How Thinking Like a Designer Can Inspire Innovation

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As a startup or small business leader, you have the opportunity to make bold choices that keep you one step ahead of the market and make you indispensable to your customers. Innovative leaders, like the late Steve Jobs, do that by thinking like web and product designers.

"What a designer does is imagine the future," says Bill Burnett, executive director of the design program at Stanford's "That's what's powerful about design thinking for a business leader." 

A designer brings two essential perspectives to every problem: empathy and creativity. "To invent a future that doesn't exist, you really have to understand what people are doing today and completely reimagine it," Burnett says.

You have to know your customers well enough to find the right problem and give yourself enough creative freedom to find the right solution. Here are four tips to help you think like a designer and drive innovation in your industry:

1. Observe your customers in many contexts. If you want to innovate, skip the market research. "You can't innovate with market research; all you can do is incremental product improvements," Burnett says.

Instead, really get to know your customers. Observe them at home, in the workplace, and on the go. "Think of yourself as an anthropologist," Burnett says. You're looking for frustrations, processes that waste time, or work-arounds people have found to accommodate poor designs. Each is an opportunity for innovation.

Related: 4 Ways to Build a Culture of Innovation at Your Startup

2. Find the right problem. "Most of the time, people are solving the wrong problem," Burnett says. To solve problems your customers can't articulate, as Steve Jobs repeatedly did, you have to use all the data you found during observations.

For example, an NGO in Nepal asked students to design an incubator for premature newborns. When the students visited, they realized that hospitals are flush with incubators, but babies are born in huts. To address the real problem, the students invented a low cost infant warmer, Embrace, to help parents transport babies to the hospital.

3. Brainstorm hundreds of ideas. Once you identify the right problem, let your imagination run wild. "People tend to gravitate very quickly toward solutions," Burnett says. "They start thinking of how services they already provide could be adapted and immediately truncate the brainstorm down to what is known." 

Give your team the freedom to indulge every wild possibility. Include ideas that you have no idea how to implement, or that don't fit your company's current expertise. "In order to be successful, you might need to completely re-engineer your company," Burnett says. That might be scary, but those who have the guts to do it will be the ones who solve the right problems and succeed.

4. Create and test easy prototypes. Take the ideas that seem most interesting and make easy samples to share with the people you observed. Mock services with screenshots, products with cardboard, and apps with post-it notes. "You want to show them stuff that's obviously not good or done so they can react more honestly," Burnett says.

Designers call this "building to think," meaning that watching people engage with the prototype sparks even more creativity. "You give them something they've never seen before and they act in new ways," Burnett says. "You start creating with them." When you do land on a final design, you'll be able to choose it with confidence.

Related: Want to Nurture Creativity Among Employees? Assign Crazy.

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