3 Powerful Examples of Design Thinking in Startups in Action

Reka Forgach

August 1, 2021

Design thinking methodology is a popular problem solving strategy created by the design consulting firm IDEO. Its prime characteristic is a commitment to prioritizing consumer’s needs above everything else - by observing how people interact with environments and products and using those learning to innovate new solutions.

In startup world, design thinking is a powerful tool for honing in on a real consumer need and bypassing costly hours and resources hypothesizing and experimenting with different solutions.

AirBnB and PillPack are well-known brands whose success can be attributed, in part, to an ‘aha’ moment inspired by design thinking processes. UberEats integrates various design thinking practices intentionally into their product development with methods like “Order Shadowing” and “Walkabouts.” 

Here’s what that looks like in action.

The 5 steps of design thinking

While creativity in design is important, design is an activity that serves economic as well as creative goals. The design process helps ensure that a design satisfies all such considerations.” - Design Thinking, Gavin Ambrose.

By solving concrete human needs, design thinking uniquely helps startups tackle the kinds of problems they work with - ones that are hard to define or not yet well formulated. Using the 5 steps of the method, teams have a framework to come up with more innovative solutions, while the organization can solve problems more efficiently and grow faster.

Design thinking practices are all loosely based on a 5-step framework, which can be executed in sprints for rapid testing and iteration.

The design thinking methodology consists of 6 different stages: emphasizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, testing and finally, implementing. 

Step 1: Empathize with your audience

Interviews, shadowing, and a non-judgmental approach to understanding help researchers learn about the audience for whom they are finding a solution, in order to fuel the problem definition

Step 2: Define the problem

By creating user personas, listing pain points and objectives, and challenging assumptions with learnings from user research, the next step creates a data-backed point of view built on the user’s needs and insights

Step 3: Ideate a solution

In this phase, a lot of brainstorming will happen to come up with a creative solution. Best practices include “Yes and” thinking, ‘diverge and converge’ brainstorming rounds, and prioritization after an idea dump. 

Step 4: Prototype your solution

Create ‘shitty prototypes’ to learn and finetune your creative solution quickly. Depending on your goal, you can use mockups and storyboards, or simple 3D models and paper prototypes to keep it simple. This stage of the process is about editing creating a bare minimum set of functions, or a representation of ideas, that you can test with your audience.

Step 5: Test your prototype

Go back to your audience and test your prototype with them. Ask open questions and role play to understand any impediments to using the problem, or flaws in the solution - as well as what works. Work quickly, fail fast, and return to steps 2 and 3 to refine the problem statement and come up with new solutions based on your insights.

How Hungarian design agency ff.next divides the design thinking journey

To see what this looks like on the ground, we asked the ff.next team to explain how they apply this process in their own workflow. Here’s what that looks like for them:

We at ff.next usually divide these 6 stages into 3 separate processes. During the "emphasising-defining" joint phase we conduct several interviews with potential users: we are interested in the functions end users like and the problems they experience with the existing tools. Within the "ideation-prototyping-testing" stage we usually come up with all sorts of suitable ideas, analyze the competition and discuss our concepts with our developer colleagues to validate their feasibility. 

Based on the acquired data, we create a prototype which later on can be showcased to test users. This is followed by an iteration phase in which we analyze our solution based on the previously collected meaningful customer insights and modify the necessary elements to be able to test the solution again. 

In some cases, our partners provide us with their research materials so there's no need to conduct user interviews. When we feel that a function is finalized and ripe to enter the  development phase, the implementation takes place.

Wondering how leading and local startups put these 5 steps into practice? Check out these three examples of design thinking moments that led founders to new insights into their product development:

How AirBnB hit the ‘aha’ moment that launched them to growth

Before the apartment sharing platform was a billion dollar business, it was, like all startups, getting by on friends and family funding. The startup’s validation itself was a ‘shitty prototype’ where co-founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia rented out their own floorspace in San Francisco.

But it took 2 years before the startup hit real traction. It was during their time at YC, that the team honed in on what was keeping new users from signing up. Gebbia started using the app himself as if he was going to book a stay — only to find that the pictures on the app looked terrible.

“We noticed a pattern. There's some similarity between all these 40 listings. The similarity is that the photos sucked. The photos were not great photos. People were using their camera phones or using their images from classified sites. It actually wasn't a surprise that people weren't booking rooms because you couldn't even really see what it is that you were paying for” explained Joe.

With the encouragement of YC founder Paul Graham, the two rented a camera, traveled to New York and replaced amateur photos of their host’s places with professional ones. Within a week revenue doubled - thanks to a creative, ‘non-scalable’ solution that helped move them to the next step.


How ff.next used design thinking principles from Revolut to help build Ecomate

Ferenc Muck of Hungarian design agency FFNext analyzed Revolut’s UX using Jakob Nielsen’s 10 usability heuristics as a framework. He went through the entire app as a user using this framework, noting the different spots in the journey where design thinking either complicated or smoothed out the user experience. 

They then applied these learning to their own fintech app, Ecomate, a green personal financial management tool helping 
users track and reduce their carbon footprint.

Here are a few highlights:

  • Visibility of system status: during the identity verification flow, the interface tells you what will happen next, but also places a progress indicator on screen. The percentage didn’t change, leading to a point of confusion — it wasn’t clear whether the user had to wait until it hit 100% or not. 
  • Learning: when it comes to loaders, using a custom loader instead of an ordinary spinner actually decreases the perceived waiting time.

Screenshot of a screen with a mobile banking app indicating the process of verifying a user's identity.

  • Match between system and the real world: when Ferenc went to the cards tab in Revolut, one of the most prioritized CTAs is ‘Track delivery,’ even though he had received his card months ago. Once tapped, instead of showing the current location of the card, it asked him to confirm the address before stating that it already should have arrived.
  • Learning: knowledge notification hierarchy matters.

Two screenshots of mobile banking app showing two sides of a bank card

  • Error prevention: before verifying an account, Revolut makes users take photos of a photo ID and in the fine print asks them to confirm that the photo is clear, and that the details aren’t blurred or hard to read.
  • Learning: anticipate and account for margins of error in the onboarding process with helpful visual cues.

The $1B details PillPack innovated with design thinking

PillPack was a company-in-residence at IDEO, the birthplace of design thinking. So it’s no surprise that company founders Elliot Cohen and TJ Parker used the method to redefine everything about how consumers engage with pharmacies.

The PillPack team arrived at IDEO with a defined concept:

“PillPack fills, sorts, and delivers medication in personalized packets, based on when you need to take them.”

The team then moved into IDEO’s HQ for 3 months, to learn and apply design thinking to create a brand, product and packaging, and a digital experience using empathy-fueled prototypes. The team focused on every instance of interaction - from signing up to using the product daily, to create an easy and reassuring process.

Using this in-depth process, the team was able to create the details that made a difference, like: letting doctors send prescriptions straight to PillPack pharmacists on a digital portal, designing a durable dispenser with 2-weeks of medication supplies that fits seamlessly into customer homes and helped schedule their medicine intake, and designing a discreet travel pouch for travel.

The end result went a little something like this:

3 design thinking processes UberEats has integrated into their product development 

UberEats employs several design thinking practices consistently to finetune their product and revolutionize how people enjoy meals.

Every quarter, UberEats designers take part in ‘The Walkabout Program,’ traveling to a city to learn about its transportation infrastructure, delivery and restaurant industry, and general food culture. After lots of walking around, interviewing customers, and of course, eating, the team travels back and shares learnings with the team to build a comprehensive understanding of markets and customers.

“Order Shadowing” is a practice, where designers follow partners on deliveries, visit restaurants during the rush, and sit in people’s homes while they order dinner. These experiences simply can’t be recreated authentically, siloed in the UberEats offices and lead to additional insights on where the app can be improved.

Finally, “fireside chats” are a light touch way for teams to stay in touch with restaurant end users. The teams invite their end users into their office regularly to learn about their experiences with UberEats through casual conversations.

Learnings from walkabouts, order shadowing and fireside chats are deployed in rapid field testing with the restaurant employees, delivery drivers, and meal orderers that use the app the most.

Today, the iteration and learning process is an integral part of developing an enterprise - and the design thinking process provides a powerful jumping off point to help you design your own processes for making that happen. How do you incorporate design thinking into your produce development process?

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