Design Thinking: An innovative idea or common sense for the Lean Startup?

Call me late to the party, but in my web travels I just became aware of a concept called “Design Thinking”, a method of using right-brain creative thinking to design new human-centered products and services. The term is credited to IDEO’s David Kelley, who began using this approach in 1982 to design Apple Computer’s first mouse followed by such innovations as the Palm TREO, Oral-B toothbrushes, and Steelcase Leap chairs. But now Design Thinking is being heralded as the next great business innovation which can be applied to tackle complex business problems and address greater social issues like poverty, education, and healthcare.

In an effort to further understand the concept of Design Thinking, I got lost in a myriad of academic online publications and esoteric blogs that attempt to explain the methodology and applications in great detail. Here was probably the clearest description of the process from the Stanford Social Innovation review.

“The design thinking process is best thought of as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps. There are three spaces to keep in mind: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Think of inspiration as the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions; ideation as the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas; and implementation as the path that leads from the project stage into people’s lives. The reason to call these spaces, rather than steps, is that they are not always undertaken sequentially. Projects may loop back through inspiration, ideation, and implementation more than once as the team refines its ideas and explores new directions. Not surprisingly, design thinking can feel chaotic to those doing it for the first time. But over the life of a project, participants come to see that the process makes sense and achieves results, even though its form differs from the linear, milestone-based processes that organizations typically undertake.”

Hmmm … sounds an awful lot like Steve Blank’s Customer Development methodology and Eric Ries’ Lean Startup concept which both take a very similar iterative and human-centered design approach.  However, what struck me as the biggest difference between Design Thinking and Customer Development is not the concepts themselves, but the packaging and presentation of them. In reading about Design Thinking, I felt intimidated and stupid – like I needed an advanced degree in industrial design, social science or futurism (had to look this one up) to understand how to interpret and apply it. On the other hand, the practical nature of Customer Development makes me feel smart, confident and provides a source of daily inspiration. Their community of practitioners are battle-scarred entrepreneurs who provide checklists, visual examples, case studies, lessons learned, and step-by-step guides to help everyday folks like me. Customer Developers are real people like the raw Dave McCLure who speaks to us in a language we can all understand, Ash Maurya whose sensible blog proclaims “Practice Trumps Theory” and Cindy Alvarez, a successful Product Manager who happens to be great at design too. I couldn’t help but imagine that Design Thinkers hang out at libraries, lecture halls, and museums while Customer Developers gather at Starbucks, dimly lit pubs, and founders’ lofts.

While I do agree with the right-brain principles of Design Thinking I have a hard time believing it will reach critical mass given the esoteric nature by which it is communicated and the lack of grass roots educational efforts. Perhaps Design Thinkers should take a page out of their own playbook and do some real user testing on the approachability of the methodology itself. I also believe that the solutions to the social challenges of education, health care, and poverty will be more quickly solved not by academics with degrees, but by Lean Startup entrepreneurs skilled in the practices of Customer Development.

Nonetheless, if you’re still interested in further exploring Design Thinking check out these resources:

Smart loyalty programs are “no-brainers”

When offered the chance to sign-up for a retail loyalty program, I almost always agree as long as it doesn’t cost me anything to join.  I never know what the benefits will be down the road, but it doesn’t take long to do an extra swipe at checkout. For years I’ve been a member of the reward program at Shaw’s Supermarkets. It’s the grocery store that’s closest to my house and, despite the occasional lack of great looking produce, it’s where we shop every week. In our busy household convenience trumps quality almost every time.

During each shopping trip, the cashier simply asks for our Shaw’s card and, after we’ve gotten past the pain of watching the total climb over $325, we cross our fingers in hopes that our loyalty savings brings that to below the dreaded $300 mark. The instant gratification of watching the savings climb and the total fall is almost worth the hour-long trip each week. If the cashier waits to swipe the card until the end then it’s even more exciting as the savings racks up before our eyes like a winning slot machine dumping silver dollars into our tray. Although I realize the “savings” are a bit contrived, my right-brain enjoys the emotional impact of the whole experience.

But beyond the instantaneous feel-good savings, the smart marketers at Shaw’s did something even better. In 2008, they teamed up with Gulf and Irving gas stations through an affiliate network called Override to provide substantial savings on fuel just for shopping at Shaw’s (and now Dunkin’ Donuts too).  The savings are available immediately at the pump and for our weekly grocery bill we save roughly $.60 per gallon or about $10 per week when filling up our Honda Odyssey.  I don’t know about you, but an extra $40 each month for doing nothing but my usual routine is pretty rewarding. What I love about this program is the simplicity of the redemption process, requiring nothing more than continuing to shop at Shaw’s and using our loyalty card.  Amber W. from Portsmouth, NH said “It’s incredibly easy to use, and you don’t have to do anything except shop for your groceries like normal….it’s a no-brainer.”  For other happy customer testimonials, check out the Override Member Stories.

If you’ve got a loyalty program, think about how easy it is for customers to be loyal to you. Is your program a “no-brainer” or are you making it difficult for customers to redeem their savings with paper coupons and rebates that rarely get used (like the ones I get from Best Buy).  Now thanks to the cool iPhone app called Wallet Zero, retailers can scan their loyalty program barcode right off my iPhone eliminating the need to carry around all those crazy tags on my key chain.  Look out for more mobile apps like these that will help smart retailers turn loyalties into royalties.

Recent price I paid for gas:

Saving on Gas

Why software is like a ball-point pen

Bob Lentz, our left-brain CEO, always asked me to explain the key difference between our video technology and Brightcove, the 800-pound gorilla of the online video platform space. My answer was always the same, “nothing.” As someone who spent years in venture-backed enterprise software companies, Bob couldn’t believe my answer. I went on to say that it’s not the technology that’s the differentiator, it’s what you do with it that matters most. “Our software is like a pen”, I explained, “you can give the same pen to ten different people, but what they do with it will be very different”.  Bob didn’t appreciate my answer to say the least, but I think it helped me make the point.

It used to be that software was unique, but today it’s a left-brain commodity. Everyone has access to the same developer tools, technologies, and talent both on and offshore.  With cloud-based infrastructure it no longer costs millions of dollars in venture capital to create a new SaaS business.  We can invent a business idea one day and have a website up and running with a prototype the next night. So, how do we create unique software-based product offerings? How can we differentiate our online products and services? How do we create value in a commoditized world where there is a level playing field? How can we justify raising millions of dollars of venture capital if we don’t produce any real IP?

I didn’t think there was a good answer until I learned about the Lean Startup movement and the principles of Customer Development, pioneered by successful start-up veterans Eric Ries and Steve Blank. Their whole-brain ideas helped me to realize that:

  • We need to stop trying to create unique software and start focusing on creating unique value for customers.
  • A solution to lack of market traction is never more software features, but always more customer focus.
  • There is no better way to learn how to improve your software than by listening and speaking with real users.

And they reinforced my belief that I have an equal chance of becoming a Pulitzer prize winner with a $.25 Bic as I do with a $963 Cross Classic Century 18K Gold Ball-Point Pen.

Laid-off and feeling lucky

There are two sides to every story, two sides to a coin, two sides of a debate and of course, two sides to our brains.  Our left brain is responsible for logic, rational thought, analysis and reasoning while our right brain gives us philosophy, creativity, imagination, and intuition. As a person who has just been laid-off, I thought I’d share what the two halves of my brain are thinking and why they’re in such conflict.

[@LeftBrain] Laid-off. Fired. Downsized. Terminated. Made redundant.

It doesn’t matter how you say it, it always means the same thing – unemployed.  To be honest, I’m feeling pretty anxious right now – worried about looming college tuition payments for my seventeen-year-old high school senior. He’s deciding between a state and private school which could mean a difference of over $30K per year.  That’s $120K extra for a four year degree.  Is it really worth it and what’s the ROI of that? I’ll have to analyze our budget to see how much additional debt we’ll have to take on to make it work.  If I were entering college now, I’d doubt I’d be able to afford my degree from MIT, which was only $15K/year in 1987 – a real bargain compared to today’s cost of private schools. I’m skeptical I’ll be able to find a good, stable job before my severance runs out,  but that’s what I’m aiming for.

[@RightBrain] Free. Opportunistic. Rejuvenated. Optimistic. Lucky.

I consider myself pretty lucky. In the span of a 22 year career, I’ve only been unemployed twice. Twice in the past five years, but who’s counting anyway. The big picture is that I feel pretty relieved. I can now leave behind all the stresses of my last job – the late nights, weekend work, company instability – and just move on to my next challenge. I see this as a good time for some self reflection.  I can look back on what I’ve accomplished and refocus my career toward work that I’m really passionate about. I’m feeling pretty optimistic. There appear to be a number of interesting start-ups that can leverage the breadth of skills I offer while allowing me the opportunity to once again be strategic and creative.