Why design thinking is a critical part of a great hardware development effort

Last time I got to blogging, I talked about the importance of deeply understanding your market during a product development effort. A few posts before that, I was going on about product/market fit — that state of nirvana where people really want your thing. But I’ve been remiss in clarifying how you really figure out your market. How do understand their problems, pain points, and needs? And how do you use that to decide on the best angle for your engineering effort to take to deliver value?

Let’s take a step back and look at the tools we have at our disposal when embarking on a product development effort. First, we have our engineering skills. This, of course, is critical. It’s the engineering that lets us create our solution, no two ways about it. Second, we have our understanding of the importance of and seminal concepts from business strategy. Strategy lets us grasp the big picture of the markets — competition and related factors (think Porter’s Five Competitive Forces) and how we should be trying to be different (think What is Strategy?). But, with just these tools, we still don’t really know exactly what we should be doing — or why. Strategy gets us pointed in the right direction. For example, the realization that the high-end smartphone market is incredibly crowded might propel us to create a new market of entry-level smartphones (like Huawei’s IDEOS phone back in 2010). But it won’t tell us how to best execute on that market opportunity. What price point should we shoot for? What features can we safely eliminate to cut the cost of our new phone? What features might we have to add to satisfy this new market?

The answers to all of these questions (and their analogous cousins for different market opportunities) comes from a deep understanding of our users — their lives, their needs, their problems. And that understanding, that empathy, comes from the third and final pillar of a great product development effort: design thinking.

Engineering skills, business acumen, and design thinking — the three pillars of a product development effort

Now, Wikipedia will tell you that …

design thinking refers to design-specific cognitive activities that designers apply during the process of designing.”

…and this is true, if a bit dry. For my part, I say that design thinking is about developing a deep understanding of people and their problems — and then developing a creative solution to those problems. But, to the credit of the first definition, the fascinating thing about design thinking is that it is comprised of a specific set of activities to achieve this empathy and creativity. Gone are the days when these were innate talents you either had or lacked. Design thinking helps you build (and flex!) creative muscles to solve problems.

Now, I won’t do an exhaustive intro to design thinking here. There are far better resources for that: a myriad of books, full Stanford courses, even a free online boot camp. But, to get us thinking in the right direction, I will share one of the seminal graphics of design thinking:

Design thinking 101: the major steps.

This is the high level view right here. A more thorough resource on design thinking will break down each of these in detail, including tips, guidelines, and activities to maximize the effectiveness of each stage.

To be sure though, design thinking is not a plug-and-chug algorithm. It’s more about actively cultivating an inquisitive and flexible mindset that lends itself well to creative breakthroughs. A remix of the previous graphic gives you a sense of the upbeat, somewhat whimsical nature of design thinking:

Design thinking 102: understand the emotion of each step.

Understanding and applying design thinking will help you achieve a deep understanding of your users, and take you from an abstract understanding of your market opportunity to a (literally!) tangible understanding of what you should be making. But what do you do if you’re late to the design thinking game (or working in a tech-driven culture), and the engineering is already well underway? Simple — get started anyway. It’s never too late to build empathy with your users, clearly define the product’s user-facing goals, or even to ideate, prototype and test alternate versions of the product. At some (likely many!) points during the product development process, the learning you gain from this effort will help you and your team prioritize your time, make smart engineering tradeoffs, and ship a product that your users will love.

I write more about hardware-related engineering, business models, and design thinking on my personal website/blog. Do stop by.

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