As a startup founder or entrepreneur, you live for that 'light bulb' moment when you suddenly stumble on a brilliant business idea. There's nothing quite like it, right? That is, until you get to the hard part—turning that idea into a good product that people are willing to pay for.
Let's face it: the road to startup success is long and hard. In a world of changing customer expectations, you have to jump through several hoops before you can hit that sweet spot where you're able to serve the right product to the correct target market.
Fear no more! While product development leaves a lot of room for mistakes, what you do with those mistakes can make a big difference.
Let's take a deep dive into why ideas fail to become good products, and more importantly, how you can use those failures to your advantage.
But to fail your way to success, adopting the right strategy is critical.
Which brings us to product design.
Product design, to put it simply, is a holistic approach to creating products that meet the needs of your target market. It's a collaborative approach that draws knowledge and expertise from across various disciplines, from information architecture and market research, to business strategy and user experience design, to name a few.
I know there's a lot to unpack there. So, let's narrow our focus and talk about a concept that's central to product design: Design Thinking.
Tim Brown, executive chair of IDEO, defines design thinking as follows:
"Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology and the requirements for business success."
Simply put, design thinking is a method for creative problem solving that aims to improve the experience of the people you serve.
Design thinking consists of five phases:
It's worth noting that design thinking is an iterative and non-linear process. Because the steps are not strictly sequential, you can test, validate, and refine your assumptions about your idea and product as needed. This leaves a lot of room for creative and innovative thinking, allowing your teams to create a product that's optimized to meet and address the needs of your target users.
To give you a more well-rounded view about how design thinking works, let's discuss the common reasons why ideas fail (as promised), and how your teams can use design thinking to create a product your target users will love.
One of the biggest mistakes a startup founder or entrepreneur can make is to assume that they know what their target customers want.
"People don't know what they want until you show it to them," as Steve Jobs succinctly put it.
Before you can "show it to them," you need to make it your business to know what your target audience wants.
But this is not something you can half-ass. If you want valuable insights that will help you come up with a good product, you need to get to know your audience on a deeper level. You see, consumers play this cruel game where they say one thing then do the opposite. Dig deeper. What makes them tick? What keeps them up at night? What are their motivations?
To pull that off, you need to do some market research.
In this stage, you need to think less of marketing and focus instead on establishing and maintaining relationships. This is not the time to sell your idea or product yet. Rather, take this as an opportunity to build trust by helping out and providing value. Besides, this creates opportunities for interactions that will help you understand your prospects better.
To gather information about your target audience and get to know them better, here are research methods you can use.
Is your product solving a real problem? If you're not rigorous enough in defining the problem you're trying to solve, you might end up wasting your resources and pursuing product initiatives that your target market won't give a damn about.
Take Google Glass for example. Remember the amount of hype that surrounded the Glass in the months leading to its launch? You would think that Google had got it in the bag. But as you probably know by now, it failed miserably. Why? It's because its creators neglected to define the problem that their product is solving for its users. In fact, there was no established consensus on how Google Glass would be used. Is it any wonder those things flopped? So long, glassholes.
If you want your product to avoid the same fate, you'd do well to define the problem you're solving with your product.
Ask yourself the following questions:
Once you've satisfied all the above criteria, it's time for you to create a problem statement. A problem statement is a clear description of the problem you're trying to solve. Think of it as the North Star that keeps your team on track during the product research and development process. Ideally, a problem statement is phrased as a question starting with "How might we…?"
For your problem statement to be effective, make sure to frame it in a way that addresses the needs of your target users.
Here are good examples of problem statements:
Most startups fail because they're offering something that's too similar to an already existing (and way more popular) product. If you try to be another Salesforce, chances are your startup idea is going to fall flat on its face. Hard.
Do you want your product to stand out? You have to find your “secret sauce.”
Finding that “secret sauce” goes beyond creating a unique product. If you want to disrupt the market and create some real noise, you need to discover an unscratched itch and explore the possibilities of how you can scratch it.
However, innovative ideas don’t just appear out of the ether. You need to push the boundaries of what’s possible and give yourself room to think outside the box.
This is where the ideation phase in design thinking comes into play.
The ideation phase is the process of generating as many ideas and solutions as possible, with the aim of addressing your target users' needs. The goal here is to cast a wide net so that you can catch all the big fish (the best ideas) wherever they're hiding.
As with any other systematic process, ideation needs rules of engagement to be effective. You need to make sure that the ideas being generated are in service of the user and are aligned with your business goals.
Here are effective ideation methods you can use:
Whatever method you’re going with, make sure that the ideas are inspired by the problem statement that was defined in the previous step, and that they are based on the needs, behaviors, and attitudes of your ideal users as defined in the empathize phase. Make sure that members are given the freedom to share their ideas without ridicule or judgment. Playing devil’s advocate is not allowed.
Once the best idea has been identified, you can turn that idea into a solution that will address the problem that was defined in your problem statement. But for you to test that solution in the real world, it has to be presented in a more tangible form. In other words, you must create a rough sketch of that solution in the form of a Wireframe or a Mockup.
It's too easy to fall in love with an idea, especially if that idea is yours to begin with. Your idea, after all, is your baby.
The thing with product ideas is that, more often than not, the problems they're trying to solve are more complex than they first appear. If you push through with the first good idea and run with it, the resulting product is likely to leave your target users cold once it's out in the wild.
Remember, one of the aims of design thinking is to fail early. This way, you can test your ideas and make corrective actions when necessary and before you make a costly investment.
To test your idea, you need to create a prototype. Make sure there's a clear objective for it. What is the prototype for? What assumption are you trying to validate with this prototype? And mind that you don't fall in love with that prototype, either. A good approach is to think of your prototype as a disposable artifact whose only purpose is to validate the real-world impact of your idea before investing in it.
Prototypes are either low-fidelity (looks and feels like a barebones version of the design) or high-fidelity (simulates the look and feel of the intended final design).
Examples of low-fidelity prototypes:
Examples of high-fidelity prototypes:
There are no two ways about it: Product design is key to creating products that turn customers into raving fans. By adopting an iterative approach to problem-solving and fostering a collaborative environment that puts the needs of customers first, design thinking can help you turn your idea into something that changes people's lives for the better. At the end of the day, isn't that what we're here for?