Dairy cows, fur balls & Design Thinking for Startups

by Damian Cranney

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Like many tools we knowledge workers use, Design Thinking isn't new but it seems that it's used more widely today than ever before. So what is it exactly?

Design Thinking is understood by many as a formal innovation process used by organisations such as P&G, Mayo Clinic, IBM and countless others. Whilst its origins stem from the worlds of engineering and product development, its processes have been adopted by professionals working in various worlds such as R&D, advertising, technology and even screen-writing.

If there's a problem with Design Thinking, it's that it works for early stage 'thinky' problems — new product development, opportunity mapping, creative problem solving, that sort of thing. But it falls short if your goal is to design, build and commercialise new products and services. Part of the problem is that Design Thinking gets lumped into (and confused with) a genre of modern business tools like Human Centered Design, Lean Startup, Agile UX, Service Design and the 'Design Sprint' made popular by Google Ventures. So let's break it down, examine how Design Thinking relates to innovation and how to practice it if you're a startup creating the next great disruptive product that users will love.

“Innovation is no longer just about new technology per se. It is about new models of organisation. Design is no longer just about form anymore but is a method of thinking that can let you see around corners. And the high tech breakthroughs that do count today are not about speed and performance but about collaboration, conversation and co-creation.” — Bruce Nussbaum

This quote goes some way to explaining the relatively recent ubiquity of design and Design Thinking. Most of us are past the point of appreciating design as more process (verb) than something you can point to (noun). The ever-quotable Steve Jobs said something really clever in his definition of design as "... how it works and not what it looks like." And Bruce Nussbaum takes this further, defining design as an ability to de-risk the process of creating new products, anticipating change and planning innovation consciously. He's right. In reality, the practice of design is a team sport requiring 'collaboration, conversation and co-creation' as well as a wide range of skills from behavior analysis, research, strategy, visualisation, communication, project management and prototyping.

Think of it this way: designers are to design, just as milk is to cows. Now stay with me... Cows have an important role to play in the production of surely the world's best marketed product – bovine growth secretion, or 'milk'. But unless you prefer your 'flat white' lumpy with the odd 'floatie', there are some pretty intelligent people, processes and tools in play to get it from farm to your fridge. Milk like design isn't just about cows (or designers).

Back in the room.

It seems to me that startups can benefit massively from practicing Design Thinking. If you are a startup team, it can help to define the problem you are attempting to solve and more importantly, to shape your idea with input from users who will ultimately benefit from your solution.

Design Thinking is defined by Stanford's D-school in five steps: empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test. Whilst every good startup understands the benefits of prototyping and user testing (the last two steps), it's the first three that for me, present the greatest benefit to teams and that make Design Thinking a uniquely powerful tool.

"...designers are to design, just as milk is to cows."

Step One: Empathise

Starting with empathy seems straightforward but it's difficult to do. Difficult because it seems that we're hardwired to jump straight into 'solution mode'. Many entrepreneurs have an idea (or solution) first before they backtrack to figure out whether there's a problem needing solved.

It's a universal challenge. As a digital design agency, we're often judged on our ideas – an unfortunate hangover from design's association with advertising... as if we roam the earth collecting solutions in search of problems we can attach them to! By starting with empathy, Design Thinking forces in-depth examination of who owns the problem. Leave your ideas at the door and first decide who you are trying to help. What does their environment look like? What influences them and how would their (life) experience improve if you solved the problem? Simply illustrating an archetype in the form of a persona is fine but ideally this perspective should be persistent throughout the process. As you progress through each step you will build a deeper empathic understanding of the user, continuously examining new inputs and milestones achieved with your increasingly colourful depiction of your user.

Your depth of empathy and insight gathered is relative to the probability of coming up with a successful solution. By starting with empathy, we move ourselves behind the eyes of the person we're designing for.

Step Two: Define

Once we've got in character, next comes definition. Like empathy, definition plays a very specific role in Design Thinking. It starts with articulating the problem we are trying to solve. Easy, right? Still resisting the lure of 'solution mode', this stage requires a high degree of tolerance for discomfort as we gather a wide range of inputs which we'll use to bring depth to the problem. We are now deep in the intellectual furball as we gather and organise our research and devise insights in an attempt to understand the 'true' problem. Which is to say that your first attempt to define the problem, probably isn't quite right. Try again. And again? In Design Thinking, iteration is the name of the game and specifically, 'framing' the problem with each attempt.

Consider the following problems:

'What is the sum of 5 plus 5?' 'What two numbers add up to 10?'

The first question has only one right answer. 10. But the second question has an infinite number including negatives and fractions. Both problems depend on basic arithmetic but differ in the way they're framed. So by changing the frame, you can significantly impact the range of potential solutions.

"If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes." — Albert Einstein

A simple technique you can use to better frame the problem you're working on is ask yourself '... what would you have if you could solve the problem'? One of the D-school's founders Bernie Roth goes deep on this in 'The Achievement Habit'. Here's an example...

A retail entrepreneur defines his startup's problem as follows:

"I don't have a single view of my customer as they move throughout my store". Asking 'What would you have if you could solve the problem?', might lead you to the following answer: "I would know how to improve their experience, using the right tools and at the right moment."

And so the original problem reframed might be:

How might we enhance the retail experience by providing contextually relevant, intelligent and useful information to customers?

A better question that places emphasis on better serving the customer, might lead to a broader set of potential solutions.

"Design Thinking isn't really about design. It's about understanding. For most entrepreneurs, true understanding can show up years after starting out in business."

Step Three: Ideate

Ideation is the third step and the final one explored in this post. I have definitely experienced more than one raised eyebrow when using language like 'ideation' in conversation. It describes the process of synthesizing ideas from inputs gathered in the first two steps. There are two important points to make here.

One: Ideation is not creativity. Ideas must emerge in response to the understanding achieved. They are therefore hypothetical solutions to the problem; Two: Ideation is divergent. The process is about generating a multitude of outcomes not hitting the jackpot at the first sitting. Many is better than few.

In Smarter, Faster, Better, Charles Duhigg examines the origins of creativity in business with reference to a piece of work carried out by Google to define the most effective team structure. Their findings revealed that when psychological safety was present, teams produced better results.

Psychological safety is sometimes referred to by academics as ‘conversational turn-taking’ or ‘average social sensitivity’. Duhigg links the same social phenomenon to the success of Saturday Night Live. NBC's entertainment phenomenon hasn't changed its format in 30 years having experienced instant and enduring success. To manage the juggernaut of egos responsible for SNL's comedy output, the show's creator Lorne Michaels practiced psychological safety in his writing workshops leading to consistently impressive results.

How does this relate to ideation? In Google Ventures recent promotion of their design sprint process, psychological safety is cited as a better way to ideate. Conventional brainstorming where participants shout out ideas or scribble on post-its is fraught and likely to provide a platform for strong personalities rather than great ideas. Jake Knappf suggests that teams should separate so that individuals can work alone to sketch ideas (in a psychologically safe environment, free from ridicule) so that each doodle can be given equal attention enabling co-creation of a potential solution that can be prototyped and tested. It's not brain-storming as we know it. But it works.

“Design is now way too important to be left to designers.” — Tim Brown, IDEO

In conclusion, Design Thinking isn't really about design. It's about understanding. For most entrepreneurs, true understanding can show up years after starting out in business. Everyday is a school day as the saying goes. If you're a startup, your immediate risk is running out of runway long before the penny finally drops. Design Thinking then is like a fast-track to arriving at understanding. The kind of deep, shared understanding that exists when teams crack big problems. It’s understanding — of users, of the environment, of ourselves and our own biases — that we should be striving for as the backdrop for new products.

As a method for solving complex problems, Design Thinking helps the organisations that use it to identify unmet needs and create new product ideas in response. But its real benefit goes deeper. Clarity and understanding achieved together can be transformational. Design Thinking enables teams, employees and colleagues to transform personally as they learn.

Design Thinking is therefore not just a framework for innovation but also an effective way to build creative teams.

by Damian Cranney

DC is CEO and Creative Director at Big Motive. Obsessive compulsive family guy and self-professed weekend warrior, Damian loves the interweb, telling stories and making lists.