Design thinking your way to startup MVP

Tina Nguyen

Tina Nguyen LinkedIn

9 min read · May 20, 2024

A story about the benefits of design thinking and practical examples of how design thinking can be used to create MVPs in startup environments.

Being skeptical of any process that promises to speed up product development is understandable. My experiences at startups and big companies alike have involved 24-hour or several-day hackathons that resulted in intriguing ideas and presentations to executives that ultimately went nowhere. While these innovation efforts were well-intentioned, their structure did not allow the resulting ideas to come to fruition. They served to energize the team and to create excitement but didn't move the company forward in any meaningful way, making them arguably pointless. When rallying cries of bottom-up innovation end up only in pretty post-its on a whiteboard, many product and engineering leaders are left justifiably jaded and begin to favor founder- and exec-led product development instead.

Design thinking has been criticized in much the same way - a hyped-up process that leads nowhere, despite success stories and case studies from Bank of America (Keep the Change, a currently live product), GE Healthcare (MRI), Embrace Global (infant warmer), Airbnb, IDEO, and more. I know these stories well because I was trained in design thinking at Stanford's I practiced it working on projects to redesign wheelchairs for underserved populations and prototype product ideas for well-known partner companies such as Fidelity, Jetblue, etc. I've experienced the benefits that this process offers, helping teams achieve the holy grail of product-market fit. However, once I left school and began working, product development was top-down. Design thinking was foreign to the teams I worked on. My teammates struggled with the ambiguity of new product development and not knowing whether they were building a product that people would love. This was familiar to me because I had struggled similarly before. I knew that design thinking could help relieve anxiety and help us to figure out the right direction more quickly. However, introducing design thinking was an uphill effort because these startup teams were skeptical. After experimenting with different approaches to introducing this methodology into my teams' product development, I was able to successfully apply design thinking to launch MVPs and, in the process, helped my colleagues to experience its benefits first-hand.

I was trained in design thinking at Stanford's Practice came from redesigning wheelchairs for underserved populations in Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability, prototyping product ideas for partner companies in Innovation in Complex Organizations like Fidelity, Jetblue, and many more. The process was unquestioned and celebrated in a school founded by the founder of IDEO. However, in industry, most companies practice the founder-led product development process. Introducing design thinking was an uphill effort—if it was even considered.

The different phases of design thinking.

How might design thinking help my team?

Design thinking consists of the following phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. These phases are iterative and teams can revisit any of them as needed.

Practicing design thinking to launch an MVP had the following impact on teams that I've worked with:

  1. Team buy-in

    Typically, only product leaders (PMs, founders, execs) or designers talk to users and communicate their findings to the team. However, a lot of nuance about users is lost if the conclusions are reported out as prescribed solutions or lengthy reports that don't connect user insights to recommended actions. All team members must gain a deep understanding of users to develop empathy for them - hard to do when relying on someone else's interpretation. When team members from different functions (engineering, product, design, etc.) collaborate in the empathy phase, they create a shared understanding of the user's world and pain points. This helps the team to understand potential user problems and to frame hypotheses about what product direction could address those problems. The team won't need to be convinced of the strategy because they will have helped to shape it. Lengthy debates with no resolution are less likely to happen. The design thinking process has defined phases of exploration that force forward momentum and help keep teams from being bogged down in endless debate. As a result, decision-making is faster, and the team is aligned rather than resigned and indifferent. 100% agreement isn't needed to move forward, just their commitment to testing at each phase and learning from users.

  2. Fast learnings

    it might be blasphemy to suggest that work can be fun, but it's true that when team members trust one another and apply their expertise to create products that users love, they have fun. In the design thinking process, engineers who are passionate about the product, and not just the underlying technology, are involved from the beginning and can see the impact of their work via direct contact with users. That emotional connection inspires and creates a fulfilling experience for all team members. Being able to experiment, make mistakes, and learn quickly makes work feel like play. Fun encourages intrinsic motivation.

  3. Managed anxiety

    New product development is intense and anxiety-inducing because there is no single solution. Given that there are no right answers, it isn't clear if the team is working on a solution that has product-market fit - user feedback can be conflicting and lukewarm. For engineers learning and practicing design thinking, the uncertainty of new product development is challenging when they are involved from the beginning - it was for me. It may be even harder when non-engineering teammates suggest wildly unfeasible ideas. However, knowing that ideation is a phase and expecting it to be broad for a limited time can help to relieve anxiety. Teams eventually progress beyond brainstorming (as my teams did), even though it may temporarily feel like a dumpster fire at various points. The design thinking structure helps to manage the emotional maelstrom that team members who are not accustomed to operating without constant clear direction might feel.

  4. Fun

    It might be blasphemy to suggest that work can be fun, but it's true when team members trust one another and utilize their expertise to create products that users love. In the design thinking process, engineers who are passionate about the product, and not just the tech, are involved from the beginning and can see the impact of their work via user feedback. That emotional connection inspires and creates a fulfilling experience for all team members. Being able to experiment, make mistakes, and learn quickly makes work feel like play. Fun encourages intrinsic motivation.

How can my team adopt design thinking?

I knew that only by adopting and practicing design thinking, would my teams realize its benefits. In one instance, I chose a pragmatic approach of only applying portions of design thinking to the current product development process. This introduced the team to the different concepts of each phase and allowed them to practice without necessarily being aware that they were using design thinking. I chose this approach because I realized that dogmatically evangelizing it would cause undue pushback, as so often happens when people feel pressured into a prescribed course of action.

Piecemeal application

The team's process was founder-led, and new product ideas were launched once or twice a year. For a few months, they had tried variations of a product experience that the founders had already conceived of and had conviction in. They wanted a designer who could realize that vision and design the experience. The team was already in building mode. It would have been a hard sell convincing them that we needed to restart - I did not have enough historical knowledge to know if it was warranted. Although I trained the team in design thinking via a full-day workshop, some team members were still uncertain about how to apply it. Having trained past teams, I realized that adoption was contingent on practice but didn't have to be all or nothing. Instead, I listened to the team's feedback. I identified when to involve them, depending on their interest in the phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, or test.

A group of people putting post-its on a whiteboard.

Even though we weren't practicing the design thinking process in its entirety, I selected crucial elements and incorporated them. The development train was in full swing, so I had to continue designing the UX while filling the gaps in my knowledge. During user feedback sessions for the mockups of different experience options, I used the opportunity to perform additional user research. The ad hoc and piecemeal nature of this research was challenging. Without restarting at the very early empathy phase, I tried to create a shared understanding of users and pain points. I relayed the learnings to the team and ensured all their questions were answered. I sought to inform them via succinct Slack write-ups, meetings, and individual 1:1s. I shared information in different formats: high-level summaries, synthesis of insights, raw notes, and interviews. This allowed team members to learn how I drew certain conclusions and double-check my understanding. The varying levels of detail gave them the freedom to form their own opinions without relying on my potentially erroneous conclusions. Engineers are not as involved with user feedback as often as designers and PMs, so I kept them as informed as they wanted without being overwhelmed. This level of transparency and access strengthened the team's trust in my work.

When we wanted to test more ideas, I facilitated brainstorming sessions using the design thinking ideation rules to generate as many ideas as possible before narrowing down to a few to mock and test - a change from just translating the sketches made by founders. Concept testing different ideas with wireframes instead of building out only one idea helped us to eliminate time debating which idea had the most merit. We didn't need certainty to move forward, even when user feedback didn't provide full clarity. We were able to test and iterate on different solutions frequently.

While this process greatly improved how quickly the team was iterating, it had the fatal flaw that the team had never iterated on the problem definition, but instead were already building what the founders had envisioned when I joined. It wouldn't have been an issue if we had been right about the problem and its solution. We weren't.

Although it wasn't ideal, practicing the different design thinking phases piecemeal helped the team to become familiar with what was involved in each phase and how we would operate. It shifted product development from an assembly line with specific functions performing different tasks to one that was more collaborative from the beginning. Team members also developed confidence in their creativity contributing where they hadn't been involved before. When we ultimately ended up pivoting product direction, it was a smoother transition to practicing the design thinking process in its entirety.

A Lego figure sitting on a wooden surface reading a book titled "How to be creative"

Practicing the entire process

We pivoted several times quickly in less than 12-week increments because now design thinking allowed us to experiment, course-correct, and abandon ideas that garnered only lukewarm user feedback. Team members were involved as much as they wanted to be, but everyone shared the same knowledge and moved through the phases together. To kick off the process, I performed user research to explore the space in 1–2 weeks. The founders and I would then work together to define the problem and create "How might we" questions that formed the basis for the hypotheses to test. This was new to the team but was crucial to helping us explore a more open-ended solution space than we had before. We followed up by brainstorming, prototyping, and testing the design thinking way, which the team was now familiar with. Given the team's full participation from the beginning of the process, we were able to move more quickly, even iterating on the problem space itself, not just the solutions. In the final pivot for the MVP, user feedback indicated we were onto something promising. It wasn't clear yet that there was a product-market fit, but we had signals that it was the right direction. We achieved this in 8 weeks after 2 pivots versus the year that we had spent on a single idea before pivoting.

Ultimately, product-market fit isn't guaranteed - no process can promise that. Other processes can help us get there too. Design thinking focuses on the experience of team members, to make that destination more probable. The journey became enjoyable as we worked together better, learned faster, and honed in on the options for product-market fit. We were now a team, not just colleagues. Being united helped us to focus on getting to an MVP much faster despite the uncertainty and ambiguity of new product development.

Explore how you can speed up innovation and train your team in new product development.

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