Leveraging Design Thinking to Launch a Business

By: Jess Do

Starting a business is like most endeavors in life—if you reflect and incorporate lessons as you go, it can be a lot easier to move forward and even find some success.

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Listen to this smart man! This absolutely applies to businesses.

My entrepreneurial project is Palmpress, a personal craft coffee press for hot and cold brew coffee. And I’ve certainly learned a lot of lessons, but one in particular stands out: success comes from learning as much as you can about people as quickly as possible. Our first job is to understand. Once I realized this, the next steps became clearer, decisions became easier and progress came faster.

This is a story (a slice of, rather) of what the path to launching my business—and learning all about my customers—looked like. It’s rooted in design thinking because design thinking is rooted in understanding.

Ideation: Stretching Your Brain

Every business starts as an idea. If you’re like me, you love thinking of ideas for products and services, and you get them all the time. But most of these ideas fade. Maybe the passion isn’t there, it feels like it’s way beyond your experience and resources, or it’s already being done. So how do you get an idea that sticks?

For me, the key was starting with a theme that intrigued me—how to make our mornings better (this doesn’t have to become the premise for your business, just a prompt to get you thinking). I’m not a morning person so I started thinking about my morning routine and jotting down scattered thoughts and ideas, quick, quick, quick. Eventually, I got to the coffee part.

Brain dump.

Brain dump.

I get really excited about coffee. A few years ago I started making really good coffee for myself, and now my daily, late-morning cup is such a treat. I had tried many coffee brewers and experienced my fair share of annoyances—things like waste, toxins, clunkiness, bad aesthetics, inaccessibility… I wrote all of those thoughts down. Then I brainstormed solutions, including a compressible thingamajig that made bomb coffee without it contacting plastic, and was entirely reusable and beautifully designed. And so the concept of the Palmpress was born from a brainstorm. It wasn’t a business idea yet, but it was a starting point.

That process of going from nothing to an idea with legs takes practice. In workshops with The Design Gym we worked on just that. I learned to start with a hunch and quantity over quality of thoughts, which stops you from overthinking and gives you a much wider range of ideas to work with. I learned to then build upon and edit those thoughts until something compelling bubbled to the top, something that could make sense for me to tackle! If nothing stuck, I’d do some exploration to get inspired or revisit brainstorming another day.

Examining and Understanding: Building a Business Case

Once I had my idea, I wanted to find out whether or not it was viable and how it could fit in the marketplace. So, it was time to leverage the Examine and Understand phases of design thinking—two phases that lay the groundwork for a customer-focused offering or business.

If you’ve looked into the design thinking phases, you may notice that I talked about ideating before researching. That’s okay because design is not a linear process. It’s often initially taught in a linear way to make it digestible, but with enough practice, all the concepts slowly start to become permanently cached in your brain and can be called upon whenever needed.

During the Examine and Understand phases, I leveraged a variety of tools—the following are three that I found extremely helpful.

Tool 1: Tip-toeing in with Reviews and Forums

I’ve never invented, built a business model around, and manufactured a physical product before. When people ask me how I went about figuring things out, I tell them I googled. A lot. It’s the simplest answer I can give. We are so lucky to be able to research anything we want, whenever we want. This includes important competitor and industry research. No matter how unique your idea is, you always want to know the different options currently on the market, the trends in the industry, and where you could fit in.

Here’s what’s incredible—tons of raw user feedback has already been nicely typed up for you to digest at your leisure over a pamplemousse LaCroix. It’s in the form of Amazon reviews, forum discussions, blog post comments, and the like! You literally can read what customers are saying about your space and your competitors—what they love, what they hate, what questions they have, even what they wish were different. Do you hear this?! Users are telling you how you could provide unique value to them!

I began to understand the pros and cons of other coffeemakers without ever having to buy one. I saw that people commonly asked about the materials of coffeemakers. I saw how people reacted to different types of coffee filters. I collected so much information to work off of on day one of examining!

So browse those reviews, scour (and even participate in) those forums, and take note of those comments. Copy and paste any interesting data into a Google doc—or for design thinking points (and fun points), jot info onto post-it notes so that it’s easy to sort and visualize later. Then use sorting techniques—like cluster and label, quadrant/axis and venn diagram—to connect some dots and gain insights.

One of my very first prototypes using a squeezable kiddie cup, basket coffee filter, rubber band, and mason jar ring. The coffee was excellent; the look and feel, not so much :)

One of my very first prototypes using a squeezable kiddie cup, basket coffee filter, rubber band, and mason jar ring. The coffee was excellent; the look and feel, not so much 🙂

Tool 2: Talk to People! Conduct Surveys

Online surveys are something so simple and so valuable, yet totally underutilized! But I’m telling you, seeing feedback magically appear into a nice spreadsheet is as fun as getting likes and comments on your Insta post. I put together a simple Google form with non-leading questions and accompanying images—including an early rendering of the Palmpress with a scrappy how-to diagram (remember, prototypes come in all shapes and sizes). I sent out the survey to my friends and then asked them to share it with people who didn’t know me.

When the results came in, I started digging for trends and insights. This was great practice in receiving feedback neutrally. There were people who weren’t feeling the early rendering of the Palmpress, and some even hated it. But that was okay, because a significant amount of people were enthusiastic about Palmpress, saying things like “I so want this.” I filtered for enthusiastic feedback and found that those people tended to share certain qualities, such as age range, their perceptions of existing coffee brewers, and what they appreciated and disliked. I was learning what drew them to Palmpress, how much they might pay, and what information they needed to actually get on board. My early adopter was materializing. And I had a good sense of my “anti-customer”—the people who simply weren’t going to be interested in this kind of product.

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I was analyzing the feedback and learning things left and right. This early, scrappy research led me to begin identifying a positioning for Palmpress. Positioning is how you’re perceived, your angle, what you lead with, whether it be low-cost, high quality, excellent service, super portable, extremely convenient, eco-friendy, luxurious, masculine, healthy, philanthropic, for this type of person, for that type of person, for harmonica-playing dog walkers—whatever it is, you cannot and should not be everything to everybody or even close. Start with one thing to hang your hat on, and it will push you to think differently, intentionally, and thoughtfully rather than scattered and diluted. And you can always broaden or edit as needed.

My first survey pointed me in a general direction. My next survey allowed me to target a much more relevant audience, and present more details about Palmpress, in order to get more accurate answers. This second survey showed an evolved prototype—a demo video and styled image.

Everything I learned about my users through surveys was used to make Palmpress better for them.

Tool 3: Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: Immersive Research, Observations and Interviews

I received a lot of suggestions on how to market the Palmpress. The suggestions weren’t right or wrong in and of themselves, but I reminded myself that the people giving suggestions didn’t have a deep understanding of my customer or the market. Their feedback is valuable, you just can’t take it at face value.

Huh?

Here’s what I mean: figure out why people are saying what they’re saying and how it actually plays out in real life. I did so by using Palmpress in as many real-life scenarios as possible, being a fly on the wall, and interviewing.

For example, some people suggested that work/office and on-the-go use would be a leading application for Palmpress, one reason being it’s obviously very compact. So, I visited six different offices to learn about their coffee game. One thing I observed was that while some offices were equipped to the nines, some didn’t even have a sink or water source that gets hot enough for coffee. I also realized similar things with hotel rooms when I traveled, although I must say that Palmpress is super easy to travel with. On another trip I brought Palmpress to my friends’ apartment and we palmpressed coffee using fresh grounds from their local coffee shop—they LOVED the coffee, saw how much better it tasted than usual, and even made an extra cup to save in the fridge before I left.

I also brought Palmpress to the Caribbean with me on vacation. I made coffee with beans that I had packed, but realized something tasted off. I was baffled for a while before realizing the water there tasted really, really different, and it was the main ingredient in my coffee! I learned so many things that I could’ve easily missed had I not immersed Palmpress into a bunch of day-to-day scenarios.

Carrying around Palmpress to test when the opportunity striked. Who doesn’t have time to spare for a cup of coffee?

Carrying around Palmpress to test when the opportunity arose. Who doesn’t have time to spare for a cup of coffee?

Another suggestion was that Palmpress could target coffee snobs. However, after conducting interviews and visiting homes to learn about coffee habits, I found that most of my audience was pretty unfamiliar with making craft coffee. When they had time, they’d make themselves coffee with a coffee machine or perhaps a French press. When in a rush, they’d stop to pick it up or drink free office coffee. They weren’t coffee snobs, just coffee lovers. And that led to another key insight—Palmpress may be attractive to coffee snobs, but marketing to coffee snobs might actually alienate my early adoptor!

Putting all of that together, I concluded that outside of home my audience would not likely go out of their way to brew their own coffee. It’s just not practical with unknown factors and alternative options, and therefore Palmpress should not lead with things like “on the go.” And to learn all this I had to go straight to the source—the people who would actually be using Palmpress. At this point, I was forming a good idea of what my audience cared about and the simple value they could derive from Palmpress—superb coffee, made by you. And where you decide to make it is not so important as long as it suits you.

Behind the scenes of a Palmpress photoshoot, produced with our audience in mind.

Behind the scenes of a Palmpress photoshoot, produced with our audience in mind.

Showing Up and Doing

Here’s the beautiful thing. Because you’ve done so much discovery, you’ve formed a meaningful story that you can tell to others—be it investors, media outlets, or colleagues. This is a framework I like that I’ve adopted from The Design Gym and Ariel Raz of Stanford d.School:

We had a hunch that ______. So we researched by _______. We were surprised to learn that _________. So it’d be a game-changer to _________.

You now have the workings of a business case, a position to take, some fluency in the market, tools for research and brainstorming, and data to fuel your prototypes. Now, it’s about showing up and doing—yes, that’s the grand finale! Be a practitioner. Learn as much as you can about people, and then do something about it.

 

About Jess Do:

We’re stoked that long-time TDG community member, Jess Do was able to contribute a blog post this week on how she’s leveraged design thinking thus far in her entrepreneurial journey. Jess is a product entrepreneur with a background in finance and project management. From trading platforms to local communities, she’s been building things her whole life, most recently the Palmpress coffee press.

 

 

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