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  • Writer's picturesai surya

Design Thinking in Public - User Discovery

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

One thing that has been guiding our team since Day 1 is not the solution we are building (plot twist) but rather the problem we are trying to solve. Navigating why we are doing what we are doing is crucial for any new venture or initiative to pin down.

These thoughts are paramount on our mission to help to build sustainable cities and communities.

To those who follow the Design Thinking framework, this essentially step 1 - empathising and identifying a clear need.

I find it more productive to attach myself and the team to the problems we are trying to solve rather than getting too attached to the solution. The reason is simple - if we're connected to the problem, the chances of actually finding an effective solution for it is higher. The journey to solve a problem gives the team purpose and pushes the team to iterate until a good solution is found.

Being too attached to the solution instead increases the chances of getting demoralised when the solution doesn't work and reduces the willingness to pivot or iterate on other ways to solve the problem. The last thing a start-up would want is to spend months and years of hard work creating something for a problem or user that does not exist.

Good solutions are paramount to contributing positively our amazing sustainability community and creating sustainable opportunities for all.

Okay enough talk, so what's the problem we are solving?

Early-stage impact founders working on green innovations find it difficult to attain a product-market fit and scale their impact due to lack of fund-readiness, talents and a collaborative community.

How did we arrive at this problem statement and why are we sure this is a problem worth solving?

1. Observation through our experiences

More often than not, entrepreneurs embark on their journey due to a gut feeling or conviction. This gut feeling stems from the observations and experiences they have made over the years.

For us, our 3 years of experience in running regional incubation programmes for early-stage impact start-ups and interacting with over 75 Southeast Asian entrepreneurs in the sustainability space under YSI SEA has exposed us to the kind of struggles they commonly face and their needs.

2. Empathising through persona interviews

Gut feeling and experience is frankly not enough. It would be dangerous for us to generalise the journey we observed in a different context as the problems they indeed face might be different. That's why we reached out to 30 founders from across Southeast Asia to interview them.

Our online interviews were roughly an hour each. The interview questions were aimed at empathising with the founders rather than trying to reinforce our beliefs. The sample of questions asked shows how we structured the questions to broadly guide the founder to share what they see, feel, think and do so that we can put ourselves in their shoes/ slippers/ sandals/ footwear... you get the point.

Sample of interview questions we asked founders

This is arguably the most important part of the entire process. It helped us understand how our target personas feel and experience things and distil common themes raised across different founders.

Not only did this help with data-driven decision making, but it also helped us communicate to the rest of the team and stakeholders these experiences and the broad problems raised. In short, this rallied the team behind a purpose - to address the problems faced by real people we have spoken to.

Here is a great resource that can help you scope out your persona and interview questions!

3. Making sense of the persona experiences

Jarratt consolidated the insights to present to the team and became the pseudo champion of the users. This also helped with our copywriting and framing of marketing collaterals to communicate with our target audiences more effectively.

Our team came together to make sense of some common observations and tried to dig deeper into why these were occurring in the first place. Subsequently, we did secondary research (such as the Thomson Reuters Foundation 2019 poll analysing the social entrepreneurship space) to see macro trends in the space and help explain part of the observations. Here's a glimpse of that!

4. Continuing conversations and gaining perspectives

By this point, we already scoped out the problem statement and started our brainstorming process (reserved for another post). We still continued to have conversations with those in the ecosystem like funders and talents to understand their side of the story.

To be honest, this part was slightly overwhelming because we were gaining a lot of insights, opinions and thoughts from very different people, all within a very short period. But when we put these observations together as a team, there was a sense of clarity and confidence which we could work with.

This also reinforced that conversations with the users are a continuous process and not a one-off activity.

So you're telling me you spent 3-4 weeks on just talking to users and understanding them?

Yes...we did. We wanted to make sure we really understood the needs and problems faced by early-stage founders and talents in the sustainability space before we dived into creating something.

While I think we could have pushed this process slightly faster, I am thankful that we could confirm and even reject some of our initial hypotheses. This saved us a lot of time that could have gone into prioritising the wrong things, and later realising it was a non-issue.


P.S. Here is an excellent online course on Digital Product Management that I have personally taken and the related course materials (open access) which can help those interested in the design thinking process!

Hope this helps you get attached to the problems of your users and not your solutions. What is an environmentally sustainable society without being more involved in the decision thinking process?


Want to be a part of a sustainability community for founders and talents? Check out our platform for founders and talents!

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