Design Thinking for Entrepreneurs

For the last few weeks, I’ve been developing a new workshop with Jenn Hack of Below the Fold — Design Thinking for Entrepreneurs. It’s a fun, fast-paced learning experience that brings together two of my passions — Human-Centered Design and Startups. I’ve worked as an advisor and consultant to startups for several years, and I have used Design Thinking as a foundation for innovation. I know how valuable it can be for entrepreneurs and small-business leaders who are trying to connect with customers, refine their offering, and grow their business.

Why Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a framework for identifying and solving problems. It’s a useful mindset for entrepreneurs and small-business owners because it teaches them how to become focused on seeing the world through their customers’ eyes; how to uncover those customers’ real needs; how to productively generate ideas for solving them; and how to quickly learn which of those ideas are viable in the marketplace.

It’s encountered some pushback (legit and otherwise) in recent years, but nevertheless, its core principles remain valuable and the methods in the Design Thinking toolkit are highly useful.

“Design Thinking is a human-centered and collaborative approach to problem-solving, using a designed mindset to solve complex problems”
Tim Brown, CEO, IDEO

Prototyping

One of the core principles of Design Thinking is making your ideas real, fast. The purpose is to invest as little as possible into your idea in order to find out quickly from your people whether or not it’s useful and valuable to them. Jenn and I committed ourselves to that principle and gave ourselves a tight deadline of holding our first prototype workshop session just two weeks after we decided to do the workshop. We hosted a small group of friends on a Sunday night at Jenn’s restored firehouse home, which incidentally made for an awesome event space.

Within two weeks of kicking off, we held our first prototype session

And we held our first “public prototype” the following week with 20+ invited guests, who we hoped would provide critical feedback, at a great community coffee shop, Equal Minded Cafe. The self-imposed deadlines gave us an urgency that compelled us to focus, prioritize and economize.

Our public prototype session of the Design Thinking for Entrepreneurs Workshop

Human Centeredness

Design Thinking’s core principle is Human Centeredness. It begins with building a deep understanding of the people for whom you are designing, developing empathy for them, and cultivating an awareness of the problem space as they see it. Try to solve their problems, not yours. That is the primary value of this framework.

Empathy and understanding the people you’re designing for are critical elements of Design Thinking

Falling In Love

The next step in the framework is Defining the Problem, or framing. This is sometimes expressed as “Falling in love with the problem, not the solution.” In my experience, selecting the right problem to solve and framing the problem in the right way is the most important part of the process. It’s also the least appreciated and most frequently skimped step.


Design Thinking Models

Although in this workshop, we’re teaching the most familiar Stanford D-School Design Thinking model in all its hexagonal glory, there are several variants. I like to think of them as somewhat analogous to martial arts for problem-solving. Life is like an MMA match. It’s good to know more than one style.

Stanford D-School model (left) | Design Council Double Diamond (middle) | IDEO model (right)
Google Design Sprint model (left) | Interaction Design Council (middle) | IBM Design Thinking model (right)

Design Thinking has detractors as well as advocates

Design Thinking Criticisms

Just as there are many styles, there are many Design Thinking critics. Natasha Jen put it pretty succinctly at 99U: “Design Thinking is Bullshit.” I saw Gadi Amit present “The Wisdom of the Hand,” arguing that Design Thinking was overrated and that design was an art of doing. A recent Harvard Business Review tagged Design Thinking as “Fundamentally Conservative.” But my favorite Design Thinking slam is probably this Medium post: “Design Thinking is Like Syphilis — It’s Contagious and It Rots Your Brains.”

As I read these criticisms, some of them feel fair, and some of them miss the mark widely. The pushback falls largely in two categories. The first comes from designers who seem to be saying that Design Thinking is merely Design-lite. To some extent, they’re right. Design Thinking is intentionally the method of design abstracted from the shaping and forming of design. In another respect though, it feels that some of this criticism is just a reflexive protection of designers’ privileged status.

The second category of criticism comes from people who feel that Design Thinking has been overhyped as the solution to every problem. This criticism feels legit to me. My own belief is that Design Thinking is both overhyped and underutilized. Design Thinking can’t solve every problem, and shouldn’t be applied in every circumstance. But the fact that it has been overhyped doesn’t negate the fact that the principles and tools are useful and capable of a lot of good when skillfully and thoughtfully applied.


More Design Thinking Workshops

We will be holding these workshops on a regular basis in the months ahead. We’re also working on introductory classes to teach Design Thinking for other sectors and workshops that will to go deeper within specific topics and methods. If you’d like to hear about opportunities to attend any of our workshops in the future, please sign up for our email list, and we’ll keep you informed.

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Rapid prototypes and storyboards