Every year, established companies and budding entrepreneurs release products and/or services that flop for one simple reason — they forget to include their customers/users in the design process. They, quite often, build for themselves, inserting their own biases and preferences into the product/service when the end user is someone with very different needs. That’s the traditional approach to problem solving — pinpoint a problem, and define the steps and tools needed to reach a solution, primarily from your own point of view. The end result is usually a waste of resources — time, effort, and money.
Enter — Design Thinking
Design Thinking is a creative and iterative approach to problem solving that places humans at the center. Design thinking will allow you to solve problems in a way that addresses the root of a problem. Design thinking is not a linear process so you can jump forward and backward as needed. There are five steps in the design thinking process — Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. In this post, I’ll breakdown the process and guide you through it.
The foundation of Design Thinking is empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s point of view. It’s like being able to wear another person’s shoes. It is important to help you understand your customers on a very personal level — their beliefs, values, and needs. In order to emphasize with your customers, you need to observe and interact with them. Building empathy with your customers starts with having a great conversation with them (I don’t like to use the word interview since no one likes to be interviewed).
Conversations with customers or potential customers will help you discover the problems that they face and it will often lead you to insights that you would never know unless you had these conversations. Always dig deeper if something sticks out from your conversations. And always ask “why.” Capture all of your customers’ needs and any insights you gain from your conversations.
The Define step of Design Thinking allows you to make sense of all the empathy conversations you had earlier. Clearly defining a problem statement allows you to address the opportunity from a point of shared understanding. It’s concise, but it’s not definite. It will most likely (but not always) change as you continue to empathize with your customers. The Define step is about establishing a point of view. After your empathy conversations, craft a clear problem statement using this as a guide:
The Ideate step of Design Thinking is where you can really sink your creativity in. Imagine meeting your users’ needs without factoring in costs or whether or not something is actually feasible. The idea is to paint as many “pictures” as you can without worrying too much about the logistics. Use the image below to help you sketch out three to five radical ways to meet the needs of your users.
The ideate process is about brainstorming. It’s about opening yourself to the possibilities. It is not about crafting the perfect solution, instead try to imagine as many solutions as possible. This section is done best with the help of other minds — creativity is collaborative.
The Prototype step of the Design Thinking process is about building your solution. First, choose the best (or maybe your favorite) idea from the Ideate step and put that idea to the test. Keep in mind it doesn’t have to a great prototype. The prototype doesn’t even have to be a real product at this point. It could be concept drawings, blueprints, storyboards, or a digital product. The Prototype step will give you another opportunity to find new insights and help you establish the root of your problem. You may realize the technical feasibility of your idea isn’t realistic. That’s okay. Revisit the ideate step, choose another idea and try prototyping again. If a new or deeper problem is discovered, revisit the define step and continue again from there.
The Test step of Design Thinking is about testing your prototype with your customers. It’s best if you have something that your customer can look at or experience. This step will help you refine your prototype or it may force you to revisit one of the other four steps. You may end up having to start from zero if you find that you did not define your solution or if you didn’t really understand and empathize with your customers. Or you might just have to tweak your prototype and retest. It’s always important to capture feedback and allow the customer to guide the conversation. Don’t ask specific questions, just observe how they interact with your prototype and jot down any observations or insights, and any comments, questions, and/or suggestions that the customer has.
Trust the Process
The entire Design Thinking process can be repeated as many times as necessary. It is not a linear process so you can jump to different steps. The process is free flowing and you can adapt it to your unique situation, industry, or customer base. It’s also important to note that just because you eventually create a product that works (and sells) doesn’t mean that it can’t be improved. The number of competitors in your industry is always increasing. With so many choices, customers will choose the better product. The market always wins. And so, your job as an entrepreneur/product manager is to continually revisit the design thinking process to ask how your product can be improved.