What start-ups ought to do now

The most successful companies in recent times are those that have incorporated Design Thinking into their DNA

Pankaj Tibrewal

[Photograph by Robyn Hobson under Creative Commons]

In recent years, design has taken center stage in Silicon Valley. A killer UX (user experience) is a must for any new disruptive product. That is why all startups try hard to get a good designer on their team.

Why? Because designers have co-founded many successful startups recently. These include Airbnb, Flipboard, Path, Vimeo, YouTube, Etsy and Instagram. Larger technology companies are on a buying spree to get access to design thinking. Google bought Mike & Maaike and Gecko Design; Facebook bought Sofa, Bolt Peters, Hot Studio and Teehan+Lax; Globallogic bought Method; Adobe bought Behance; Square bought 80/20.

Over the last ten-odd years, design companies like Ideo, Frog Design, Fjord, Spring Studio and Lunar Design are doing path-breaking work. Many people do not know these companies are actually owned by traditional ones like Steelcase, Flextronics, Capital One, Accenture, BBVA and McKinsey, respectively.

With the exception of Fjord, all of these design companies have roots in Silicon Valley. Who would have thought that Steelcase, a stodgy furniture company based in Holland, a small town in Michigan, owns Ideo, the cool design firm in Silicon Valley?

So what is design thinking? The definition is still evolving and not very clear. Maybe it means simply "thinking like a designer when solving problems". That raises another question. How does a designer think (differently)? Does a design thinking toolkit exist?

First, designers train themselves to unlearn. They reimagine and rethink. When designing a chair, how do you take everything you know about chairs, put it aside and think afresh? The designer asks fundamental questions, reframes their questions and learns from observation.

Designers train themselves to unlearn. They reimagine and rethink.

When I worked at Herman Miller, I learnt the source of inspiration for the legendary Aeron chairs came from observing real people in different situations. The designers, Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick, noticed people frequently got up from their chairs. They figured this was because often times people’s backs were touching the surface of the chair. In turn, that translated into no air circulation and discomfort. They had to unlearn what chairs look like to create the now iconic Aeron chairs with the mesh back and seat.

Chartcube, my startup, was born from the frustration of collaborating around data on mobile devices. If we had asked, "How can we make Excel and PowerPoint work better on a mobile device?" our product would have been very different, and probably a lot less compelling. Instead, we reframed the question to "How can we rethink data collaboration on a small touch screen?"

We "unlearned" the rows and columns way of reviewing data and started from scratch. We started by asking ourselves a few questions. How do people think about reviewing, sharing and discussing data? How would you reimagine the workflow on a small touch screen? You can't really go through rows and columns. So there must be a visual metaphor. Is it a tree, a building, a labyrinth, a map or a cube?

After we settled on the cube, we asked about how could we play with the cube to review data. How would one add a narrative? How would the team collaborate? We feel proud about taking a complex workflow, reimagining it and making it delightful on the mobile.

Second, designers learn how to "solve for the whole". This means making approximations with incomplete information. As an engineer, I learnt how to take a complex problem, break it down into pieces, solve these pieces and put them together. But, this approach also makes me nervous when I have incomplete information and the pieces are not solvable to begin with.

I remember seeing some competing designs to build the tallest skyscraper in Chicago. It occurred to me that the adjudicating architect would pick two or three designs to explore, without factoring in for the stress in each beam among the various designs on hand. She may come back to the rejected designs if she found deficiencies in the ones she selected. But the initial screening was based on inconclusive solving for the parts. Solving for the whole is not the same as hypothesis driven problem solving, which allows one to take a theory and conclusively prove or disprove it before moving to another one.

One of the ways designers solve for the whole is by creating many prototypes, figuring out what aspects of which prototypes work and iterate rapidly. There is acceptance, even desire, of failure because they want to fail fast and learn fast.

Designers learn how to "solve for the whole". This means making approximations with incomplete information.

Let's say we want to create a new car buying experience at a dealership. The traditional approach would be to create and implement the perfect design after a complete analysis of flow, steps and time. The designer, instead, would put together a couple of different experiences with the area made up of reusable cardboard, printed posters, cars that people can check out and paperwork to complete the purchase.

Real car buyers would be invited to go through these different experiences. The information from these prototypes would be used to develop further prototypes by combining the best parts. The design thinker is thus able to put together a few "wholes" and see what works best. At Chartcube, we went through five design cycles even before we launched the product.

Third, designers consider emotion along with utility, cost and risk. They worry about how the product, service and the holistic experiences make people feel. How many times have you gone to a self-service restaurant and taken time to figure out whether to pay first or order first?

Designers worry about how the product, service and the holistic experiences make people feel.

If, while you're figuring it out, people behind you get ahead, you're left with negative feelings. You may not realize it or consciously know the reason why you did not like the restaurant. Unless one proactively thinks about emotion at every step of the process, every aspect of a product and every stage of the experience, the customer is not going to be fulfilled, let alone delighted.

Designers frequently use a tool called the "empathy map". It is a 2 by 2 chart with four quadrants used for recording learnings from observations and interviews. The four quadrants have what users are saying, what users are doing, what (you think) they are thinking, and what users are feeling.

At Chartcube, we created a "customer experience map" to trace the journey of a user. One learning was that the setup time was too long and filled with anxiety for the user. So we created a new setup process in the next cycle. It helped improve how users felt while using our product.

Now, how does a company build their design thinking muscle? The easy answer is to start hiring people with design thinking abilities and adopt some of these tools. But, there are two important issues companies have to address in order to successfully incorporate design thinking.

It can be very difficult incorporate design thinking when there is pressure to increase efficiency or reduce costs, or in the case of a startup, release the product before running out of money. A potentially brilliant idea a week before the next release can be really disruptive. At the same time, if the startup was not working on some disruptive feature two months before the release, the product is not likely to be distinctive enough. At Chartcube, we have three steps in a design cycle.

  1. "Flare", where we come up with as many ideas no matter how disruptive it may sound.

  2. "Synthesize", where we solidify these ideas.

  3. "Converge", where we bake the selected ideas into the next deliverable.

We have internalized these three stages in a way that everyone can engage in the development cycles constructively. People recognize when a new idea may belong to the flare stage of the next design cycle. In that case, they will dismiss the idea for the current cycle, but carefully record it from the next one.

The biggest challenge often is changing the culture. Design thinkers speak a different language from the others. They rethink. Traditional thinkers first resort to what they know. Suppose a team is discussing how to solve a particular problem. When a design thinker says, "Let us start from scratch", others may feel their ideas are being dissed. Designers solve for the whole. When a designer is presenting plausible designs and recommendations on designs to develop further, others may ask, "Have you analyzed the cost-benefit of each design?" At this stage, it is too time consuming or difficult to do a conclusive cost-benefit analysis. There is going to be frustration in this exchange. Designers care deeply about emotion. When the designer says, "It is too complex for the user", others may not appreciate that the design may not make people feel better even though it has higher utility.

Companies need to incorporate thinking diversity in the same way as they incorporate gender or racial diversity.

Companies need to incorporate thinking diversity in the same way as they incorporate gender or racial diversity. Traditional thinkers sometimes dismiss design thinking citing the lack of rigor in terms of inductive and deductive logic. Design thinker find traditional thinking that works only when complete data is available. Companies need to educate everyone on these differences, help develop appreciation and create an environment where both sides flourish.

[This article appeared concurrently in Mint]

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About the author

Pankaj Tibrewal
Pankaj Tibrewal

Founder and Chief Executive


Pankaj Tibrewal is the founder and chief executive of Chartcube, a venture funded startup in the Silicon Valley, that has created a new way for people to review, share and discuss data. Prior to Chartcube, Tibrewal was the chief operating officer of Pantaloons, business head at HT Media and a consultant with McKinsey and Company. Tibrewal has an MS from UT Austin and an MBA from Kellogg.

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