This essay is dedicated to my future self.
No matter how far I have come by now, how much I have gained since completing my Master and if I am holding my PhD title and running my own company. I will always look back on the lessons, I have learned and the skills that I have acquired in the module Design Thinking.
On my first day in Kingston, it was a Friday and we had the module Design Thinking. We got a question to answer, what we are expecting to learn from this course and what we want to get out from it. These simple questions turned out to be more difficult than I expected. I remember myself thinking about the overall impact of design thinking related to business and came quickly to an easy solution. It might be important, but rational facts are more important.
Before I started with the course, I rather based my daily life decisions on numbers and facts. Tendentially, I excluded creativity from me, because I described myself as uncreative and rather as a rational decision maker. In my opinion, design and creativity certainly accounted for business too, but if needed there would be people who I could hire to do the job. Hence, my answer to the question what I would expect to get out from the course was quite simple, in fact, too simple. How to either know the basic facts about Design Thinking to find the right people, I am uncreative anyways and won´t do the job myself, or I might find students who are really good in the design process and who want to join me. Also, my learning expectations weren’t too high, in my former opinion, creativity wasn’t as important as it is nowadays.
Fortunately, right at the start of the course a colleague recommended me to read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and from this book I remembered the hypothesis that humans have two thought systems, “system 1” is fast in decision making, instinctive and emotional and “System 2” thinks slower but more logical and complex (Kahneman, 2011). This led to my assumption that my first attempt to answer the two questions about my expectations and knowledge about Design Thinking might be right, but in order to get a deeper and more detailed answer and not only scratch the surface of the question I had to think more about the impact of Design Thinking and what I really wanted to learn more about in this course. Backed up with some pre knowledge coming from the book the art of creative thinking, how to be innovative and develop great ideas by John Adair, I concluded that creativity and design thinking is important and that it not only provides a competitive advantage in business spheres, it also provides life changing opportunities in my personal life too (Adair, 2007). Nowadays, after I have finished this module, I can rely on my own experiences from this course and if someone would ask me again what I would think about the impact of Design Thinking I would answer it is more important than ever before for us, it shaped the basic principles of our society.
Honestly, the Design Thinking lectures were exhausting, a waterfall of information poured down on me and for a Friday class with my mind wandering off an afterparty. I was not only surprised how much input of the classes remained; I was also stunned about the diversity of information that were taught to us. In the first lecture that I attended, we had to set up our wordpress accounts to publish a blog about our learning outcomes of the lectures and I hated the idea of writing posts. Something I would never come up with myself. Summarizing my learning outcomes for someone else wasn’t really the reason why I´d chosen this course at the first place, but I really enjoyed the structured and well delivered lesson. To my surprise, the blog posts helped me a lot to remember the theories and things I have learned in the module. Now, reflecting on this way of assessment I have to revise my first opinion and I have to agree on the fact that it really helped me.
Part of the evaluation of the module was based on a real business project. We were supposed to set up a real company and I loved this practical approach. Right in the beginning of the term, we formed groups and I met Abk and Ashutosh (my business partner) for the first time. Instantly, we became friends and once we started with the project, we realized that we had very good complementary skills for the project. My business experiences, the engineering background of Ashu and the marketing background of Abk resulted in a strong team.
We had tons of ideas and it was difficult to select one specific idea. All of them had minor parts of improvement for the society but none of them seemed to have the perfect fit for us and most of the upcoming ideas already existed. I realized that it is very difficult to be specific in exact problem formulating and it is even harder to find a proper solution and form a business around the idea. The alternative usage of bio-plastic idea popped up when we visited the design museum. In the PriestmanGoode Exhibition multiple ways of alternative in-flight plastics were shown with a better biodegradability than regular plastic boxes for lunch and snack meals in planes (apex, 2020). We got inspired and tried to apply the concept of using bio plastic in different markets such as the smartphone cover market. This was how we came up with our product idea and our framework of RICO was born, after we applied the Lean Canvas model, we decided to extend our analysis of the needs of the target customer to foster our uniqueness and to design and create the product aligned to the needs of the customer.
With the help of the Lean Canvas model (Lewrick & Link, 2015), we figured out our key problem for our business idea. We came up with environmental pollution from excessive use of plastic as our problem and our solution to it was an alternative material usage for a product without a second hand market, the smartphone cover market. We defined channels, formulated a USP and figured out potential revenue streams., but before we came up with this idea, we struggled with the solution process.
After we had finally decided on our product, deadlines and an upcoming presentation put us on time pressure. The first Dragon’s Den was supposed to be two days and we had no viable product on hand, nor we had really practiced the presentation. Instead of stressing us out and spreading negative vibes among us as a group. We tried to do our best and relied on the pareto principle. Working on the key elements of the product and the presentation and improvise the last bit if questions would appear that wouldn’t be key drivers in our opinion (Sanders, 1987). Lesson learned; preparation is the key factor to success. The presentation was alright but, in our opinion, we had missed out a lot of things and even the judges concluded in the feedback that the product is great and sustainable but it would help us, to have our attention to details. It was good for us to hear that the basic product itself had a potential, because we knew that the presentation and our paper prototype were improvable.
Deducting from a CB insight study we tried to eliminate as many reasons as possible why startups might fail. Chronologically, we analyzed the potential threats and formulated reasons why this couldn’t happen to us, or how to prevent certain outcomes. This was helpful, as this process of imagination enlarged our understanding of the smart phone cover market, our customer and about us and our potential in competencies.
We carried out a small market research, asked friends and family members about their interest in a sustainable smartphone cover and found that there is potential need in this market. Thereby, it was a great life lesson to learn how theoretical knowledge of structuring surveys would lead to a practical and measurable outcome. Qualitative interviews as well as more surveys on SurveyMonkey proved to us strong interest from several target groups. Further, we received good feedback from interviewees about the idea of biodegradable and environmentally friendly smartphone cases. Whenever we had the possibility, we tried to hold the feedback loops as small as possible and we carried them out in small time frames with our potential customer and applied them, to quickly get an external opinion on our product changes (Ries, 2011). The outcome of the feedback loops was used and transformed into points of optimization for our product and then tested again. This also helped us to create a product designed to the needs of our potential target group.
After we received several inquiries for the cases, it was time for us to get the first prototype. We looked up potential manufacturers and quickly found a distributor in Poland. However, the poor product quality and missing information on the production process were unsatisfying and we decided to change the manufacturer as 17% of startups failed due to poor product quality. It took us a while until we finally found another potential manufacturer in China. The prototypes arrived right on time just before the first trade fair was about to start and we were happy with the quality of the product. Even the production side and manufacturing process were certified. They only used sustainable and eco-friendly materials for the production. Further, in terms of crucial concern of the feedbacks, the wages and salaries of the employees in the production side were higher than the average salary and the working conditions were good.
Something that really inspired me was a sentence from one of our judges on the last day at the final Dragon Dens:
“It is always about the story!”
He concluded that a very good product differentiate itself from good ideas just in the small detail of the story. The very good idea or product nourishes itself from the story behind it and consumer not only buy the product, they buy emotions delivered from the product and the story. They buy a story and identify themselves with the product, it is not only free marketing when the customer talks about your product, moreover you can create a strong follower base, which encourages even more people to buy the story. Even the process of unboxing and the shopping experience take part in the story telling.
In order to validate his hypothesis, I carried out a self-experiment. Whenever I had the choice between quite similar products, I asked myself what the reason might be why I would rather go with product A instead of product B. Most of the times I´d make my decision based on the design and whether I am familiar with the product. In context to the story behind the product, product A, Swiss cheese with the picturesque mountains in the background of its cover convinced me through the story it delivered to me. I associated the mountains with the cows in the background with fresh cheese from Switzerland whereas product B, a plain cheese with no design nor story couldn’t convince me nor build an imagination of a story of the product, it only served it purpose.
Therefore, my final conclusion is that Design Thinking is and will always be incredibly important for the development of our society. It is one of the basic principles that determine our future. Further, it is a way of life and it is our duty as entrepreneurs to share that way of being so.