Unveiling hidden solutions

By Daniel van Zuydam

Design Thinking has sadly been boxed (by most) into the category of consumer goods or user experience. True, Design Thinking is a consumer-focused problem-solving method, so it’s easy to fall into that trap, but, at the end of the day, everyone has a direct consumer of their work. What Design Thinking does is it asks the “why” behind the reason that the person might need the program. Design Thinking can be used to see if there is a better way of doing something to address the underlying need of a consumer, and it does so quickly and cheaply. In the example that you will see later, our client needed to create a new product based on data services and we used Design Thinking to figure that out.

applying design thinking beyond consumer goods
design thinking for developing new data products
minimum viable product creation in one day
market validation and learning cycles in startups
integrating design thinking for business innovation

Design Thinking is not useful if the answer is obvious (remember that the answer being obvious and the answer “seeming” to be obvious are two different things). Let’s take an example. Since I moved to the Netherlands, I have been riding bicycles much more frequently. If I am busy cycling and my chain breaks, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that I need a new chain, plain and simple… problem solved.

Using the same example, however, I could say to you that my bicycle chain keeps breaking because I never skip leg day at the gym, now we have a different problem. Then you might say, the answer is obvious! Make a stronger chain or stop doing so many leg presses. True, both of those could work, or you could ask the real question of why I am using a bicycle at all? I would tell you that it’s an easy and cheap mode of transport for short distant trips. Hopefully a “eureka” moment for you. Now we could restate my problem to be “I need a reliable way to travel distances of 5 km or less, quickly and economically”. This question could have multiple answers like roller-skating, using an electric scooter, walking, jogging, skateboarding, street luging, boating through the canals, swimming through the canals (hmmm…), hiring shared bicycles, hiring shared cars and so on. Each of those will have their own pros and cons.

This is more to the core of Design Thinking; solving a problem with no obvious answer and asking the questions that the consumer might not think to ask. This is where Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. In my case, if you had asked me what I wanted, I probably would have said a stronger chain, but I might actually prefer a shared electric scooter service like “Lime”.

What you might have picked up is that other problem-solving methods use similar principles to Design Thinking. Agreed! Design Thinking is sometimes touted as the silver bullet for problem solving and it's not. At its core, Design Thinking is a cumulation of some problem-solving best practices for those head-scratchers that I have been talking about. What you might have picked in my example is the “5 Why” analysis, which is a fairly universal tool used in trying to do a root cause analysis. The fact that the “5 Why” method is used as a part of Design Thinking should give credence and comfort that Design Thinking can be used to solve more than external goods/services or user experience issues.

We have most recently used Design Thinking with a client who was trying to figure out how to develop a new product using data. They are primarily involved in manufacturing and production, so stepping into the field of monetizing data was a new area for them. Upon looking at their problem, we realized that Design Thinking would be an effective way to quickly develop a minimum viable product to test some of the assumptions that were made… We did this all in one day.

In one day’s worth of workshop, we managed to look at this relatively new idea and come up with a number of different products and prototypes that could work in the situation. It would have been more ideal to spend a little more time on this, however, the whole approach to the Design Thinking method is to come up with a minimum viable product (MVP) that is tested by the market. Sound familiar? You’ve probably heard the phrase whilst reading about some start-up, it is a term that is also used in some companies when they are trying to create a new product for customers. So, you may have already been using Design Thinking principles without even knowing it. If words like “market validation”, “learning cycles” and “minimum viable product” are used in the space that you work in, then you’re already on your way to Design “Doing”.

In the case of our client, you might be suspicious of the idea that we came up with an MVP based on data-services in one day. You might also (justifiably) think that the MVP wasn’t any good. If you did have any or all of these thoughts, then you might be looking at an MVP the wrong way. Our client needed to validate their ideas regarding what they assumed the market (their client) would need. They had arranged a meeting with their client and they needed to test the waters to see that their assumptions around what their client wanted were valid. If they didn’t do this, they could potentially spend a huge amount of money and other resources on developing a product their client didn’t even want.

If you think that everyone checks with their clients as to whether a product works, you probably haven’t heard of Evian's water bra, or the Twitter Peak, or the juicero. Yup, that’s right, Evian made a bra that you could fill with water, I think we could all see why that flopped. Juicero raised USD$ 120 million in funding and shut down later because their product didn’t offer anything that the consumer couldn’t get from cheaper products.

The next obvious conclusion that you might come to is that it would be better to do proper market research with a statistical analysis and quantifiable results. Now, I am a huge fan of moving away from “gut feel” or best guesses to verifiable data, but the business world often doesn’t allow this to happen. Market studies are expensive, the results are slow to come, and they require significant resources. Anyone who has worked in a business will know that you are generally fighting to get resources allocated to you at the best of times. Not only that, the world is moving so fast that results based on retrospective data might not be useful to a company moving forward. My view is that the lesser of evils is launching a sub-optimal product that generates revenue and can be fixed along the way (or killed quickly) as opposed to waiting for market research that might never come and not launching any product.

I am not going to spend any time talking to you about the process of Design Thinking, you are probably fed up with reading articles about that, and if you are not, a simple Google search will give you more than adequate information about the process. What I hope you would have seen from reading this is that Design Thinking is a useful problem-solving tool, and that the next time someone talks about Design Thinking you think “this could work, let’s give this a shot”.

If you are looking to bring Design Thinking into your business or you are looking to introduce other forms of innovation into your company, have a look at our Innovation Management page and/or reach out to us for more information.

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