“It doesn’t occur to most people that everything is designed” — Bill Moggridge
Most people don’t care about technology. They couldn’t care less about the database you’re using, the sophisticated algorithms you wrote, or the server configuration you designed. It’s all the stuff they can’t see and if they can’t see it, they don’t care about it. If your product works, they’re happy. It’s that simple.
On the other hand, what they do see and feel is the experience your product provides. Does it make them feel important / productive / sexy / smart? Or does it make them feel frustrated / stupid / small / indifferent? The answer could be the difference between a hit or a flop.
Enter the designer. Her job is not just to “make things pretty”. She has a gift. She can sense and make sense of people. She has the ability to figure out what people need and build a rich experience around them. It sounds easy…almost trivial…but trust me, it’s not. It takes years of practice to perfect the art of connecting people to products in meaningful ways.
But what if you can’t afford to hire a designer – is your startup doomed to fail? Not necessarily. There are plenty of available resources (blogs, online courses, books…) that will teach you how to think like a designer. One of the better known approaches is called Design Thinking and it’s a user-centered approach to innovation, which brings together people (desirability), technology (feasibility), and business (viability). The Design Thinking process consists of five steps: Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.
The first step in the process, Empathy, is concerned with finding and then understanding the potential users of your product. It is the trickiest, most important part of the entire process. To be successful, you have to learn a few things, like how to ask the right questions, listen, and observe. Asking the right questions is something you’ll get better at the more people you interview. To get started, use interviewing methods like the “5 Whys”, i.e., asking “Why” several times in a row to uncover hidden motives. Next, you’ll want to learn to listen. Really listen. Not so much to what they’re saying, but to how they’re saying it, what they’re not saying, and so on. Record conversations at first and replay them later to tune your ear and get better at “reading between the lines.” Finally, learn to observe. Watch people in their environment, how they work, the patterns that emerge, and if you’ve given them your product to try, observe how they interact with it.
The second step in the process, Define, is about defining your product’s unique perspective on the problem based on the insights collected in the Empathy step. It’s the reason why your startup exists and it’s that thing you need to validate over and over again.
The third step in the process, Ideate, is dedicated to creatively coming up with solutions to the problem you defined in the previous step. Use whiteboards, post-its, markers, or any other tool you feel will help you express your ideas and engage your team. The key to successful brainstorming is to (a) have the confidence to express what you think and (b) build on other people’s ideas instead of criticizing them. You can also experiment with different brainstorming techniques like Gamestorming – a series of playful activities to spark creative thinking – in order to find what works for you and your team.
The fourth and fifth steps, Prototype and Test respectively, are tightly coupled. Before investing valuable resources in coding up prototypes, use low-fidelity prototypes, like pen and paper or presentation software, to test the raw version of your product with potential users and gather feedback.
The Design Thinking process is built like a feedback loop, which means that after testing your product (or more accurately, your assumptions), you’ll go back to the beginning of the process (the Empathy step) and go through the loop once more. The faster you can iterate over the process, the more insight you’ll gain from potential users, the quicker you’ll find product-market fit, and the better your product will be for it.
Yaniv Corem is the Co-Founder and CEO of Playful Labs, and one of BizTEC mentors