Design thinking to build products & services

Recently I joined Blackbird Ventures Giants to speak about design thinking, based on my experience building products at SafetyCulture and my previous startups AgCrowd and Noggans. You can find the full video here.

I wish I knew more about this topic before I built my first startup because it would’ve saved us a lot of time and money. So my aim is for you to take these actionable learnings, solve important customer problems and build successful products.

Who am I?

What will we cover?

  1. What is design thinking?
  2. Why design thinking?
  3. How I failed to adopt design thinking when building my startup
  4. How to design think: the Double Diamond
  5. Key takeaways

So what is design thinking?

The most common misconception is the belief that design thinking is an end-process, that it’s the act of producing something like some nice colours on a page.

Design thinking is actually about understanding and solving problems. It’s a mindset, a way of looking at the world that has been practiced for decades, by the term was popularised 20yrs ago but IDEO, a San Fran-based leading design agency.

IDEO’s Tim Brown defines design thinking as:

A human-centred 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.

Design thinking can help anyone, designers and non-designers achieve a more international outcome when building products.

Why design thinking?

A lot of us are either startup founders, supporting startups or building products in established companies, and we all want our products to succeed. The design thinking approach directly seeks to address several of the key reasons for why startups fail.

The #1 reason for startup failure is “no market need”, followed closely by “pricing and cost issues”, “poor product”, “lacking a business model” and “ignoring customers”, all of which the human-centred approach of design thinking can focus on establishing from the very beginning.

You may know Y Combinator, the startup incubator that boasts alumni like Airbnb and Dropbox. Y Combinator has the tagline: “Make something people want”. This is the core of design thinking.

Story of how I failed to adopt design thinking

I’m going to share a personal story of how I failed to adopt design thinking in the early days of building my startup. I was building a FinTech startup called AgCrowd, we were solving the problem of a lack of funding into the agricultural sector by creating an investment marketplace that connected agricultural companies raising funding with investors.

Being a marketplace startup you always have 2 sets of customers: supply and demand. For example, Uber have drivers as their supply and riders as their demand. Airbnb have hosts as their supply and guests as their demand. At AgCrowd we had agricultural companies raising funding as our supply and investors as our demand.

At the time we only had 3 full-timers and a few part-timers working on the startup, so with limited resources we had to pick one side of the marketplace to focus the majority of our time on. We picked companies as we believed that great deals would bring investors.

On the company side we did a huge amount of customer research: we visited customers in different cities, watched them struggle to raise funding from traditional financing methods, and really tried to immerse ourselves in their shoes to empathise with the problems they were facing.

For our investors we interviewed them and asked questions like:

All received a resounding “YES” at the time. But when we took the startup to market we released these were the wrong questions to be asking, when people’s desire to invest in something impact-focused didn’t convert into actual investment.

By this point we’d built our product, raised some funding, been granted our financial services licence (AFSL) and our first customers, but we failed to build a sustainable business and I believe this was down to us not correctly adopting the design thinking process from the start.

AgCrowd investor event ‘Investing in Agriculture’

3 key learnings

  1. Simply asking people what they WANT or what they WOULD do is not enough. Interviews and surveys rarely yield the most important insights and asking these types of questions is flawed. Humans underestimate how they would behave in a future scenario, so you need to fully immerse yourself in the shoes of the customer. Henry Ford summed this up well when he said “If I asked my customers what they would’ve wanted, they would’ve said a faster horse”. Henry Ford would never have built a car if he listened to what his customers WOULD want.
  2. Don’t spend too much time trying to turn “no’s” into “yes’s”. This is a trap I see a lot of first time founders fall into, which is thinking that anybody who disagrees with them doesn’t get it.
  3. Be problem-focused and solution agnostic. This is often where founders get stuck. “I want to build an app” is not the right way to approach a problem, does the problem even need an app?

This is where I believe design thinking can change the game for anybody building products and services, and I wish I knew this earlier!

So how can I start design thinking?

The key takeaway from this article is the Double Diamond, the core framework of design thinking. This involves divergent thinking where you are producing many ideas as the diamond expands, then convergent thinking to narrow down on the best ideas as the diamonds narrow.

Double Diamond

Airbnb’s design thinking journey

I’ll contextualise each stage of the double diamond by walking you through the story of a company we all know and are most likely customers of, Airbnb.

Airbnb is currently valued at US$139 billion, but this wasn’t always the case. In 2009 Airbnb was close to going bust. Like so many startups, they launched and barely anyone noticed. The company’s revenue flatlined at $200/wk, split between 3 founders living in San Francisco, this meant near indefinite losses on zero growth.

Back in 2009 the founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia were accepted into the startup incubator Y Combinator and met with its CEO Paul Graham, who tends to stump people with deceptively simple questions:

Where is your business? Paul asked.

“We don’t have much traction but there’s a few people in New York using it” Brian responded.

“So your users are in New York and you’re still in San Francisco. What are you still doing here? Go to your users. Get to know them. Get your customers one by one” Paul said.

“But that won’t scale. If we’re huge and we have millions of customers, we can’t meet every customer” Brian responded.

Then Paul said “that’s exactly why you should do it now, because this is the only time you’ll ever be small enough that you can meet all of your customers. Get to know them, and make something directly for them”.

So Brian and Joe got on a plan and flew to New York to meet their customers. This brings us to the first stage of the double diamond.

Stage 1: Empathise stage

During the empathise stage you need to spend time acquiring a deep understanding of the problem you’re looking to solve. The best way to do this is by putting yourself in your customers shoes. You can’t solve problems for people you don’t know so find out where they hang out and read what they read.

In Airbnb’s empathise stage, Brian and Joe started knocking on doors to meet their hosts. They slept on their couches and spent time speaking with their customers and observing them to understand their problems.

Something I find helpful here is a “customer journey”, where you draw the target users journey from the start of their experience to the end. For example, the journey of a host on Airbnb might have 10 steps:

Deciding they want to rent out their home → making the room nice enough for guests to come and stay → learning where they’d find the guests → and so on.

Every one of these “touch points” is an opportunity to provide value to your products intended user.

Action: when interviewing 10 customers go and visit 5 of them in their day-to-day. Observe how they operate and ask them deeper questions:

I think you’ll be surprised by some of the problems you’ll uncover.

Stage 2: Definition stage

During the definition stage you put together all the information from your customer interviews to start drawing the common insights. Note that we are still focused on defining the customer problem here, so stay clear of designing actual solutions during this stage.

Something that’s often helpful here is the “Jobs To Be Done” (JTBD) framework, which is a statement for what your customer is trying to achieve in their day.

In Airbnb’s definition stage, Brian and Joe started to highlight the common customer pain points and JTBD.

  1. JTBD: Hosts need to post photos of their homes online, but currently hosts often use their camera phones so the photos of the listings are poor quality. As a result, guests aren’t booking rooms because they can’t really see what they’re paying for.
  2. JTBD: Hosts want to know who their Guests are before they stay in their home, because hosts don’t feel comfortable having people they don’t know around.

Action: once you’ve interviewed 10 customers during the empathise stage, write the common Jobs To Be Done that the customers are trying to achieve in their day-to-day. Here you can see where you could help them via your product or service.

Stage 3: Ideation stage

During the ideation stage you are brainstorming multiple ideas to solve the problem. The focus should be on creating a large volume and variety of ideas. Ideation is not the time to go deep or to narrow your focus on any specific ideas yet.

At Airbnb, Brian and Joe came up with many ideas to solve the problems of poor photo quality and unknown guests, like hiring a photographer, buying a camera and taking higher quality photos of the homes themselves, creating guest profiles, adding where the guests work, a peer-review system.

Action: take the key insights you gathered in the definition stage and start brainstorming as many ideas as possible to solve them. You can use the “idea canvas” to map these out. Ideas can be big, small or terrible. The important thing is that you have a large volume and variety of ideas.

Stage 4: Prototype stage

During the prototype stage you are putting your ideas into the real world in order to learn. Early prototypes should be fast, rough and cheap. These are called “low fidelity prototypes”, which could be as simple as using a pen and paper to draw wireframes.

Why low fidelity? You want low fidelity prototypes because they are easier to make so they allow you to get real feedback from customers and adjust them quicker. They also bring in a different type of feedback: if you show the customer a blank screen they are more likely to tell you what they expect to be there.

Whereas with “high fidelity prototypes” which have higher resolution, customers may focus on things like the colour and text of a button, which doesn’t help you in the early stages of designing a product.

At Airbnb, Brian and Joe brought cameras to the hosts homes to improve the quality of photos on the listings, and created a draft guest profile for the hosts to see who would be staying.

Action: sketch on a paper or use Figma to draw a low fidelity prototype. Figma is free and you don’t need to be a designer to use it, I use it everyday. You can start linking wireframes together to give it to a customer later to play around with.

Stage 5: Test stage

During the testing stage you are gathering feedback from customers. You should test with at least 50–100 people across low fidelity and high-fidelity prototypes.

It’s important to focus on showing rather than telling. Listen to your users talk you through the prototype experience rather than you guiding the user through your own storytelling. Watch for how they use and misuse the product, and follow-up with questions like:

At Airbnb, when Brian showed their hosts the guest profile to help them build trust for who would be staying in their home. Hosts provided feedback “I want to add a photo”, “I want to know where they work and went to school”, so Brian was able to start designing touchpoint by touchpoint.

Action: get on where you can show your prototype to hundreds of real customers online and get feedback fast, or show your prototype to 5 customers you find.

Stage 6: Implementation stage

During the implementation stage you are building a MVP based on the confidence you gained during the iterative prototyping and testing stages.

It’s important to note that a MVP is not an end-product, it’s an iterative cycle which you continuously improve based on customer feedback and metrics.

At Airbnb, Brian and Joe took higher quality photos for the hosts and then went back to San Fran. They saw the results a week later. Improving the photo quality on the listings doubled their revenue to $400/wk, the first financial improvement the company had seen in over 8 months.

Action: use a low/no-code tool like Bubble or Google Sites to get a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to market quickly and at low cost, so that you can start improving it based on ongoing customer feedback.

Impact on Airbnb’s culture

This experience pushed Brian and Joe to make “being a customer” a core value for Airbnb. Now the desire to always be the customer is immediately felt by new team members as “everybody takes a trip in their first or second weak at Airbnb, documents it and then shares it back to the entire company”.

This customer obsession is a really common value that we see at many successful companies. It was front and centre at Amazon and now at SafetyCulture.

The best designed user experiences get out of the way and just help people get shit done. If you have to explain it, you’ve already failed.

Jason Goldberg,

Key takeaways

Here are the key takeaways that you can do right now to generate a more intentional outcome with design thinking:

  1. Put people first. Start with an understanding of people’s needs. Observe them, spend time with them, put yourself in their shoes.
  2. Communicate visually and inclusively. Help people gain a shared understanding of the problem and ideas through graphics and prototypes.
  3. Collaborate and co-create. Work together and get inspired by what you and others are doing.
  4. Iterate, iterate, iterate. Do this to spot errors early, de-risk through validation and build confidence in your ideas.
  5. Focus on the problem, be solution agnostic. “I want to build an app” is not the right approach, does the problem even need an app?

I hope this has helped you in thinking about how to build products and services, and that you can go out with confidence and solve the many big global problems out there.

Feel free to connect or ask me any questions directly on LinkedIn.

All the best,


Product Manager at SafetyCulture. Previously at Amazon Web Services. 2 x startup founder (FinTech & E-commerce). Love to travel, adventure and meet new people.