At the center of every good business design is empathy. Empathy is the act of understanding and being sensitive to someone else’s experience. This quality connects the product, service, and, ultimately, the business to the people who benefit the most from its usefulness. Anyone can be a designer, but the most successful designers recognize that they are not the customer. Instead, a good, empathetic designer does the proper homework to identify the right questions to lead to perfect solutions for the target audience.

Design thinking strategy is a people-centered approach to creative problem solving using specific tools that gather data about a customer’s journey and decision-making processes. It can be used for anything from business building to course design. The process of building a practical blueprint in both scenarios is very similar. Equitable course design can have a significant impact on student outcomes. Small changes in how a course is set up in an LMS system and how assignments are developed can increase learning retention. As a small business owner, college business course designer, and professor, I know applying design thinking principles is necessary.

Highly successful entrepreneurs build businesses and apply an empathetic perspective to solving everyday problems similarly. Teaching design thinking to new entrepreneurs is a powerful way to fully immerse business students in true business building. Almost all business-focused bachelor and master’s programs require developing a business plan that typically consists of 10 pages or more. Yet most need to focus more on the questions that should be presented before a complete plan is written and a business is launched. Like good course development, a business should be designed around the consumer. A business can be found after these questions have been explored.

According to Liedtka & Olgivie, the design thinking process is meant to answer 4 simple questions:

  1. What is – This first phase of the design strategy begins with establishing what problems need solving. Using an empathy map helps humanize and identify your target audience. The following tools in this phase help to deconstruct the user experience to inform design decision-making.
    a. Journey mapping – This outlines steps the target audience takes to accomplish a goal by considering the user touchpoints that reveal awareness, consideration, decisions, and loyalty.
    b. Value chain analysis – This outlines the business model of how the product or service will be delivered to the target audience using the information gathered.
    c. Mind mapping – This considers and organizes central questions and thoughts around important product, service, or business themes.
  2. What if – The second phase explores options, alternatives, and ideas while continuing to refine the business model developed in the first phase. While the tools used in this phase emphasize out-of-the-box thinking, some structure is still included to increase the likelihood of their effectiveness in the application.
    a. Brainstorming – One of the most popular design thinking tools, brainstorming is an effective way to generate new ideas using specific ground rules to increase productivity. It will seem like lip service if used too early in the design process.
    b. Concept development – This tool uses the best ideas from brainstorming and evaluates them against business criteria and data.
  3. What wows – The third phase continues to refine the business model by determining what makes the most sense through more exploration.
    a. Assumption testing – This tool quickly rules out ideas that may not work while identifying those that will.
    b. Rapid prototyping is a quick and rough recreation of a product or service to reflect the initial design in real time.
  4. What works – The fourth and final stage of design thinking engages the customer in creating and finalizing the product or service.
    a. Customer co-creation – This final step is a soft launch to gauge the target audience’s reception of the offering. Improvements and adjustments can be made based on customer feedback. This step is never final since a good designer should always look for ways to improve the customer offering.

Designing a business is an art and science. Using empathetic creativity and researched precision, a target audience is identified by asking the right questions. It can be repeated after launching the business to address new questions, provide additional services, or expand a product line. This visualization process allows new and seasoned companies to continue to iterate and build sustainability for any industry, with the target customer as the focus at every step.

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