A Beginner’s Guide: The 5 Steps to Great Design for Your Startup

Romain Vakilitabar

May 6, 2013 · 5 minutes read


Before embarking on a ship with some of the most innovative entrepreneurs for Unreasonable at Sea, an accelerator circumnavigating the globe designed to solve the world’s most urgent social problems, I figured that the companies that were chosen for the program (based on their traction, sales, and social impact) had everything figured out. After all, I had seen some faces in TED talks, read about some of them in Forbes “30 Under 30”, found them in The New York Times, and the list goes on.

But I was stunned to find that there were so many facets of each of these businesses that were still uncertain—even as basic as revenue stream and business model. As a young entrepreneur, this relieved me because it disproved my previous conviction that I needed to know every little component of my business forward and backward to reach any level of success.

I have learned that companies usually don’t have everything figured out, and that’s okay. They figure it out along the way, and the best entrepreneurs are those who are malleable enough to adapt to each situation and change quickly.

George Kembel, entrepreneur and co-founder of the Stanford d.school, is a design-thinking guru. His lessons are designed to help entrepreneurs move quickly, and adapt so that they can deal with situations intelligently as they come. We have traveled to seven countries so far, and Unreasonable at Sea has put on many workshops designed to teach these entrepreneurial university students a strong design-thinking methodology.

Are you ready to learn how to do it? I promise, it’s easy (only 5 steps) and will help you become a faster, more flexible entrepreneur.

Step 1: Empathy.

To get a feel for how you can fix a problem or make an impact, you have to put yourself in the user’s shoes. It’s not about what you think the problem is; it’s about going to the end user and understanding his or her experience in regards to the problem your product or service is trying to solve. Empathy is not easy. It often requires many different interviews and constantly rephrasing questions so that you can extract the most information out of each question. Good empathy requires you to dig deeper into user experience testing.

Step 2: Define.

There are three things in particular that need to be defined when it comes to problem solving: the user, the need, and the insight gained from the empathy work. When defining the user, try to get as specific (and emotional) as possible. Who is the one user that will benefit THE MOST from your product or service? I find this to be the hardest part, and yet, most important. Knowing this will help you solidify your revenue stream(s).

The need refers to the problem you are trying to solve. This goes hand in hand with the insight gathered from your empathy-driven research. Accurately defining the need based on the interviews conducted with different users is the basis for your business—because if you try to solve the wrong problem for your user, he or she probably won’t buy it.

The insight is simply the critical feedback gathered during empathy work that explains why the need (as previously stated) exists. The more empathy work you do, the more obvious the insight you gain will become.

Putting them together makes up a define statement that looks like this:

___________ (user) needs a way to _____________ (need) because ______________(insight).

Here’s an example:

The young, frustrated Bostonian daily commuter  (user) needs a way to  beat the traffic in a comfortable, cost effective way (need), because  the traffic is considered unbearable by 86% of daily commuters in Boston, who would rather spend time at home or at work, but don’t have too much disposable income for a better solution (insight).

 Step 3: Ideate.

According to Kembel, ideation is simply generating many unexpected ways to solve a problem you’ve defined. When you ideate, try to get as many people as possible to contribute. And there are several rules which lead to the best ideas:

  1. Defer judgment. Any idea is a good idea; even if it is crazy, it might lead to some amazing ideas. In fact, the best ideas always lie close to the wildest ideas. So, go crazy and don’t underestimate wild ideas.
  2. Be visual. Sometimes the mere misinterpretations of drawings can lead to strikes of genius. Build on ideas. Don’t be afraid to “steal” ideas and make them better.
  3. Finally, come up with lots and lots of ideas. Afterall, “The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.” (Linus Pauling, Nobel Prize Chemist).

So get the sticky notes. Ready, set, go!

Step 4: Prototype.

A prototype is a low-resolution experiment to test an idea with the goal of learning as quickly as possible. The reasoning behind learning quickly is that the further you are along the project timeline, the higher the cost of an error. So if you fail and learn early on, the cost associated from making the mistake is rather low.

So to set up an effective prototype, you need to create an experience that best resembles the end product or service for the end user. The more times you test your prototype, the more understanding you will gain and the more validity your insights will obviously have.

But it’s easier said than done. So here is an example to help establish a better understanding for what a good prototype might look like:

Let’s say you want to start a bike rental company in your city. The people are active, the weather is always nice, and the daily commuters don’t have a good way to get around. You think a bike rental company would be the perfect solution. Before spending $50,000 to make this happen, all you have to do is spend $50 to put up posters around town to advertise your business as if it already existed.

And finally,

Step 5: Test.

Put your prototype to work. Watch, take notes, be open to new ideas, and be ready to adapt your prototype. Be confident and change your business based off of what you see working (and not working).

To test the bike rental prototype, see how many people call or how many tabs are pulled off at the bottom of the page. This is a cheap, quick way to learn if people are as interested in a bike rental service as you assume they would be. If you are overwhelmed with phone calls, that might give you the confidence to drop everything else and get started.  If you see that they are not interested, the cost of error is low, and you saved yourself $50k.

The entrepreneurs that have been selected to be a part of a sailing accelerator to take their businesses to new frontiers do not have everything figured out. This observation was huge for me. I realize that I might never have things completely figured out because change in business is constant. And so, the best trait I could have as an entrepreneur is the power to change. Adapt. Be flexible. And finally, understand and trust in the power of design thinking.

It’ll change your business forever.

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