure out what new products and services to offer to stay competitive. Design thinking isn’t the only strategy out there for dealing with some of these, but it’s encouraging to know that there are specific workflows accountants can follow to improve their products.

Innovation is a top-of-mind subject for businesses all over the world, including, of course, accounting and finance practices. So stay tuned -- you'll be seeing a lot more on this topic on AccountingWEB.

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