Research in Myanmar

Venture Design at IDEO.org

12 questions an IDEO.org Business Designer asks when designing new products, systems, and services around the world

People ask a lot about how we design new businesses, new products, and new services with our partners at IDEO.org. It’s a fair question but if I’m honest, my answers rarely do justice to our design process and the rigor we apply to execution.

Most of the time I give some answer about creating new things in places that very few people associate with inclusive or positive business practices; how difficult that can be, or how energizing. I usually ramble on a bit about using business as a tool for agency or as a means to mend frayed social fabric, both of which I believe in, but most of the time, I think my answer comes up short.

Frankly, that’s not good enough. As an organization, we are committed to sharing our process and as a business designer, part of my job is to introduce people to what we do so that they can do it themselves. So let’s consider this the first in a series of articles on how my team identifies opportunities for impact and takes new ideas to market quickly and with accuracy.

Below is a brief outline of my thinking, my goals, and the questions that I ask when starting a new design project.

Guiding Thoughts

At IDEO.org our designers believe in the emergent possible. We believe in what the world could be. In my experience, the divergent and optimistic thinking that is required to support that emergent possible future, the one that is obscured from view just beyond the horizon, is sometimes at odds with how the most people think about launching something new.

Yes, we talk about things being desirable, feasible, and viable at IDEO.org, and yes, the hard craft of business design is in running the numbers and working with our partner team to understand if they have the capacity to move forward in a new way or not. But in service of the emergent possible, and in service of the continued optimism that design affords us, when our team is designing new ventures I initially try to leave aside viability and work under the assumption that if what we are designing can create some value for someone then my team and I can design a business model, traditional or not, to make a market and support that value.

My Goals

When working with a partner to design a new venture or put a new idea into market that might allow for impact to be created, I have two very fundamental goals:

  1. Create a vision for where an idea, organization, or company might be in 10–20 years.
  2. Design the first prototypes that will start us on that journey and launch them live in the market tomorrow.

To work towards achieving both of these goals, my team and I start by asking questions to lead us through a process of research that I’ve previously outlined here. Below are the questions that interest me at the beginning of any venture design project. It should go without saying that there are no yes/no answers to these questions, rather they should be worked through as part of a team, if you have one, and that answering them; well, that should be the challenge.

Questions to Answer

  1. What is the problem that we want to address?
  2. What is our idea to address the problem?
  3. What are the assumptions that underlie that idea?
  4. What change will we see in the world after the problem has been addressed?
  5. What people, businesses, organizations will that change affect and how will it affect them, positively or negatively?
  6. Very specifically, who is going to be our first customer or user?
  7. Why would they buy/use/sign up for this thing?
  8. What experience will we create for that first customer?
  9. Is our idea replacing something that that customer already understands or is it creating a new behavior for them?
  10. Who, specifically, is going to make the first sale/conversion and what support do they need?
  11. What are the most effective ways to communicate the value of our idea?
  12. How can we begin testing the assumptions that underlie our idea immediately?

We can start to answer the first 11 questions through basic research and we set up various scenarios to get started in doing just that — observation, co-design, shadowing, and other approaches.

The 12th question is, to my mind, the most important on the list and to answer it thoroughly, to get a good sense of whether this new thing we are designing might just be impactful, we need to see money changing hands or people committing to a new behavior. To do that, we prototype. As anyone who has ever started a business or launched a new idea will know, getting out and putting your idea in front of people is when it all gets real. On day one in the market, things fall apart. And that is fine, for a while a least.

If you and your team can get to day one in market having even considered the first 11 questions outlined above, you’re already way, way ahead of the curve and have already significantly increased your likelihood of success.

Asili prototyping team, Congo

Practitioners of lean or of other approaches to venture design will note that there are no questions in my list about the actual business model, strategy, or operations. That is very deliberate and done so, not because those things are not important, but rather, because we put a priority, in the initial phases of a project, on our design and partner teams being out in the market testing if something is possible rather than sitting in a project room running numbers, leaning on assumptions, and saying why it’s not.

I have said in the past that design is optimism. Well good venture design is optimism too and we should always be confident that if we can understand what motivates consumers to see value, in products or services or new behaviors, then as designers, we can design a mechanism to deliver that value to them in a joyful, engaged, and impactful way.


This is by no means a complete guide to how we do venture or business design at IDEO.org, but it is a start. My team at IDEO.org, Launchpad, has used this approach to design new products, systems, and services in the U.S., Kenya, Uganda, Indonesia, Myanmar, The Philippines, South Africa, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is imperfect but evolving, as it always should be.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting about our approach to prototyping, how we can move from postit to prototype in 24 hours, and why we think good design, including business design, is a tool to create hope, ambition, and equality of opportunity in a world where those things are precious commodities for so many.

In the meantime, I would love to hear from you about ideas you’d like to launch. At Launchpad, we’re always happy to have a chat about approaches to venture design, prototyping, and designing things that create positive impact in the world.

Messy frameworks to get started