Design thinking for PMs and entrepreneurs

I recently read The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. This book is an absolute must-read for any serious product manager or entrepreneur. In this post, I will share my three most important take-aways for PMs and entrepreneurs to foster a sense of “design thinking.”

  1. Follow the principles of human-centered design (HCD)
  2. Bridge the Gulfs of Execution and Evaluation
  3. Solve the right problem

1. Follow the principles of human-centered design (HCD)

The worst thing for a PM and engineering team is to spend months designing and building a new product, only to hear the sound of crickets after the product launch. The product may have been built on good intentions, but it sorely missed the mark in terms of usability and value. As a result, few customers adopt the product. And those who do adopt the product quickly abandon it because they are frustrated with the complexity and poor usability.

How do you avoid this fate? As Don Norman writes:

“The solution is human-centered design (HCD), an approach that puts human needs, capabilities, and behavior first, then designs to accommodate those needs, capabilities, and ways of behaving…
“Human-centered design is a design philosophy. It means starting with a good understanding of people and the needs that the design is intended to meet. This understanding comes about primarily through observation, for people themselves are often unaware of their true needs, even unaware of the difficulties they are encountering. Getting the specification of the [product]… is one of the most difficult parts of the design, so much so that the HCD principle is to avoid specifying the problem as long as possible but instead to iterate upon repeated approximations. This is done through rapid tests of ideas, and after each test modifying the approach and the problem definition.”

Clayton Christensen described the process of understanding a Job to Be Done as “more like stories than statistics.” He urges his readers to synthesize qualitative observations and interviews into a coherent story.

Jeff Bezos in his 2016 annual letter to shareholders wrote the following:

“Good inventors and designers deeply understand their customer. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys. They live with the design.”

And Brian Chesky in a recent podcast said:

“It’s really hard to get even ten people to love anything. But it’s not hard if you spend a ton of time with them… We didn’t just meet our users, we lived with them. I used to joke that when you bought an iPhone, Steve Jobs didn’t come sleep on your couch, but I did.”

All three of them were describing the principles of human-centered design. You need to go out and spend time with your customers. Observe their behavior in their environment, and then identify problems, opportunities, and triggers for behavior. Once you have this deep understanding, you can design proposed solutions to the customer problem. You should expect to iterate your solution with repeated tests with real customers. As Don said, the approach “is to avoid specifying the problem as long as possible but instead to iterate upon repeated approximations.”

2. Bridge the Gulfs of Execution and Evaluation

When anyone uses a new product, they face two gulfs:

  • Gulf of Execution: figuring out how the product operates
  • Gulf of Evaluation: figuring out what happened

The role of a product designer is to help bridge these gulfs. If we’re successful with bridging the Gulf of Execution, customers can pick up our product and it’s obvious what they need to do to operate it. If we’re successful with bridging the Gulf of Evaluation, customers know how “to interpret the physical state of the device and to determine how well the expectations and intentions have been met.”

One tool that we can use to understand the Gulfs of Execution and Evaluation is the “Seven Stages of Action” model:

  • Goal (form the goal)
  • Plan (the action)
  • Specify (an action sequence)
  • Perform (the action sequence)
  • Perceive (the state of the world)
  • Interpret (the perception)
  • Compare (the outcome with the goal)

The Seven Stages of Action consist of the goal, three execution stages (Plan, Specify, Perform), and three evaluation stages (Perceive, Interpret, Compare). As Don writes:

“The seven stages provide a guideline for developing new products or services. The gulfs are an obvious place to start, for either gulf, whether of execution or evaluation, is an opportunity for product enhancement.”

You can use the Seven Stages of Action to ask questions, to better understand the customer and to identify opportunities for product improvement.

  • Goal: What do I want to accomplish?
  • Plan: What are the alternative action sequences?
  • Sequence: What action can I do now?
  • Perform: How do I do it?
  • Perceive: What happened?
  • Interpret: What does it mean?
  • Compare: Is this okay? Have I accomplished my goal?

As Don writes:

“Each of the seven stages indicates a place where the person using the system has a question. The seven questions pose seven design themes. How should the design convey the information required to answer the user’s question? Through appropriate constraint and mappings, signifiers and conceptual models, feedback and visibility. The information that helps answer questions of execution (doing) is feedforward. The information that aids in understanding what has happened is feedback…
“Anyone using a product should always be able to determine the answers to all seven questions. This puts the burden on the designer to ensure that at each stage, the product provides the information required to answer the question.”

The seven stages of action provide us with a framework to understand user behavior, as well as where current deficiencies are with a product. We can use a number of techniques to answer the questions that a user may ask at any point during the seven stages of action. As Don writes:

“The next time you can’t immediately figure out the shower control in a hotel room or have trouble using an unfamiliar television set of kitchen appliance, remember that the problem is in the design. Ask yourself where the problem lies. At which of the seven stages of action does it fail? Which design principles are deficient?”

3. Solve the right problem

When product teams discover a problem — perhaps reported by a customer or a sales rep, or by observing a new problem that a competitor is trying to solve — many times they plunge ahead and start solving the problem immediately. While this may lead to an incremental improvement on an existing problem, this approach may “miss the forest for the trees” and is unlikely to result in a radical innovation. Before quickly starting work on the solution to a discovered problem, first make sure that you’re solving the right problem.

As Don writes:

“Engineers and businesspeople are trained to solve problems. Designers are trained to discover the real problems. A brilliant solution to the wrong problem can be worse than no solution at all: solve the correct problem.
“Good designers never start by trying to solve the problem given to them: they start by trying to understand what the real issues are. As a result, rather than converge upon a solution, they diverge, studying people and what they are trying to accomplish, generating idea after idea after idea.”

In some ways, this insight brings us back to the principle of human-centered design. Even if the customer is telling you that they have a problem, don’t just accept that at face value and start solving the problem immediately. You may be solving the wrong problem. Instead, take a step back and observe the customer’s behavior in their own environment. You may discover an even deeper problem that the customer has not voiced to you — this could be the more important problem to solve!

One technique that Don suggests is the “Five Whys” approach. For each goal that you discover, continue asking “Why is that the goal?” An example that he used in the book was an analysis of himself turning on a light. You could argue that his goal at that time was to increase the light. Maybe there was an environmental trigger: the sun was going down, the room was getting dark, and there wasn’t enough light. You could leave it at that. But dig deeper. Why was he trying to create more light? He was reading something. Thus reading was a sub-goal. Why was he reading something? He was trying a new recipe, and he needed to re-read it before he started cooking. So cooking was also a sub-goal. Why was he cooking? In order to eat and satisfy his hunger.

“So the hierarchy of goals is roughly: satisfy hunger; eat; cook; read cookbook; get more light. This is called root cause analysis: asking ‘Why?’ until the ultimate, fundamental cause of the activity is reached.”

If you had stopped at saying that the goal was to get more light, you would have missed an enormous amount of context — and also missed that the high order goal was to satisfy hunger. Given this insight, you might take a different approach to solve the problem rather than just making it easier to get more light.

As shown above, solving the right problem is important so that you don’t solve the wrong problem. However, it’s also important if you want to create radical innovation.

“Most innovation is done as an incremental enhancement of existing products. What about radical ideas, ones that introduce new product categories to the marketplace? These come about by reconsidering the goals, and always asking what the real goal is…
“Harvard Business School marketing professor Theodore Levitt once pointed out, ‘People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!’ Levitt’s example of the drill implying that the goal is really a hole is only partially correct, however. When people go to a store to buy a drill, that is not their real goal. But why would anyone want a quarter-inch hole? Clearly that is an intermediate goal. Perhaps they wanted to hang shelves on the wall. Levitt stopped too soon.”

In order to engage in this level of innovation, you need to approach problems with first principles thinking. As Elon Musk has said in the past about first principles thinking:

“You boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, ‘What are we sure is true?’ … and then reason up from there…
“I think it is important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. We are doing this because it’s like something else that was done or it is like what other people are doing… it’s like slight iterations on a theme.”

Focusing on the immediate problem in front of you is a little like reasoning by analogy. It relies on the prior work done by incumbents and competitors. Instead, you should reason from first principles thinking — uncover the fundamental problem that the customer is experiencing by engaging in Five Whys.

Imagine if Howard Schulz (founder of Starbucks) just thought that the goal or need that customers had when they came to coffee shops was just to drink coffee. He may never have discovered the fundamental goal that customers want an escape, a break from their daily grind, to savor a coffee in a pleasant atmosphere.

So be sure to incorporate the design thinking of taking a step back before immediately solving a problem in front of you. Use first principles thinking and the Five Whys approach to understand the fundamental goal. Only then will you avoid solving the wrong problem, and potentially even discover an opportunity for radical innovation.

There is an enormous amount of knowledge contained in the book The Design of Everyday Things. This book is a must-read for entrepreneurs, product managers, engineers, marketers, and of course designers. Anyone who is working on building new products should read this book.

In this post, I have shared my top three take-aways for PMs and entrepreneurs to develop better design thinking:

  1. Follow the principles of human-centered design (HCD)
  2. Bridge the Gulfs of Execution and Evaluation
  3. Solve the right problem

Don Norman has provided us with a number of practical tools to improve our design thinking, such as the Seven Stages of Action model and the Five Whys approach.

The principles and the tools that Don Norman has shared have changed my perspective on how to build great products, and how to solve real customer problems. I am planning to use these principles and tools in all of my future product development efforts moving forward — and I urge you to do the same. I have already started incorporating this design thinking into my encounters with everyday things — whether it’s a faucet in my home, a kitchen appliance, or any product that I use in my daily life. As product managers or entrepreneurs, we may not always be the experts in design or user research. But we can incorporate these principles into our thinking, and we can appreciate the incredible value that designers and researchers add to the product development process.

So the next time you are thinking of building a new product, make sure you start with a great understanding of people, and of the needs that your design is intended to meet. Analyze the gulfs of execution and evaluation with existing solutions that your customer is currently using. And finally, make sure that before you start building anything, you are solving the right problem. If you do these three things well, you will have incorporated design thinking into your product opportunity from the start. You will be able to deliver more radical innovation to your customers. Your product will have a much better chance at solving a real customer problem, and ultimately delighting the customer. And after all, that’s the whole point of all of the product work that we do.