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Solving development issues with design thinking

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UPS spends a lot of time, money and energy building things. In fact, we’ll go one step further: UPS loves building things.

During the course of our careers, we’ve both built our fair share of things. But today we’re both quite purposeful in avoiding the word “solutions.” Solutions would imply we found a problem. And finding a problem would imply we discovered it the traditional way — that’s where design thinking changes the equation.

As innovation partners — UPS and Three Five Two collaborate on solutions to help small businesses master e-commerce and simplify international shipping — we thought this article could help readers identify high-potential business pivots. We believe everyone can be an innovator, so if you’re feeling locked into a strategy that isn’t working, now is the time to move in another direction.

“If you’re feeling locked into a strategy that isn’t working, now is the time to move in another direction.”

A leap of faith

“Things” are just that — objects resembling and shaped like a solution. We’ve all created them, we might still do it, from the simple to the complex, these things masquerade around as solutions.

We take a leap of faith when we assume we know what our customer wants without ever speaking to them (through research). We, as creators of solutions, believe we know our customers because we correlate them with colleagues, friends and family.

We then use that proxy knowledge to construct a solution for customers because we think we know them.

That’s a bad approach.

In reality, many companies don’t deeply know their customers at all. So they rely on good intentions and anecdotal information as fuel to drive strategy.

As people, we’re so excited to think of a new solution, so excited about something definite, solid and tangible that we lose sight of the obvious: Did we ever uncover a problem to solve in the first place?

Take this mantra with you: We must fall in love with the problem before the solution.

“In reality, many companies don’t deeply know their customers at all.”

Good intentions aren’t good enough

Despite the best of intentions, we’ve all been on the receiving end of a terrible gift.

Generally, the gift giver puts a lot of time, energy and thought into the present. But you know you’ll never use it, so to spare their feelings, you don’t say anything, keep the present, and it lives in the back of your closet until you ultimately donate it … ouch.

We see companies make the same mistake, especially with digital products. We are constantly building new things — things people never wanted in the first place — with the best of intentions, conflating aspirations and anecdotes with tangible customer insights. 

We’ll discuss frameworks to help ensure you’re building solutions — things customers actually want. But if you take nothing else from this article, recognize this much: Get outside your four walls. Go talk to real users of your product so you can be sure what you’re building is something they want. Go. Go right now.

With that out of the way, let’s dig into the details of design thinking.

So you think you can design think?

At large, industry articles often tout design thinking as the silver bullet in new product development. You get that right, and you’ve got the magic formula.

Now don’t get us wrong, design thinking is critical. It will take you far, but it’s not the end point. Foundationally, the most important design thinking application for product development is that it puts the person at the center of the product and insists your solution serves people.

Starting any product development project with the tenets of design thinking helps you accomplish the following four tenants:
•    It moves you closer to your customer and helps you better understand their pains, unmet needs and desires.
•    It gives you insight into customer journeys.
•    Thanks to rapid prototyping and testing, you validate what people want, and more importantly, clarify what they don’t want.
•    Your features come together as a solution because customers say they really want it — well before launch.

We can’t emphasize enough the importance of rapid prototyping, testing with real customers and iterating or even pivoting based on those learnings. 

This is a simple but effective way to view the value of experimentation as a strategy for lowering risk:

graph
This graph illustrates two different paths to product development. The blue line is what most companies do, otherwise known as the “What You’re Not Going to Do Anymore” line. The pink line is what you’re going to do after applying the principles of design thinking.

This graph illustrates two different paths to product development. The blue line is what most companies do, otherwise known as the “What You’re Not Going to Do Anymore” line. The pink line is what you’re going to do after applying the principles of design thinking. 


The above graph is designed to show that many people who develop solutions — whether it’s digital or another product — believe the longer they plan for something, the more likely the project will succeed and the less risk it incurs.

Simply put, that’s backwards.

Stop developing products in that manner right now. The faster you can observe, assess and validate how much people will enjoy/use/like/hate your product (as an answer to their problem you discovered), the more likely you’ll find a product worth building.

“Go talk to real users of your product so you can be sure what you’re building is something they want.”

The blue line

Picture this: You spend a year and a half developing a product with a team of seven. Just you, the team and a few milestone check-ins before the “big launch.” Sound familiar?

The problem is the only people who have seen the product are you, the team and the few executives who have been involved in the milestone check-ins along the way — and you all share the same four walls.

Guess who’s never seen it? Your customers. So you have no idea whether it’s going to be a success or failure until launch. And that moment is coming a year and half and $2.5 million later. Developing solutions this way is the greatest risk to the way you do business.

The pink line

The pink line represents what would happen if you conducted research, if you validated both their problem and your solution with customers.

You’d gain so much knowledge that by the time you had a portion of your solution that you want to launch, you’d already have great confidence the customers want it — and want to buy it.

So, what’s the big idea here? Stop waiting so long to fail.

Leverage the “ilities” to evaluate solutions through different lenses

In the earliest stages of innovation, we look to the “ilities” to frame our thinking as a form of checks and balances. Through validating desirability, you’ll identify a well-defined problem and if your solution addresses an unmet pain or need of your customers.

Through viability, you’ll assess whether there's a sustainable market and revenue stream for your product, and through feasibility, you’ll verify that the solution can be built with the available technology (or even new technology) and capital at hand.

Used correctly, the ilities can act as an additional layer of rigor to ensure that at each step along the way you have all the components of a successful solution.

With that in mind, here’s a checklist for how best to launch a product:
•    Talk to actual customers. Ensure you understand what your customers want.
•    Assess desirability. Make sure your product is solving for an actual problem or unmet need and that it’s a problem people want solved (hint: that’s not always the case).
•    Assess viability. Make sure there is a market big enough for you to make money.
•    Assess feasibility. Make sure you can actually build the solution.

If you do these things, you’re much closer to a concept sticky enough to sell.

“The most important design thinking application for product development is that it puts the person at the center of the product and insists your solution serves people.”

Your second launch is actually more important than your first

If you’re in the business of delivering solutions to customers — especially if they’re digital — the moment a customer begins using your product is the most exciting time.

Why? Because all the planning, building and testing has led to this critical moment in time. And now you get to share your product with customers.

But it’s what comes next that is most important.

Here is a checklist for how to proceed after launching a product:
•    Ensure your research and data team are ready. They must be ready to begin interpreting data from usage.
•    Launch a pilot to a smaller group of real customers. The entire world doesn’t need to use your product the first day. You need to learn in a live environment … consider it your live laboratory.
•    Watch and listen to customers using your product. Give yourself some time to observe and figure out how to assess changes, iterations and feature ideas.
•    Enhance. And enhance. And enhance again. This is why product roadmaps exist.

This feedback loop ensures you have a product that someone wants to keep using. You know those app updates on your phone for Facebook, Instagram and Uber? They are constantly focused on improving the experience for you. That’s their mission.

“UPS started solving the problem of moving objects from Point A to Point B more than a century ago. Since then, we’ve approached that problem with a series of ever-evolving innovations.”

Great product teams go beyond cross functional  

The teams you create solutions with today are possibly missing much-needed elements for success.

When we think about forming teams to build solutions, why do we tend to jump to the usual functions first: designers, developers, strategists and marketers?

Why wouldn’t we start by thinking about diverse people from different backgrounds with different lenses that, when brought together, enable a wide-angle view that traditional project teams could never possess?

This concept isn’t limited to job function, but imagine what would happen if instead of only the usual suspects, you added employees who work in customer support or sales (just to name a few), all of whom touch customers from different parts of the business.

For effective teams, you need to also consider age, generational biases, gender, ethnicity — all of these elements create a team that can see a solution though many perspectives. That’s the value of cross-functional teams — divergent perspectives that converge to shape well-rounded products people love.

Want a really divergent way to build effective teams? What would happen if you asked employees if they wanted to solve a problem you found rather than simply assigning projects based on availability?  

Start from the beginning 

We need to stop creating the same way we do today, and we need to start from the beginning. Let’s slow down before we go fast again.

Logistics companies like UPS started solving the problem of moving objects from Point A to Point B more than a century ago. Since then, we’ve approached that problem with a series of ever-evolving innovations.

That’s why we’re rolling out solutions like extended-hours pickup, seven-day delivery and other services that continue to redefine the world’s largest package delivery company.

Let’s get out there, go talk to people and create solutions that actually improve customers’ lives, as well as the world.

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Longitudes explores and navigates the trends reshaping the global economy and the way we’ll live in the world of tomorrow: logistics, technology, e-commerce, trade and sustainability. Which path will you take?

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