We’ve all heard about ‘design thinking’ in one way or the other. To many, it’s just common sense, just a hyped word to the business and design industry to others and a mysterious concept for most of them. On Google, there are various definitions of ‘Design-thinking’ depending on the application and usage. 

For us, in its simplest form, Design Thinking is an iterative human-centered process—applicable to all walks of life—of creating new and innovative ideas and solving problems.

A lot of people tend to connect design thinking to specific digital industries like software and product development, banking, retail but also the Sports industry is evolving in that direction.

In 2015 IBM has announced the first global consortium and consulting practice aimed at modernizing venues and the sports experience of the future. “There are no timeouts in the business of sports. As fans, we want 24/7 access to news about our favorite teams and athletes, no matter how or where we’re viewing the content. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a game day or not. In season, or out of season. At the game, or watching on HD TV from home. As consumers, we expect to receive the same level of personalization from our favorite team as we get from our favorite retailers, airlines or coffee houses.” IBM 

While times, technologies and fans have changed, most sports organizations haven’t. So how do we bring sports enterprises to embrace technology, deliver personalized experiences and foster cultural change?

When it comes to sports programs, design thinking is about acknowledging that sport is social in its nature. In other words, the design of the experience must be focused on the needs of the different participants and as such design thinking allows for relevant solutions to bubble up from below rather than being forced from the top.

Like this, we take into account a broad range of diversity in our society such as age, gender, race, culture, language, socioeconomic background, ability and other types of difference. The focus is on providing equal opportunity to every sports participant. All participants, regardless of difference, have the right to access Sports programs, spaces and facilities without facing unnecessary obstacles.

This approach pushes all sports organizations, marketing managers and fan-services people to change their role and turn into ‘experience architects’ in order to reimagine together every aspect of each phase of the fan-engagement.

How do we use design thinking to engage with fans?

In his 1969 seminal text on design methods, “The Sciences of the Artificial,” Nobel Prize laureate Herbert Simon outlined one of the first formal models of the Design Thinking process. Simon’s model consists of seven major stages, each with component steps and activities, and was largely influential in shaping some of the most widely used Design Thinking process models today. There are many variants of the Design Thinking process in use today, and while they may have different numbers of stages ranging from three to seven, they are all based upon the same principles featured in Simon’s 1969 model.

Here we will focus on the five-stage model created by IDEO, International Design and Consulting Firm. 


Also known as the ’empathy’ stage, this is when we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and start to investigate what’s the perception of real customers. This is where sports organizations can begin to reimagine their strategy and embark on a journey where they engage to their real customers to improve their products and services. Empathy allows us to set aside our own assumptions in order to gain insight into users and their needs about their sports experience. We can approach this phase using different qualitative and quantitative research methods like analytics, feedbacks from focus groups, user interviews, observing participants during their journey etc.


Also known as the ‘define’ stage, is when we put together the information we have created and gathered during the discovery stage. Mapping the different phases of the experience, you can easily identify pain points, analyze the observations and synthesize them in order to define the core problems and prioritize them based on users and business needs. In the Interpretation stage you will start to progress to the third stage, Ideation, by asking questions which can help you look for ideas for solutions by asking things like: 

  • How do we make the ticket purchase easy on mobile devices?
  • How do we engage with our customers before the game?
  • How do we make digital platforms accessible to visually impaired people?
  • How do we push different contents on different platforms?
  • How do we measure the experience?


Also known as the ‘idea generation’ stage, this is when all the minds come together to create magic. You’ve grown your general understanding of your users and their needs in the Discovery stage, and you’ve analyzed and synthesized your observations in the interpretation stage, and ended up with a human-centered problem statement. With this solid background, we can start to ‘think outside the box’ to identify new solutions to the problem statement you’ve created, and you can start to look for alternative ways of viewing the problem. You can use different techniques like Brainstorm and Worst Possible Idea sessions which are typically used to stimulate free thinking and to expand the problem space.


this is also known as the ‘prototyping’ stage where we start to visualize solutions. According to IDEO, ‘a prototype is worth a thousand meetings’, and the most meaningful prototypes allow people to interact with them. Fail quickly and learn quickly, that’s the goal of prototyping. For example, sports organizations could consider using wireframes before doing any significant webpage and email template design, as these allow for fast and easy layout alterations, without having to spend money on the full design.

Evolution:  Test, test, test.

This is the final stage of the 5 stage-model, but in an iterative process, the results generated during the testing phase are often used to redefine one or more problems and inform the understanding of the users, the conditions of use, how people think, behave, and feel, and to empathize. Even during this phase, alterations and refinements are made in order to rule out problem solutions and derive as deep an understanding of the product and its users as possible.

Using this holistic approach, national and international sports enterprises can align themselves with other innovative industries and really make the difference in engaging with their audiences during all the phases of a sports event: pre, during and after the match. Using design thinking and technology together the sports industry can elevate itself and disrupt innovation in every aspect of the business.

Author: Erika Lauro