What is Design Thinking and How Can it Help Grow Your Business?

Designers certainly have an eye for aesthetics, but thinking like one could be the key to your small business’ future.
Design thinking is less about design and more about finding creative and innovative solutions. (Photo: REDPIXEL.PL/Shutterstock)

In the business world, innovation rules the day. Finding creative solutions to your customers’ problems (as well as your own business challenges) is what will set you apart from the competition and take your small business to new heights.


“Design thinking itself is kind of a loose term, but it refers to a methodology of not skipping straight to a solution, and rather, unpacking the problem itself.” -Craig Bryant (Photo: Craig Bryant)

But finding creative solutions doesn’t always come easy. That’s why even professional problem solvers use a basic methodology called “design thinking” when tackling complex projects, such as adding a new product or service to your small business offerings.

To learn more about design thinking and how it can be used by small businesses, NCR Silver spoke to Craig Bryant, founder and CEO of Chicago-based venture studio We Are Mammoth, which focuses on creating ideas for building digital products and software into new companies.

“Design thinking itself is kind of a loose term, but it refers to a methodology of not skipping straight to a solution, and rather, unpacking the problem itself,” explained Bryant. “It’s digging into the problem first, creating as many viable solutions as you can, testing the best ideas and then moving forward with the winner.”

Instead of assuming to know what your customers want and need based on anecdotal evidence, you can use design thinking in your small business to empirically discover your customers’ real needs, enabling you to come up with better, more valuable solutions.

Unpacking the problem

All new products and services are designed with two purposes in mind: first, to create a new and solution to a problem your customers are experiencing, and second, making sure the idea will be profitable for business.

The first and most important step in design thinking, said Bryant, is researching the problem. In order to create something that will be of value to your customers, you must intimately understand the issue you’re hoping to solve.


Design thinking is all about the process. As a small business owner, discuss ideas and solutions with customers and employees. (Photo: Cienpies Design/Shutterstock)

While quantitative methods like customer surveys may give you some direction or stats to back up your idea, they can cause you miss the root of the problem. That can only be uncovered by talking with and observing those who are most affected by it — namely, your customers. Sit down and interview a select group of targeted individuals to get a clearer, more qualitative assessment of the problem. More than a checkbox in an online survey ever could, talking through pain points and personal experiences with customers can open your eyes to new perspectives, ultimately leading to a better product that will sell.

Bryant gave the example of a coffee shop owner trying to get more business from a few regulars who come in just for the free Wi-Fi.

“Interview some of those customers coming in and say, ‘I understand you like coming here to work. Would you mind if I ask you a few questions while you’re sitting here? You’re here every day, and we’re trying to understand how we can help you work better.’”

After several interviews, you may uncover that these customers are willing to pay a premium for faster, more secure internet service at your cafe, or would be interested in a monthly membership subscription for unlimited coffee while they work.

Designing a solution

After your research is done, the next step is brainstorm possible solutions to the problem. “You want to create as many as you can,” said Bryant. “Exhaust all the ideas, all the possibilities to solve a specific problem,” then weed through your list, pick out the top contenders and test them out.

Returning to the coffee shop example, the cafe owner could sit down with his top ideas and see which — if any — seem to appeal most to his regular patrons, he said. Going back to the same people you previously interviewed and getting their feedback on your ideas will help you identify and move forward with the best solution.

Learning from failed ideas

While design thinking is probably “a little too much overhead” for simpler problems, said Bryant, it is highly effective when considering which new products and services to offer your customers — as long as you can stomach the inevitable failure of many of your ideas.

Related: The Benefits of Failure and How to Learn From It

Sometimes the ideas that come out of design thinking are great and might even solve a problem for thousands of people, he said. But if testing reveals it can’t turn a profit, knowing that up front can keep you from wasting money on a doomed initiative.

“It’s a lot cheaper to go through a design thinking experience than it is to just jump right into changing your business — then a year later be broke because you didn’t do your upfront homework,” he said. And when you return to the drawing board for the next round of ideas, “you’ll understand why it didn’t work.”

“It’s a lot cheaper to go through a design thinking experience than it is to just jump right into changing your business.” – Craig Bryant

Back to the coffee shop example, while your plan to charge a fee for faster internet service may have been a great idea on paper, if your customers aren’t willing to pay for it, you could end up footing the bill for a service that nobody will use.

While design thinking may require more time and effort up front, said Bryant, “it’s just a much more exhaustive approach to ensuring that you’re coming out at the other end with the best solution.”

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