Product School

What is Design Thinking in Product Management?

Design Thinking means putting users at the heart of the creative process. Its core principles are centered on prioritizing user needs, aspirations, wishes, concerns, and frustrations as the focal point for creative problem-solving.

Understanding Design Thinking for Product Managers

Why is Design Thinking Important in Product Management?

Design Thinking empowers Product Managers to gain a profound understanding of user needs and pain points. Empathy will be a superpower that helps you uncover invaluable insights into user desires and frustrations. Then, turn these insights into products that fulfill – and exceed – customer expectations. 

When your ideas are stale and you need some help shaking that creativity loose, use Design Thinking! Intentionally reframe your thought processes to open yourself up to new possibilities, unlock fresh ideas, and create transformative outcomes. 

How is Design Thinking applied in Product Management?

Product Managers use Design Thinking to guide their teams to create products. Understanding Design Thinking is a huge help when talking to designers, but it can also create a bridge between design and other teams like the developers. 

There are plenty of Design Thinking frameworks. They push you and your team to look at users in a new way and get into their minds. Importantly, Design Thinking isn’t just about creativity for creativity’s sake; it also focuses on creating valuable and functional products.

Pick a framework and apply it to a goal. Your goal might be to come up with as many ideas as possible, or to dig into a specific user need, or to create and test an MVP.

Common Design Thinking Frameworks:

  1. Stanford's Five-Stage Model: This design thinking consists of four stages. Empathize: Understanding the user's needs. Define: Formulating the problem statement. Ideate: Generating a range of possible solutions. Prototype: Building a small-scale version of the solution. Test: Gathering feedback on the prototype to refine the solution.

  2. IDEO's Three-Phase Model: IDEO, a global design company, proposes a simpler, three-phase model for design thinking: Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation. This is a less linear and more fluid model that allows for movement back and forth between phases as needed.

  3. IBM's Enterprise Design Thinking: IBM's approach focuses on understanding and meeting user needs at scale. It has three principles - Hills (statements about the user, their needs, and the experiences you want to create), Playbacks (a method of sharing and getting feedback on design ideas), and Sponsor Users (engaging users directly in the design process).

  4. Double Diamond Model by UK Design Council: This model consists of four phases: Discover, Define, Develop, and Deliver. The model is called the "Double Diamond" because it consists of two diamonds representing a process of exploring an issue widely or deeply (divergent thinking) and then taking focused action (convergent thinking).

  5. Design Sprint: A highly structured three- to five-day process, with each day dedicated to a different aspect of the design thinking process, from understanding the problem and sketching solutions to deciding the best approach and prototyping/testing it.

  6. Balanced Breakthrough Model: Simple to understand, and impactful, this framework helps you find the sweet spot (the right “balance”) for making a product feasible, desirable, and viable. 

Examples of Design Thinking Applied to Products:

Several successful software products have used Design Thinking in their development process. The following are some standout examples:

  • Airbnb: In the early stages of Airbnb, the founders used a Design Thinking approach to understand why their New York properties were not being rented. They discovered that the quality of property photos was a significant issue. As a result, they began offering professional photography services to the hosts, which resulted in increased bookings. The process involved defining the problem, empathizing with the user (both hosts and renters), and prototyping and testing a solution.

  • Slack: Slack is a popular team communication app known for its user-friendly design. Slack's team put a lot of emphasis on empathizing with users and iterating their product based on user feedback. They focused on making the experience of using Slack enjoyable, not just functional, which helped them to stand out in the crowded market of team communication tools.

  • Uber: The creators of Uber used Design Thinking to redefine the problem of booking a taxi. They used technology to simplify the process, enabling users to request a ride with a few taps on their smartphones. Their initial prototypes targeted a niche market of tech-savvy users in San Francisco, and through a process of testing and refining, they were able to scale their solution globally.

  • Intuit's TurboTax: Intuit is known for its strong focus on Design Thinking. With TurboTax, they put significant effort into simplifying the complex process of filing taxes. They use a customer-driven innovation process, spending thousands of hours observing customers to understand their problems and pain points, and then developing solutions to solve them.

Each of these examples involved empathizing with users, defining problems from the user's perspective, ideating and prototyping solutions, and then testing those solutions with users to refine and improve them. This iterative process is at the heart of Design Thinking.

Design Thinking in action 

"What do we mean by empathy in terms of creativity and innovation? For us, it’s the ability to see an experience through another person’s eyes, to recognize why people do what they do.... We’ve found that figuring out what other people actually need is what leads to the most significant innovations."  –David Kelley, founder of IDEO

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