From small design shops to global corporations, there’s a debate raging over the best way to create innovative digital products. On one side, there’s the methodology of design thinking, born in the ‘80s and championed by respected design firms like IDEO. In the other corner sits the upstart challenger, the lean startup method. There’s arguments to be made for both sides, but the best solution requires a blend of both.
Last month I participated in a debate over this very issue that pitted lean start-startup methods against design thinking, and with a surprisingly packed audience. You might think that spending a Friday night debating process is a tad nerdy, but in New York’s tech startup-obsessed climate, it’s serious business (with a bit of whiskey). Companies are making millions of dollars from technologies that only launched 5 years ago like smartphone apps, so the race is on to optimize the process for conceiving, designing, building and testing digital products.
An important part of knowing which method to use is understanding how some of these processes came about and what they offer. Of the two ideologies, design thinking is the much older kid on the block. Popularized by design consultancies over 20 years ago, the concept employs a human-centered approach to identifying opportunities for business innovation. The design thinking process is oriented around empathy and understanding the user through observation, interviews, and immersion.
On the other hand, the Lean Startup method, promoted in Eric Ries’ NY Times best-selling book, is an iterative approach to building a business that relies heavily on user data and quick product development cycles. Lean startup favors the scientific method — hypothesis and testing — rather than testing behind closed doors or releasing full featured products.
Lean Startup methods are essentially designed to identify product opportunities in a highly unpredictable environment. Advocates of the lean philosophy propose that its methods can innovate other sectors and solve old problems in new ways. And while this may be true, sectors outside of startups — such as mature brands or local governments — often have different challenges, and not the same ones that the Lean method was fine-tuned to handle.
When working with larger companies, non-profits or brand clients, it’s necessary to provide a lens into the process. The design thinking method allows for reflection points along the way, enabling stakeholders to see progress and provide input. Startups largely make their own business decisions and can make them quickly, which is integral to lean’s “build-measure-learn” process. The goal is to quickly test ideas and make changes to the product which works great for a small, nimble team. However, larger organizations usually can’t work this way and need to socialize the project within their organization.
Another reason that some Lean methods don’t work outside of startupland is that established businesses such as healthcare providers, government, nonprofits and brands know their customer, patient, or constituent and have established organizational practices. They can create products based on known behaviors and problems. They don’t need to use methods designed for the often mercurial world of startups. These types of organizations aren’t starting from zero, so lean methods, in their absolute form, shouldn’t be used.
In these cases, the design thinking process is a powerful tool for understanding people and opportunities for new products or services. The steps of “Understand-Observe-Sythesize-Ideate-Prototype-Iterate” can lead to solutions more quickly than testing discrete behaviors that are out of context, which is often the case with the lean method. Design thinking can provide a solid understanding of the user’s motives, challenges, and opportunities that inform the ideation phase of a project in a short amount of time, providing a greater chance of success than testing assumptions in the wild.
The question for these larger companies and organizations is, “How can we move faster?” Even by virtue of its name, design thinking is broadly viewed by the technology world as, “highfalutin’ prancing about by well-coiffed folks wearing black”. “Stop talking about it and just make it!” is often the reaction. Lean and agile development practices are instructive in terms of getting to market faster because they rely on quick development and user validation cycles. Rapid iteration, based on analytics, provides insight into real users behavior, and in real-time. This data, along with fresh thinking about product improvements, will help nurture and grow products.
If design thinking can provide valuable ways to understand people and the environment, and lean methods provide fast way of iterating products, the ideal process for developing digital products outside of the startup sphere is to take the best from both, and uniquely apply them to every product.
By pairing Design Thinking and branding strategy with agile methods of development that encourage quick validation and team collaboration, we will think deeper and work leaner.