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How Design Thinking Improves the Creative Process

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How Design Thinking Improves the Creative Process

How entrepreneurs can take a big idea to a real-world product.
Students brainstorming
Tim Griffiths Photography

It’s not just IDEO implementing design thinking into everyday work. More companies are turning to this problem-solving approach, which focuses on customer challenges to improve anything from the design of a water bottle to the design of a community water system.

We recently talked to Stefanos Zenios, a professor of operations, information, and technology at Stanford GSB, on how to get customer feedback, create effective prototypes, and facilitate more productive brainstorming sessions through design thinking. The interview that follows has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Why is brainstorming a good way to generate new ideas?

Great ideas — those that solve a problem in a unique way — usually happen when two old ideas meet together for the first time. Great ideas are not new ideas. They are usually a combination of existing ideas. And that’s where brainstorming is powerful because it brings together people with different experiences so they can all merge their ideas together.

Design thinking becomes effective because it promotes that collaborative approach. It brings people from different parts of the organization together for their different knowledge, expertise, and input on how to solve a problem. By combining those ingredients together, you can come up with new and creative ways to solve a problem.

How do you facilitate brainstorming among different personality types?

One thing that we have learned over the years is that process doesn’t work with everyone. We have developed our own variation that works well with introverts. We ask people to individually think about 10 or 15 ways in which they can address the problem ahead of time and then we meet as a group to share the ideas and engage in a more structured brainstorm. Start with individual idea generation and then combine it with group idea generation.

What’s the best way to find out what your customer needs?

It’s all about putting yourself in your user’s shoes. Spend time with your users. Ask them questions. Think ahead. What do you want to learn? Draft some interview questions and then engage in a conversation.

Don’t make it an interview. Engage in a conversation, but be prepared. What do you want to learn? Be a good listener and try to listen to the stories that your user is sharing with you.

Ask them about the last time they have faced a challenging situation, and how they addressed that challenging situation. That’s a way for you to learn about your user. If they are willing to let you observe them while they go through their everyday life, that’s a great way to get deeper insights.

Why are immersion and empathy critical to the design thinking process?

When you observe users, you see what they actually go through. But when you actually do it, that’s when you can really understand how difficult some things may be, or understand the emotions that some challenges are creating. I may tell you that changing the tire of my car is difficult, but in order for you to understand why it’s difficult, you would probably want to do it yourself. Or, I may tell you that I find a particular task challenging, but you may be able to better appreciate how challenging it is when you try to do it yourself.

What are the benefits of building a prototype?

You want something that you can take back to your users so they can interact with it, feel it, play with it, and use it one way or another.

Prototyping is a quick and inexpensive way you can make your early idea usable, so you can go back to your users and get their feedback. That feedback now gives you information. Is this a good idea, or is this a bad idea? Oftentimes, from your users’ reactions, you may discover that the problem that you thought they had is not there and they have a different problem.

Creativity is not rocket science. If you are a problem solver, you are creative.

But you also learn more about what they want and what their preferences are. You’re using this process of generating ideas, taking them back to your users, and getting feedback from them as a way to define your understanding of the problem and refine your idea.

How do you prototype a business model?

In order for ideas to be valuable, the economics need to work. If it’s a new product idea, you need to build a viable business model, or your idea may involve changing an internal process within an organization.

You need to understand what are the resources that you need to bring together, or understand what you need to convince people to change that process.

If we are working on a new product idea, the first question is, What is the value proposition? Write down the value proposition. The second one is, Who’s going to be your customer, your customer segment? Define that customer segment. Third one is, How are you going to reach them? And the fourth one is, How are you going to make money?

Now, the business model canvas has nine elements; we have identified the first four that you need to address. The value proposition is something that you test in the direct interaction between the user and your prototype. Through their reactions, what is the value proposition that they see? Does it match your value proposition?

The users that you talk to must belong in the customer segment you have defined. So, if I believe that my customer segment is teenagers, and I’m talking to my colleagues at Stanford and sharing my idea with my colleagues at Stanford, there is misalignment. If I’m targeting teenagers, the customers that I’m going to be testing my prototype with need to be teenagers.

The third one is, How are you going to reach them? That’s an interesting one. If your assumption is to reach your users at the mall, then try to go to the mall and find your users there.

The fourth one is pricing. When you introduce a prototype, you can tell users this is the price we’re going to charge when it becomes a full product. The fundamental idea is that there are four basic elements of the business model that you need to prototype early. Make sure that as you start prototyping and testing your prototype, you do it in a way that is consistent with those elements of the business model, and that’s how you can prototype a business model.

Does design thinking generate better ideas?

There are some problems that are not solvable. You might not find a technology that’s going to solve a particular problem, but what you want to do is discover that quickly. So, the design thinking methodology doesn’t necessarily generate better ideas than competing methodologies. It’s just that this methodology allows you to test your ideas quickly to see which ones hold promise.

Can anybody be creative?

Creativity is not rocket science. Creativity is a structured, systematic way to solve problems. If you are a successful executive in an organization, you are successful because you are a good problem solver. If you are a good problem solver, you are creative.

Creative doesn’t mean you’re Van Gogh or Picasso; they are creative in their own discipline. You can be creative in your own discipline. If you can solve problems, you can be creative.

Stefanos Zenios is the Investment Group of Santa Barbara Professor of Entrepreneurship and a professor of operations, information, and technology at Stanford GSB. He is director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.

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