Design Thinking: From Empathy to Insight

Over the next couple of posts, I want to elaborate on ways to prepare for designing an effective solution for your customer. Starting with a design thinking approach, you will learn how to develop a deeper understanding of the customer’s experience as they try to solve a specific problem or complete a job to be done. I will discuss how to take this foundational learning and apply minimal viable product design and testing to support solution development and business model validation in later posts. Let’s start with some foundational information about design thinking and its relation to problem understanding and solution development.

The Importance of Empathy

One of the core skills required for successful problem solving is the capacity for empathy. Design thinking processes are structured to develop and enhance your understanding of the customer and their experience. From the start of the design process, you are laser-focused on understanding the customers’ experience with what they are trying to accomplish and the obstacles that present themselves along the way. Like an anthropologist, you investigate each step of the customer experience, attempt to learn what they are doing and what is going on with them emotionally. As part of this investigation, you are also hoping to learn how they currently work through the problem or task in question, including any solutions used to eliminate or minimize obstacles. By probing these current solutions, you begin to gain insight into how they would like to see things work functionally and emotionally. This empathetic work leads to insight into what would make their life better in this situation. 

What is Design Thinking?

As a starting point, we start with a simple definition. Design thinking is a systematic approach to solving significant problems. It begins with a “human-centered” discovery process, followed by experimental and iterative cycles of solution design, testing, and refinement. From a cognitive science perspective, the structured nature of design thinking allows problem solvers to investigate an effective solution without being thwarted by their own biases and behaviors that impede innovation. Design thinking emphasizes deep empathetic customer engagement to facilitate the co-creation of optional solutions. It starts with the person who is experiencing the problem and focuses on making their life better. Creating value for this person is the absolute goal. View value from both a functional and social-emotional perspective. One without the other leads to an incomplete solution. An essential part of engaging those individuals experiencing the problem is to immerse themselves in understanding who they are and fully understand their experience. This intensive engagement allows you to expand how you perceive the problem leading to more solution options.


Additionally, by actively engaging these individuals, it allows for their input throughout the process. This co-creation process leads to an effective solution but can go along the way of soliciting their buy-in to the changes that new solutions will require. Innovative solutions almost always require some behavior change which habits and other counterproductive factors may impede. 

Cognitive Processes and Behaviors

I take a holistic approach to design thinking, looking at the process itself and common tools associated with innovative problem-solving. I also take a hard look at cognitive processes and resulting behaviors and how self-awareness of these results in productive solutions. I highlight the importance of cognitive-behavioral attributes like attention, pattern recognition, empathy, integrative thinking, flexibility, focus, and emotional regulation. Additionally, we will look at behaviors that support creativity and innovation, such as experimentation, iteration, risk-taking, dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty, advocacy, collaboration, and prioritization. Understanding the cognitive science behind design thinking and innovation will enable your ability to create valuable solutions for your customers and stakeholders.  

Design Thinking Stages

I look at how design thinking frames the problem, gathers customer discovery & market data, designs & tests potential solutions, and finally, test launches the solution to determine how the solution works in the natural customer environment. The approach focuses on a deep understanding of a problem that our customer or stakeholder is trying to solve. The best solutions come from a deep understanding of what the customer is trying to accomplish and what frustrations exist along the way. By diving into their everyday experience and challenges, you will begin to see ways to add value to their current situation. Sometimes, you will see the issues even when they don’t. 

Framing the problem. During the first “Frame” stage, you identify a problem area important enough for you and others to work towards an effective solution. In the early stages, you will spend time articulating the problem into a concise statement that specifies who experiences this problem, in what context, and what would be a desirable outcome from an effective solution. It is important to note that you are not looking for a solution, but what benefits and outcomes would occur if the problem is effectively solved. This approach is a difficult concept for many innovators to grasp. Most people start this process with a solution in mind. Starting here is a treacherous way to begin this process. 

There are many ways to frame a customer problem. Understanding the context within which the problem occurs is critical to understanding the issues that the customer faces. Ensure you consider the who, what, where, when, with whom, and why as you begin to frame the problem. The problem might occur under various circumstances, but you will want to define each contextual element clearly. Variation in circumstances may lead to categorizing target customers differently, an essential consideration for your business model. 

One framing issue to keep in mind is understanding the time frame by which the customer’s experience of the problem occurs. What you can readily observe may narrowly define your immediate perspective on the problem. When you think about the customer story, you begin at the point when the problem starts to manifest itself. However, the problem may have a much earlier starting point. Think of it as symptoms of a health challenge. The patient decides to go to the doctor when they experience some discomfort. To them, the starting point is the moment they experience some pain. But the actual start of the problem most likely has an earlier origin. It is essential to consider a wider time frame when defining the customer’s experience with the problem. 

Many entrepreneurs decide to tackle a specific customer problem because they have experienced it. Your experience creates another framing challenge. Your experience with the problem influences your initial conception. You are a sample size of one, so don’t place too much weight on your sole expertise. Stay open to learning from many other people who have experienced the problem before closing in on a helpful definition. 

Finally, as you consider the frame of the problem, look for outside influences on the customer’s experience. You should always take some time to brainstorm ideas regarding aspects of the customer’s situation that may be non-obvious. This process aligns with any diagnostic method. It is worth taking some time to look at things differently. Don’t be afraid to have some wild ideas. These brainstorming activities may lead to an innovative solution. 

In this first stage, you want to apply early screening criteria to solve a problem that people want to solve. During this pre-screening activity, you want to conduct some early investigations about the current status of the problem, who is currently trying to solve it, and how knowledgeable you and your team are about the problem and existing solutions. Posit the answers to these questions before engaging your target customer in the next stage.

Discovering the Customer Experience. In the “Discover” stage, you begin a deep dive into the problem and the most affected people. Your goal is to engage people who are suffering from the problem and are actively looking for solutions. Of course, sometimes they may experience the pain of the problem but don’t believe that a solution is possible. Or they are dealing with many challenges and don’t know where to start or what they want. In either case, with proper preparation, you will be able to solicit vital information to incorporate into new, innovative solutions.  As a starting point, you will spend time documenting your early assumptions about how people experience the problem and how they currently deal with the challenges created. Articulate step by step, what they are trying to accomplish, what roadblocks get in their way, and how they now try to mitigate or diminish these challenges. Empathy plays an essential role in this process and helps you to understand what individuals are going through. With this preparation, you begin to build a profile of people who most experience the problem and how important a solution is to them.

Once you create a profile, you can prepare interviews and surveys to solicit first-hand information about their experience. This preliminary information will help you better understand the people’s experience with the problem and what they want from a solution. Additionally, you and your team will conduct secondary research to enhance your understanding of who is out there trying to solve the problem. These solution providers and experts will demonstrate current solutions. 

Through the customer discovery process, you learn a great deal about the customer’s current experience. Focus not just on what they are trying to accomplish but where they are frustrated and how they currently try to minimize or eliminate these frustrations. These are critical aspects of their everyday experience. But don’t stop there. Probe to understand how they see a better experience. What would that look like both functionally and emotionally? 

Design & Test Solution Elements. As we move towards generating potential solutions for testing, the customers’ perspective on a better experience will provide crucial insights. With several possible solutions in mind, you start to consider the most important benefits articulated by the customer and outline how to design real experiments to test these benefits. Now we move to the testing phase with minimal viable product designs and tests. This testing phase will typically be comprised of multiple iterations, learning from customer feedback along the way. These rapid iterations start as low fidelity tests of certain benefits and associated features. These early minimal viable products should be designed with just enough effort and resources to generate useful feedback from the user. As you iterate, future versions increase in fidelity, providing a closer experience of the solution and its benefits.

In the “design” stage, you begin to identify potential solutions to the problem. At this point, you are taking all the information that you have received and begin to consider various solutions. As a first step, you should review all your assumptions about customer requirements, wants, and needs. Make sure that you revise your early beliefs based on information gathered during the discovery phase. Once you refine assumptions about the customer experience, you will prioritize the most important benefits that the customer is looking for in an effective solution. You will look at these prioritized benefits to drive your initial design and testing efforts. You and your team begin to brainstorm solutions, eventually coming up with options to explore further through the design and test process. With designs selected, you will take the chosen solutions and start an iterative process of demonstrating the benefits of your solution to people looking for relief from the current challenges. Early tests will focus on illustrating in a low fidelity manner how the solution will work and what results from the product the customer should expect. As customers provide feedback, you will continue to build upon the early solutions creating a version that demonstrates the actual value of the solution in limited ways. These may still be low-fidelity designs, but hopefully, the customer is experiencing some benefit and value in these later iterations. 

Launching in Context. Once we have tested our potential solutions with customers and received feedback, we move to the next phase of design thinking, which is to test more broadly in the marketplace. Sometimes you can think about this as pilot testing your product in a targeted manner to see whether things work as envisioned in the natural environment. Even after you have received a great deal of positive feedback from individual customers or stakeholders, there are still many factors to consider to ensure that you can expand the use of your solution to a broader audience.

In the final “Launch” stage, you begin to test your solution to a broader base of people within the actual context that they experience the problem. Here you begin to test all aspects of providing the solution, more than the product itself, but looking at how the solution is delivered, what additional services are required to support the person’s use of the solution, and the like. This stage is an integral part of the overall design process. You begin to create a repeatable transaction that can scale to reach all people who have been grappling with the problem. In this phase, you go beyond the specific problem-solution fit question and move towards product-market fit in scalability and financial feasibility. 

Next Up

In future posts, I will provide details on designing minimal viable products to test with early customers for feedback on solution efficacy and market readiness.

For more on this subject and other entrepreneurship topics, get a copy of Patterns of Entrepreneurship Management, 6th Edition.

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