For better than a decade, managers have been taught that focusing on the customer provides a sure path to success. Initiatives such as “voice of the customer” and tools such as “net promoter score” have helped us to better manage these all-important relationships. But what do you do when you hit a plateau, chasing ever smaller niches with ever expanding offerings that yield less and less?

Increasingly, companies that excel at serving customers are turning to unique approaches to find value propositions that continue to move the needle. Intuit, a leader in the development of personal and small-business software, is one such company. It is at the forefront of using design thinking to inspire innovation that delights customers.

Since Intuit’s inception, founder Scott Cook emphasized creating products that were easy for customers to use. Despite this, the company began to observe a narrowing gap between competitors’ product performance and their own offerings. Sensing an opportunity, former chief executive Steve Bennett pulled together a small team of several senior operating managers, their chief strategy officer, and Kaaren Hanson, Intuit’s design innovation head, to address the question of what was next. What lay beyond ease?

The team’s answer was delight, and they identified design thinking as an important strategy for getting there. Design thinking’s ability to uncover customers’ unarticulated needs and its processes for testing potential success with small inexpensive experiments provided the framework they needed. The team ultimately focused on three core design principles: “customer empathy,” “go broad before narrow” and “rapid experimentation.”

Kim McNealy, the former director of marketing for Intuit’s consumer group, explained how TurboTax, Intuit’s premier tax product, served as a practical test case for the three design principles. Kim and his team prepared for a 15-week tax season blitz by using customer ethnography to gain deep customer insights, and then used these findings to develop personas and segments. They then went broad, generating as many potential solutions for addressing customer pain points as possible. As tax season neared, they translated the most-promising ideas into hypotheses — “recipes,” as McNealy called them. Come tax time, recipes went “live,” and the Intuit team moved into rapid experimentation, siphoning off a percentage of traffic to different recipes. On a weekly basis, they prepared the latest recipes, launched tests and studied the results. Winning recipes became controls for the following week. They repeated the cycle all 15 weeks of tax season, and emerged with customer-proven data.

Hanson’s team then went to work to engage an even larger cohort of Intuit’s employees in its new principles. They provided training in empathy tools to help those seeking deep customer understanding. They created a “starter kit”: a card that told learners what they needed to do to use the tool, an estimate of how long it might take, a template for doing so and a video showing others mapping empathy. The company arranged for employees to easily gain access to customers. Another key area of focus was to develop mastery of the third principle, rapid experimentation. Trained Innovation Catalysts, skilled in applying the three principles, made themselves available throughout Intuit, coaching others to integrate these tools into their daily work habits.

We believe the Intuit story has powerful lessons for those looking to escape the customer focus plateau. Moving from ease of use to delight required equipping employees throughout the organization with a new path called design thinking. Intuit set people up to succeed; putting infrastructure in place to enable and embed the new competencies by using the left brain to unleash the right brain.

Liedtka is professor of business education and King, senior researcher, at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. Liedtka will co-teach the Darden Executive Education course “Design Thinking: Solving Business Problems With Innovation” 17-20 June 2014.