The big question you should be asking yourself: Design Thinking 101 for entrepreneurs & innovators

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Okay, here’s the big question: Am I solving the right problem?

Recently I got to travel back to my ‘home away from home,’ The University of Georgia, to speak on a panel and record a podcast interview. While there, I had the chance to catch-up with one of my absolute favorite professors, Dr. David Sutherland.

Christina sitting in front of a bar with her professor, David Sutherland
Me & Dr. Sutherland

We grabbed some wine at the National (one of my favorite restaurants in Athens, GA) & he filled me in on all of the innovative projects his students are working on.

To give you some context, Dr. Sutherland is an expert in corporate innovation and he has worked with many companies that you might recognize, including BMW, GE, and YUM! Restaurants International.

Dr. Sutherland also taught me everything I know about design thinking… and this is where you come in.

To be truly set up for success, all entrepreneurs and innovators should have a basic understanding of what design thinking is.

If you’ve never heard of design thinking, it’s essentially a human-centered process for solving problems.

The world’s leading authority on design thinking is David Kelley, who founded a design firm called IDEO as well as the Stanford d.school. I highly recommend you check out this amazing throwback video of IDEO working on a project to redesign the shopping cart. The video really helps you ‘see’ how design thinking works. 

Hint: it involves so. many. sticky. notes. (my FAVORITE)

a woman's hand putting up a sticky note onto a white board covered with colorful sticky notes
This is a throwback to a Design Thinking Workshop I led with Unity Digital Agency & the Research Triangle Foundation

One of the key foundations of design thinking is that you should never start solving a problem until you’ve taken the time to interview the stakeholders involved, which IDEO calls the “Empathize” phase of the design thinking process.

Depending on the type of problem being solved, stakeholders might include customers, community leaders, government officials, etc. Essentially, anyone that might be affected by the problem you’re exploring.

It is only once you’ve assessed the situation in an unbiased, research focused-way that you then move onto actually defining the problem that you’re setting out to solve.

From there, you then set out to ideate, e.g. brainstorm, ideas for solving the problem, develop a prototype for your solution, test your ideas in the real world & then circle through the process until you’ve got a fully developed new product or service. 

Here is how the traditional design thinking process is mapped out:

This image maps out the Stanford d. school Design Thinking Process: Empathize (interviews, Shadowing, Seek to understand, Non-judgemental), Define (Personas, Role Objectives, Decisions, Challenges, Pain Points), Ideate (Share ideas, all ideas worthy, diverge/converge, "yes and" thinking, prioritize), Prototype (Mockups, storyboards, keep it simple, fail fast, iterate quickly), and Test (understand impediments, what works?, role play, and iterate quickly)

However, most entrepreneurs (and businesses) start with an idea for a product or service. This means that they’ve often made assumptions about their potential customers’ wants or needs. The idea is so exciting, they feel confident that there is a market need.

A big part of my work is encouraging both entrepreneurs and business leaders to slow down and really talk to their customers (and other stakeholders, if relevant) before determining whether they are working on a problem that’s even worth solving.

I absolutely hate it when I see entrepreneurs and innovators waste months or even years of their lives solving the wrong problem. 

Now, don’t get me wrong – sometimes the problem can be relatively clear. If you’re entering into certain industries where there are clear competitors and you’re going to go after a specific niche or approach to the work in a unique way, then you might be ok to instead focus your time on prototyping and testing your product or service.

Regardless, it will never hurt to take time to get to know your customers on a deep level:

What are their hopes & dreams? What does their life look like? What’s stressing them out? What’s their favorite tv show? Are they on social media? If so, what channel? 

At a minimum, you’ll likely identify unique insights that help you serve them better and literally “speak their language” in your marketing. 

Now, if you’re feeling ready to start scheduling some potential customer interviews, please note that there is an art to how you approach these interviews. If you’re an early-stage company or are launching a new product or service and you want some tips on how to go about it in the right way, I highly recommend the book The Mom Test. People will lie to you to be polite. The only market validation for a new product or service is someone literally paying you. The Mom Test tells you how to avoid getting false hope during your research. 

If you’re feeling a bit anxious about making the time to do customer research, don’t be!

Here are three tips for making this process painless:

  • Identify events that your potential customers attend and casually slip your research questions into your conversation that help you understand their ‘pain points.’
  • Ask friends if they know of anyone that fits into/works in the customer segment you’re hoping to serve.
  • Host an event for the target customer you’re hoping to serve and attract them with free food/drinks.

The biggest tip of them all is to make sure you’re extremely respectful of people’s time throughout the research process.

Make these conversations natural, keep them to less than 15-minutes, and make it worth their time by truly listening and incorporating their insight. 

Any time that you’re setting out to solve a new problem, I truly believe that going through the design thinking process is the way to go. If you’d like to dive deeper into how design thinking works, there are a lot of great free resources available out there, including this free toolkit & a free course from UVA’s Darden school of business. If you want help facilitating the design thinking process, then let’s find some time to talk.

While taking the time to do customer research might feel like slowing down, in the long run it’ll pay off big time.