Design thinking and lean start-up are human-centric methods to create successful products using systematic, low-risk pathways designed to meet customer needs. Two Stanford Graduate School of Business faculty members: Stefanos Zenios, Investment Group of Santa Barbara Professor of Entrepreneurship and Matthew Glickman, lecturer in management and founder of BabyCenter and Merced Systems offer insights about where design thinking and lean start-up intersect and how to get the best out of both.

“Every start-up is a series of hypotheses,” says Zenios. “Lean start-up provides a rigorous framework that you use to prove or disprove as many of these hypotheses as possible at as low a cost as possible. An interesting question is how you generate the hypothesis? Design thinking is a methodology to do that. In design thinking you develop a prototype that you use to get [qualitative] feedback…and lean start-up makes it more rigorous.”

“Design thinking is more inquiry-based and open-ended. It forces you to put yourself in the customer’s shoes,” Glickman says. He co-founded BabyCenter, a website for pregnant women and new parents, with a friend – both men without children. “We needed to go out and try to understand what it’s like to be a pregnant woman,” he explains. “We talked to lots of people and started to intuit the real problem: that they don’t know what’s coming up next in their pregnancy and their needs change frequently.” By developing intimacy with the customers, they were able to determine the core insight that they built their business around.

“Defining the customer problem comes from patient, sustained interactions with the customer over time,” Zenios says. These interactions lead to insights for creating products that give people what they want. “You want to build a minimal viable product, see what’s working and double down on those,” Glickman says. “You have to go down a lot of alleys to see what underlying problem you’re trying to solve.”

“For many, the mind-set is ‘I want to make this hypothesis work,’ whereas we teach the mind-set, ‘I want to discover if this hypothesis is not valid, and if it’s not valid, why it’s not valid,” Zenios says. “If the data invalidates your hypothesis, you keep some elements fixed and change other elements. But how do you know what to pivot to?” he continues. “The guiding principle is deeper customer understanding. So that’s how design thinking and lean start-up interact: The empathy you gain through design thinking helps you identify possible pivots.”

Indeed, using the combination of design thinking and lean start-up, entrepreneurs quickly and cheaply repeat processes over and over again to refine businesses and products for their market. And as Glickman describes, it is a counterintuitive idea: “put in the minimum amount of effort to get the maximum learning.”

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