Building products that our users love is hard. Understanding our users is even harder.
After all, product discovery is a messy process. However, there are also ways to make it somewhat more structured. One of these ways is embracing design thinking in our daily work.
Let’s take a look at what design thinking is and how the five-step design thinking process can lend a bit of structure to the messy process of product discovery.
Table of contents
- What is design thinking?
- Using design thinking in product management
- The design thinking process: 5 steps
- Design thinking is not linear
What is design thinking?
Design thinking is a user-centric, iterative approach to problem-solving that encourages empathy, experimentation, and collaboration. It’s about understanding the user’s perspective, generating ideas, prototyping, and refining solutions through feedback.
The design thinking process a flexible and adaptable framework that can be applied across industries and disciplines, including product development, service design, and organizational change management.
For product teams, it means focusing on the needs, desires, and experiences of the people who use your product to create innovative, human-centered solutions that address their most vexing pain points.
Using design thinking in product management
Building products often require you to rely on a set of assumptions, which include:
- Desirability — Are we solving user problems?
- Viability — Will it drive business outcomes?
- Usability — Will our users know how to use the product?
- Feasibility — Can we ship the solution within our constraints?
Design thinking helps you validate these assumptions (as well as discover new ones) by learning about your users.
The framework is based on a convergent-divergent thinking approach:
Start by empathizing with your users and gathering insights (divergent), then you narrow down all your insights into one primary problem statement (convergent). You use this problem statement to ideate solutions (divergent), and then you narrow them down through prototyping and testing (convergent).
The design thinking process: 5 steps
Depending on your capacity, current knowledge, and the degree of learning you strive for, the duration of the whole design thinking process can be as long as several weeks or as short as one day.
The five steps of the design thinking process are as follows:
The first step of the design thinking process is to make sure you understand users’ needs. After all, design thinking is all about user-centricity.
If you want to drive a great outcome, you need to solve a great problem. And to spot that problem, you first need to understand your users.
Here’s where the vast majority of user research lies. Whether it takes the form of deep-dive interviews or reviewing customer support tickets, you want to achieve a thorough understanding of your users, how they interact with your product (if you currently have one), and what problems they encounter in their daily lives.
The objective: Gather as much information and insights about your users as humanly possible.
Typical activities at this stage include:
- User interviews
- Video reviews
- Field studies and observations
- Journal studies
- Data review
- Feedback review
- Customer support review
The second design thinking step is to gather, organize, and process all knowledge and insights gathered during the first step. Odds are, you will be overwhelmed with knowledge and user problems following the empathize stage.
Start by grouping these insights into themes, and then assess and prioritize which ones you want to focus on next. You might need to do some follow-up research if you can’t yet decide.
Look for patterns and repetitions. You want to end up with one crystal-clear problem statement that greatly impacts the majority of your users. It’s a challenge you’ll try to solve in the following steps.
Make sure to choose one problem; trying to focus on solving multiple problems at once is a fool’s game.
The objective: Create a clear and focused problem statement that grounds you around a singular user problem.
Typical activities at this stage include:
- Affinity mapping
- Follow-up user research
- Problem prioritization
The next step is to ideate as many solutions as possible to solve the problem defined in step two. It’s all about volume at this stage.
Get creative and don’t hold back any controversial or unfeasible ideas. These will help you spark creativity and start thinking out of the box.
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After all, the goal is to find not the obvious solution, but the best solution. And the best ideas rarely come up first. If you finish this step too soon, you risk missing out on a breakthrough, so give people space to go beyond simple, predictable perspectives.
The objective: Come up with a list of solutions to the problem statement.
Typical activities at this stage include:
- Lightning demos
- Crazy eights
Now it’s time to choose your most promising ideas and prototype them.
Depending on the number of ideas, complexity, and your capacity, you might be able to explore multiple solutions at once or only one at a time.
Either way, when it comes to prioritization, I would recommend choosing solutions not based on what is the most promising, but what lends itself best to iterative learning.
Design thinking is rarely a one-time activity; you’ll probably need a second and third iteration to truly discover the best solution. Optimizing learning will make your next iteration more fruitful.
The objective: Build a prototype(s) that can be tested with your users.
Common types of prototypes include:
- Paper prototypes
- Digital prototypes
- Technical prototypes
- Production MVPs
- Ads/landing pages
The testing stage is when you validate whether the solutions you chose to solve the defined problem actually resonate with your users.
Depending on the type of the prototype, it might be a real-world simulation, launching a landing page, or sharing a digital prototype with potential customers.
Regardless of the format, your goal isn’t necessarily to prove the solution works great (although it would be nice), but to learn as much as possible to inform your next iteration. It’s very rare to come up with a perfect solution on the first try.
Observe how users interact with the prototype, ask follow-up questions if you can, and capture as many insights as you can.
The objective: Vlidate your core assumptions and learn as much about your users as possible to prepare for the next iteration
Depending on your learnings, you might want to:
- Go back to step 4 and adjust your prototype
- Go back to step 3 and explore a new solution
- Go back to step 2 and redefine your problem statement
- Go back to step 1 to learn more about your users
Design thinking is not linear
As you probably noticed, although the design thinking process has five steps, it’s rarely that linear. It’s common to move back to previous steps multiple times during a single iteration.
For example, you might discover that you don’t have enough information to define a clear problem statement (step 2) and you need to move back to research (step 1). Prototyping (step 4) often sparks new ideas that move you back to step 3, or even raises new questions that might require you to revisit the first step. And so on and so forth.
But once again, the goal is not to go from step 1 to step 5 as fast as possible and ship a solution; the design thinking process is just a framework to help you learn about your users and shape the final direction of your product/solution.
As long as you are learning along the way, embrace the messiness and enjoy the process.
Featured image source: IconScout
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