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Zig, Then Zag: When To Use Design Thinking Vs. the Lean Startup Approach

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Nov 20 2020

A sea turtle lays more than 100 eggs each nesting season, but only a handful will successfully hatch and survive the journey into the ocean. Creating a new business is a little bit like being a sea turtle mom—you want to know your environment and create many versions of your offer to increase your odds of success.

When it comes to making sure those sea turtle babies—I mean, uh, your business ideas—thrive, there are two methods that can help: Design thinking is the approach for discovering which of your eggs has the best chances of survival. Once that baby sea turtle has made it successfully into the ocean, the Lean Startup methodology can improve its chances of successfully reaching adulthood.

During a recent project, a client asked me about the difference between the two methods. While these techniques have been around for years now, it’s a question I hear a lot—many folks in the world of business think they should know the difference, but in all honesty, I don’t blame them for being confused. The methods are distinct, but they can (and should) be used in tandem. Businesses could benefit from them both.

Back to the client question—what’s the difference? I started by explaining the difference between the two methods more broadly, laying out what you see in the chart below.

Both approaches are about building new concepts and products, learning as much as possible from users, and from what’s happening in the market. And both methodologies employ an iterative approach that consistently seeks feedback and understanding from customers in the market.

Knowing the difference is one thing—knowing when to use one or the other is just as important.

Design thinking helps teams come up with many new ideas for new offers they then test before settling on the one that is most desirable, feasible, and viable. When applying design thinking, once we’ve uncovered user needs, we create a slew of options that might solve those needs. Each one is intentionally distinct from the others so we can learn what works best. In visualizing design thinking for our curious client, I sketched something like this:

In design thinking, once we’ve uncovered user needs, we create a slew of options that might solve those needs. Each one is intentionally distinct from the others so we can learn what works best. One idea might be a product, another might be an app, and a third might be a service. The point is to create a broad array of ideas that can then be tested.

On the other hand, the Lean Startup method helps teams drive toward a better version of an existing or new concept. It’s great if you have a product in-market that you want to tweak so it performs better. That end product may vary significantly from the original, but with the Lean Startup approach, you will be able to trace a path from Version A to Version Z. If I were to sketch it, it looks something like this:

The Lean Startup method helps teams drive toward a better version of an existing or new concept. While the end product may vary significantly from the original, there are clear similarities between each iteration because the focus is refinement, not new explorations.

Now that we have the two distinct methods visualized, we can look at applying them. A hypothetical challenge: Let’s imagine we’ve been asked to create a new concept to upend the fact girls are called on less, given less teacher attention, and given fewer opportunities to speak in mixed-gender science classrooms.

As design thinkers, our first step would be to talk to girls, boys, and their science teachers. We would talk to psychologists and sociologists. We would explore the mixed-gender education experience in other cultures. After our research, we’d distill our findings into opportunities for improving the classroom experience. For example: How might we immediately reward girls for participating in class? How might we enable teachers to see the disparity?

Based on those prompts, we would brainstorm a slew of ideas. For example: What if classrooms had a voice monitor that recorded the amount of time that boys spoke versus girls spoke? What if there was an online instructor’s portal with exercises for how to draw out girls in every classroom session? What if there was an app that quizzed students who are girls daily to increase their familiarity and confidence with science material?

We would then take this array of ideas and create prototypes—rough, inexpensive, tangible expressions of the new concepts—and test them. Based on feedback, the next round of prototypes might look something like this:

After an initial round of testing, some ideas get discarded completely while others are broken down so that the parts that resonated can be brought into new forms. Because of the diversity of ideas and prototypes that come from a design thinking approach, there’s no clear throughline from Version A to Version Z.

Maybe the voice monitor didn’t affect teacher behavior, but it did sufficiently frustrate the girls in the classroom—so much so that the next prototype was a wall-mounted display to show a live tally of student input. Because of the diversity of ideas and prototypes that come from a design thinking approach, there’s no clear throughline from Version A to Version Z.

Based on knowing that we are now going to build a voice-activated wall display, we would also use design thinking to build and test the accompanying business model and the product’s visual language. We would think about, build, and test options for how the display will get in front of buyers (the distribution channel), who pays for them and how much (the revenue and pricing model), and which entities might help to expedite our success (partnerships). As we explore the most viable business model, we’re still refining the concept.

Once those designs have been sufficiently evolved, we can plan for a limited launch to test the assumptions behind the products. With a refined concept and business model in hand, we can begin in-market testing.

This is when you want to lay 100 eggs, because only a very few will meet the bars for user desirability, the company’s ability to implement it, and the crucial feature of being financially lucrative for the business. In general, using a design thinking approach for a limited launch of a new concept will reduce risk, while using the Lean Startup methodology during in-market refinement will improve the chances of success.

Sometimes, when a team launches a new product but skips the user-centered design process, they find it may be necessary to pivot. That’s a good time for a team to turn to design thinking to explore why the concept isn’t working, and to find new ways to make it meet user needs.

  • Kerry O'Connor

    Design Director, IDEO San Francisco
    As a leader in the business design discipline, Kerry develops new and sustainable ways to monetize innovations. She uses in-market prototyping, hybrid qualitative and quantitative research, and other emerging design approaches to make business strategy tangible and testable.
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