How To Use Design Thinking To Strengthen Your Business
You probably used to hear expressions like “You gotta spend money to make money” or “Build it and they will come”.
These are less common today, and have been replaced by “Fail fast and fail cheap” or “We’re pivoting”.
This change captures the relatively recent movement of “Design Thinking” – using observations, empathy and a rigorous process to create things people actually want, rather than making a guess and gambling a lot of money on its success.
Design thinking removes the gamble – we get to learn from interviews, observations, cheap prototypes and real world tests to check our guesses along the way.
The process is slower at first, but it helps us identify clever opportunities and solutions that aren’t immediately obvious.
The philosophy behind design thinking
Design thinking is built around a few core ideas:
Firstly, people are valuable, and this process requires you to have a desire to genuinely help them.
If you see people as widgets that can be squeezed for profit, design thinking may not be for you.
Secondly, good ideas survive competition, and you shouldn’t fall in love with your first idea.
As Richard Feynmann said:
“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is; if it doesn’t agree with experiments, it’s wrong”
Thirdly, there’s a time for having lots of ideas, and a time for cutting them back to a few winning ideas.
It’s good to brainstorm and think laterally, and it’s good to be minimalist in order to do a few things well – both attitudes can co-exist.
Fourthly, as Steve Blank said:
“There are no facts in the building, so get the hell out there and talk to customers”.
We aren’t doing this to people, but rather doing it with and for people.
The 4 D’s of Design Thinking
There are lots of different frameworks that describe the Design Thinking process.
The easiest one to remember is the four D’s - Discover, Define, Develop and Deliver.
Discover refers to the process of looking at a problem from a range of angles, in order to gain a thorough understanding of the issues.
e.g. all of the complex reasons why we have people sleeping on the street.
Define refers to the process of narrowing down to the specific problem we want to solve, since we only have enough energy to attack one issue at a time.
e.g. do we want to distribute tents, help people find accommodation, or change the way we treat people with mental health issues?
These each address a different part of the homelessness issue, and each of them leads to very different solutions.
Develop refers to the process of looking at a wide range of potential solutions, no matter how crazy or ambitious they seem at first.
e.g. 50 practical solutions for making it safer to sleep outside, or 50 ways that we can better support people with substance addictions.
Deliver refers to the process of creating cheap, tangible, testable versions of your solutions to see what customers/users think, thereby identifying ways it could be improved without spending much money.
e.g. creating cardboard prototypes of new shelters, or testing a menu of new programs to corporate sponsors to see which ones they would like to fund.
The Double Diamond model
These four steps are beautifully visualised in the Double Diamond model.
Here we see the four D’s shown as going wide when exploring the problem, then narrow in selecting a problem statement, going wide again during ideation, and finally narrowing in on a winning (and proven) idea.
We’ll look at each of the diamonds in more detail, focusing on the useful tools that make each step easier.
Diamond 1: Understanding and Observing
This diamond is all about the problem and the customer/user, and should not be influenced by the specific product you are tempted to make.
They say “When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail” - it’s dangerous to use your solution to “invent” a problem or a customer base.
Instead we want to understand real people, their hopes and frustrations, in all of their weirdness and irrationality.
People have odd and inconsistent preferences.
As David Ogilvy put it:
“People don’t think what they feel, don’t say what they think and don’t do what they say”.
For this reason, we want to listen to our customers, but not take everything at face value.
Designing a problem statement
Albert Einstein said “If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions”.
A well understood problem leads you to suitable solutions.
A poorly understood problem leads you to efficiently create the wrong thing, which gets you nowhere and wastes a lot of money.
For this reason, our aim is to create an insightful problem statement.
The Problem Tree
A problem tree is a good way of understanding the complexity of today’s issues, including their symptoms, effects and root causes.
It’s no use attacking the top of a tree, since it will continue to thrive as long as it has strong roots.
We want to study our tree in detail before picking a root to attack.
The trunk of the tree is way we describe the issue today, e.g.
“Children are not finishing school”
“Too many people use their phone while driving”
“People with disabilities feel excluded from local sports clubs”
“People aren’t making the most of modern sales software”
“We are filling landfills faster than ever”
These are all good summaries of the trunk of the tree – each of these is easy to understand and can be supported with evidence, but they’re not particularly interesting.
What’s interesting is their effects, which we can draw as branches.
Let’s pick four or five main branches that stem from the top of the trunk.
These are the immediate consequences of the problem.
For example, with the modern sales software problem, branches might include:
· Frustration for users
· Boring team meetings
· Missed sales opportunities
· Increased administrative errors
· Inefficient double handling of customer details
For landfills, this might include:
· Sustaining a culture of single-use items
· New landfills being created
· Increased greenhouse gases
· More pollution entering waterways
As you can see, these branches might seem similar to each other, but they lead to different consequences at the canopy stage.
Each branch sprouts four or five consequences, which we draw as the canopy of the tree.
For example, for the branch “Boring Team Meetings”, we might have:
· Wasted time
· Increased staff costs
· Lower morale
· Decreased innovation
· Missed sales targets
For the branch of “New landfills being created”, we might have:
· Compulsory land acquisitions
· Destruction of native land
· Disruption to wildlife
· Increased council rates (i.e. local taxes)
· Disruption to communities
The canopy lets us see the severity of the problem, by looking at the broad and consequential issues that ultimately stem from the trunk of the tree.
These might not be immediately obvious, but when studying the problem you begin to see the wider effects.
Once we’ve understood the severity and shape of the problem, we can dig into the root causes.
We want to identify four or five main roots of the problem.
Some might be due to legislation, cultural expectations, financial incentives, technological deficiencies or old ways of thinking.
For the issue of “People with disabilities feel excluded from local sports clubs” we might have roots like:
· Facilities are not accessible for people with a disability
· Sporting equipment is physically prohibitive
· No role models in the sport/at a local level
· Fear of embarrassment or ostracism
· Lack of opportunities to participate
For the issue of “Too many people use their phone while driving” we might have roots like:
· Legislation is not harsh enough
· People are unaware of the penalties
· People are unaware of the safety/consequences
· Phones are essential for some driving tasks
· Phones can be used even when travelling at high speeds
These present a diverse range of issues, but they still aren’t clear enough.
We need to dig deeper.
Like we did with the canopy, we want to identify four or five factors beneath each of these major roots.
For “Lack of opportunities to participate” we might have:
· Sporting clubs are unaware of people with disabilities in their area
· Sporting clubs don’t know how to create opportunities to participate
· Inclusive events seem difficult or expensive to run
· Inclusive events are poorly advertised and therefore invisible
· There is no pressure to change entrenched behaviours and habits
For “Phones are essential for some tasks” we might have:
· GPS features aren’t embedded into cars
· Car dashboards don’t include enough functionality
· Drivers don’t think to pull over when a message comes through
· Inbuilt stereos aren’t connected to music streaming services
· People are overly addicted to their phones
What’s interesting about these deeper roots is that they’re so diverse.
Some roots assume a technological issue, some assume malice, some assume ignorance.
It’s important to choose a root carefully, because attacking the wrong one can lead to frustration in the future.
e.g. don’t assume people are prejudiced against people with a disability if what they really need is more ideas for inclusive events.
Or don’t design a new car dashboard if what you really need is a cure for phone addiction.
The Five Whys
This technique (attributed to Socrates but best demonstrated by a nagging four-year-old) is when you ask the question “Why?” five times in a row.
This usually takes you to the root cause, or the phrase “Because it just is”, in which case you go up one level and there’s your root cause.
The Five Whys can help you dig into the underlying factors that sustain a problem, allowing you to see the previously invisible culprits that you can now attack.
Picking a root to focus on
Realistically you have the energy to attack one or two roots at a time, so it’s important to choose wisely.
Which one makes you angry?
Which one makes you curious?
Which one might be solvable within the next five years?
Which one might be solvable in one hundred years?
Who else is working on this problem?
Chances are, you’re not the only one who’s noticed this issue.
Important problems don’t need duplication, they need good people working in partnerships.
For this reason, it’s worth taking the time to see who else is working on this same problem, since they can save you a great deal of time, stress and money from their prior experience.
The need for Empathy
We talk a lot about “Empathy” in Design Thinking, since we want to genuinely solve problems for a person.
People are not widgets, and our intent is not to manipulate them for our own benefit.
Instead we want to understand how they think, then design products, services and systems that let them make decisions for their own good.
Nobody gets “forced” into anything, but we can either nudge them or use their existing attitudes to lead them in good directions.
We want to understand how people think, what they want and what they typically do.
There are three types of people to consider…
Customers, End Users and Beneficiaries
A Customer is a person who makes a purchase decision.
An End User is a person who engages with our products and services.
A Beneficiary is a person who benefits from the results of our products and services.
Perhaps these are all the same person, perhaps they are three different people.
It’s your job to understand all three.
In particular, who are they, where are they, what are they doing and what are they hoping for?
Demographics and Psychographics
A useful way of describing each of these people is with Demographics (age, height, postcode, hair colour, income) and Psychographics (attitudes, worldviews, beliefs).
Which of these best describes the defining features of your customers, end users and beneficiaries?
Do they need to be a certain age or in a certain geography?
Or are they better describes by what they believe and what they value?
Walking in your customers’ shoes
We want to develop a deep understanding of our customer, proverbially walking a few miles in their shoes.
We want to understand how they spend their time, what challenges they face, what makes them happy, who influences them, and what they are hoping for in the future.
These insights can be captured in an Empathy Map or Customer Canvas.
Empathy Maps help us map out what a customer thinks and feels, sees, feels, says and does.
This helps us understand the pains that annoy them, and the gains that inspire them.
Of course, without firsthand data, these are just guesses…
Running customer interviews
To update these initial guesses, it’s helpful to conduct customer interviews.
Unlike a market test (which comes later), we are looking purely for insight into this person, not trying to sell them a solution.
Good customer interviews come from good questions, ones that are open ended and don’t come from a place of judgement.
These interviews give you fresh insights into how people work, what they prioritise and what sort of terminology they use.
These help to understand the “good reasons” behind their choices (which sound noble and reasonable) as well as the “real reasons” (which are the ones that actually lead to action).
We can also begin to distinguish between their needs and their wants – both are powerful drivers of decisions, but we don’t want to get them confused.
For example, many people have strong opinions about what colour car they hope to drive, despite the fact that this has very little practical purpose.
When pushed, they may accept a technically inferior car if it comes in their desired colour, although they may not admit this at first.
In fact, they may not be aware of their own priorities.
What does your customer consider essential?
What might not be essential but drives their behaviours?
Jobs To Be Done
Good customer interviews help us to understand our customer’s “Jobs To Be Done”, the types of task that occupy their minds each day.
Some of these jobs are functional (I need size 12, I need steel capped boots for work).
Some of these jobs are social (I need to look professional, I want to look desirable).
Some of these jobs are emotional (I want my dream boots, I want a brand I love).
These Jobs To Be Done lead to a series of Pains and Gains as we discussed earlier, which are the ways we frame our needs.
Pains for shoes might include:
· My feet are unusually wide or large and I can’t find my size in shops
· I want vegan leather, which is uncommon
· I won’t buy them until I try them
· My current heels give me blisters
· There are no nice shoes that meet my uniform requirements
Gains for shoes might include:
· I love Nike and their aesthetic
· If I have comfortable shoes, I’ll walk more
· I want to look taller
· I want to accentuate my best features
· I want to dress more professionally
These insights can be captured on a Customer Canvas, which is the first half of the Value Proposition Canvas.
It’s worth filling in one for each type of customer, since several types of customer might buy the same product for completely different reasons.
Now we have a clearer understanding of our problem and our customer.
We’ve looked widely at the world today, and understood why things are the way they are.
Most importantly, we are testing our assumptions – evidence beats guesses.
This gives us a firm foundation to build on, we know who our customers are and we know which allies might become valuable partners in the future.
We can now start brainstorming a wide range of solutions, which will benefit our customer and address the root cause of our target problem.
Diamond 2: Designing and Testing
This diamond is all about creating a range of solutions, then testing them in an objective way to determine which ideas are strongest.
In previous generations we would create a solution based on guesses and guts feelings, write a business plan and risk lots of money, then push products and services onto the market in the hopes that people like it.
As you can imagine, this approach is terribly flawed for a few reasons.
1. Your first guess may not be the best solution
2. Good ideas are validated by experiments
3. It’s better to create several iterations of an idea before locking in a business plan
4. Validated ideas are easier to take to investors, and often require less capital.
Good ideas survive competition, so we want to create lots of ideas and let the strongest rise to the top.
Solving problems for a person
In order to have good ideas, we need to keep our customer at the front of our minds.
We’re solving a problem for a real person, because these happy customers will be the basis of our future business/movement.
This is sometimes called “Customer Centricity”, and while it has become a little cliché, it’s better than the usual approach of “Company Profit Centricity” that leads to bad ideas and wasted efforts.
Thinking widely about solutions
There are lots of ways to solve problems.
A bridge, tunnel and ferry can all serve the same purpose (getting people across a body of water).
People might tell you that they need to cross the water, but perhaps the deeper reason is what was on offer on the other side – perhaps their workplace, a shopping centre, a social gathering point.
With this logic, solutions like drones, WiFi or 3D printing may eliminate the need to cross that body of water altogether, and each of these might be cheaper and easier than building expensive infrastructure.
Can you find solutions that don’t just solve problems, but rather make problems obsolete?
Brainstorming 50 ideas
A useful approach to this task is to try and brainstorm 50 solutions – quantity over quality.
The obvious solutions come out first, but the deeper you dig, the more likely you are to strike gold.
It’s often easier to create a list of 20 solutions, then do three more bursts of 10 ideas spread out over time.
50 in one hit is tough, but 50 in 24-48 hours is very do-able.
Post-its are a useful way of capturing these ideas, because you can move them around and form clusters of similar themes.
This is a great time for “Can If” thinking
e.g. we can if we partner with a…
We can if we think of it as…
We can if we can develop a…
We can if we substitute… for…
A list of 50 bad ideas can be quickly reduced to a Top 5 list, which are usually pretty good when viewed as a set.
We may choose to combine elements of these five ideas in the future, but first we need to understand how they work in the real world.
Prototyping a solution
Our aim is to create a simple, immediately testable version of the idea in order to see how it works and how people respond to it.
The ideas strengths and deficiencies rise to the surface, allowing us to make adjustments or be reassured that the concept has serious merit – both of these insights are extremely valuable.
There are a few ways of prototyping each idea…
A storyboard is a visual description of how a customer and end user first encounter the product or service, how they behave with it, how it affects them and how they become better/happier in the future.
This might take the form or 6-10 square boxes, each containing a sketch and a caption that explains part of the story.
Storyboarding forces us to think through the finer details of the experience, and identify how/why someone would engage with our idea.
Perhaps there are parts of the journey that we can’t quite articulate; this is a great opportunity to get feedback from our advisors/customers on what they would like to have in the future.
Perhaps there are some glaring issues/weaknesses/assumptions; this is a great opportunity to redesign parts of the idea to make them stronger/more effective/more enticing.
We can develop a more nuanced understanding of our users without investing lots of money into building a new widget.
By learning about people’s hopes, preferences and expectations, we can refine our idea without the expensive steps of updating the product or manufacturing process.
It’s important that we don’t invent the perfect customer, but rather pick real people and design something that’s perfect for them.
While our dream customers look great on paper, it’s easier to choose an imperfect and irrational customer and create something that they’ll love.
This process might identify 2-4 main personas rather than one generic user.
This is a great insight, since it allows us to create tailored versions of the idea to test with each type of user, gaining better feedback and increasing the chances of success.
A paper prototype is an inexpensive version of a product or service that is just real enough to gather useful feedback from users.
For example, an app can be “tested” by a series of cards inside a fake phone, allowing users to “press” buttons and “swipe” the paper, so that we can understand how they intuitively try to navigate the app.
We can identify how people like to engage with the prototype, what they look for, how they hold it, where they become confused and what makes them disengage.
You’ll be surprised at how many things feel intuitive and obvious to you, but which go way over the customer’s heads.
Paper prototypes also allow you to create rapid iterations of the idea (e.g. different layouts, different buttons, different shapes), to see which options customers subconsciously select.
The beauty of a one-page website with a contact form is that looks so legitimate.
They are quick to make, easy to advertise, and allow you to present a professional front to users to see how they engage with your idea.
Are they willing to give you their email address?
Do they click on a “Buy Now” button?
You don’t have to actually take their money or misrepresent your intentions, but you get to see people opt in, showing their enthusiasm for your concept.
Rules for prototyping
A prototype is not supposed to be beautiful, it is supposed to be real enough that it’s taken seriously by the user.
Too rough and people change their natural behaviour, too polished and people focus on/appreciate the wrong elements of the idea.
The purpose of the prototype is to learn.
If people love it, then we can learn something valuable about their price sensitivity, dealbreakers and the words they use to describe what they like about it.
If people hate it or are indifferent, we can learn something about what might be missing, what might be confusing or where people are losing interest.
Either way, the prototype did its job since we learned something valuable.
The Strategyzer Test Card is my favourite tool for designing prototypes and experiments that lead to good learnings.
Put another way – experiments without deliberate forethought are often a waste.
There are four boxes to fill in:
We believe that…
To verify that, we will…
We are right if…
The great thing about these statements is that they start with a crucial assumption you hold today, then let you set up a test that proves this assumption to yourself.
You don’t have to prove it to me, just prove it to yourself before you invest further.
Verification and measurement force you to create an experiment that is objective, not up to interpretation, and the pass/fail criteria at the end prevents you from “shooting the arrow and painting the target around it”.
Actually going out and testing your ideas
Now the confronting bit – you need to test your ideas in the real world, with customers and users.
This will help you identify the ideas with the most potential, ones which are impactful and desirable to your customers/user.
Again, the aim is not to “win” the customer but to learn if this idea has genuine merit.
A false positive is very expensive in the long run.
Learning from tests
These tests should reveal which concepts have the greatest potential, which concepts need to be tweaked and adjusted, and which should be discontinued.
Ideas with the greatest potential should move to the Business Model Canvas, a one page tool that shows how this new idea can become a sustainable business in the future.
Ideas that need to be tweaked can go back to the storyboarding stage, Empathy map or Value Proposition Canvas stage in order to understand how the idea might become more compelling.
Ideas that should be discontinued should be celebrated as they move to the car park – you can still glean great insight from these experiments, and acknowledge that exploring them was absolutely the right thing to have done at the time.
This takes us to the end of the Double Diamond model.
We’ve discovered the problem, defined our goal, developed a range of solutions, and delivered them to a customer.
The process is not neat, nor is it linear, but it is certainly effective.
You end up with lots of valuable insights, without making expensive commitments or investments.
Good ideas survive competition, and this process has allowed some creative opportunities to emerge.
I highly recommend this approach for any new project you work on in the future, be it a side project, a new venture or a concept within a larger company/government department.
Don’t be afraid of messiness, be afraid of building something shiny and useless.
For more resources like this one, you might enjoy my eBooks Building A Strong Business Modelsand Creating Compelling Value Propositions.
You may also enjoy books like Design A Better Business, The Design Thinking Playbook, or Value Proposition Design.
You can also learn about pioneers like Stanford d.school or IDEO, who are constantly producing great tools and resources on these topics.