Using Design Thinking to Guide Your Ideation Process

Written by Monica Garza | January 2024

Every successful business starts as just an idea, but how do legendary founders come up with their ideas? How do they vet that their idea genuinely addresses a need in the market? In our current age of what feels like a new ‘innovation’ around every corner, it can be daunting to even consider breaking into an already diluted marketplace.

The entrepreneurial ideation stage holds many opportunities for exploring a plethora of creative innovations and truly impactful business models. Introducing: design thinking, a thought process that seeks to create deeper understanding and challenge assumptions with the overarching goal of tackling root problems through innovative solutions. While the ideation process may be traditionally thought of as linear, design thinking introduces an iterative organizational framework that can be used to identify less apparent strategies and solutions.

The human-centered nature of these techniques optimizes innovative potential by ensuring your startup’s proposed solution is tackling a clearly defined and validated need or gap in the market. Ahead, we’ll explore five design thinking techniques and how you can apply them to your ideation process:

1. Scoping Down

The most natural first step in any ideation process is to define the broad level challenge or need that you want to address through your startup. To then scope down your identified need, you first take your business vertical of choice and brainstorm all the different issues that it could encompass. For example, we’ll say you chose economic inequity as your market niche. You’ll then brainstorm to identify the many subset issues within the larger vertical, including homelessness, unemployment, and mental health issues.

After choosing the issue subset topic that you would like to address, you’ll next brainstorm all of the different groups of people that are affected by it. Creating a scaling list is a significant step in defining your market parameters.

To build on our example, let’s say you’ve selected your issue subset to be homelessness. Now you can identify and select who your beneficiary group is. From its smallest to largest level, your scaling list would be homeless children in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Latin America, 3rd world countries, and any people in poverty. This list is purely geographical scaling, but you can also include other elements, such as demographics. Lastly, you will then brainstorm all of the different pain-points that your issue subset topic causes and select one to address.

2. Root-Cause Analysis Using the Why-Ladder

Identifying the root causes of the issue you’re aiming to address helps you lead with intentionality as you hone in on your business concept. By asking yourself ‘why?’ your beneficiaries are experiencing their challenge, you’ll be able to select the root cause topic that you would like to address. An example of an initial question would be ‘Why are our beneficiaries experiencing food insecurity?’

To conduct your root-cause analysis, you can utilize the Why-Ladder design thinking web diagram. This technique essentially takes your issue topic and narrows down the driving factors behind that issue. Each factor would continue to be broken down into all of their possible subsets until you identify the root causes of the overall issue. Going back to our example, your analysis could then lead you to identify your issue’s root causes as environmental degradation, unemployment, and human rights discrimination. By targeting one of these root causes through your business solution, you’re ensuring that your startup is addressing the true pain-point, rather than the surface level problem.

3. Problem Statement

Now that you have taken a deep dive into the fundamental elements of your identified need, you will now work to piece them all together. Developing a problem statement for your startup is hugely beneficial in organizing all the components of the problem you are seeking to solve.

To develop your problem statement, ask yourself the five W’s:

  • WHO is your beneficiary,
  • WHERE are they located,
  • WHAT is your identified issue,
  • WHEN does the problem begin in the lives of the beneficiaries,
  • HOW is the issue currently being dealt with by the beneficiaries, and
  • WHY do the beneficiaries think that it is significant to solve the issue.

Our example’s problem statement could be “Homeless children in Rio de Janeiro experience high levels of poverty and are experiencing food insecurity due to family unemployment which affects their development and overall quality of life.” With a now fully defined problem to address, you can shift into reflecting on how best to solve the issue.

4. “How May We” Statement

‘How May We’ statements also set forth all of the specific elements of your issue, but from a solution-oriented perspective. We can expand on our problem statement to create our ‘How May We’ statement: “How may we combat the issue of high levels of poverty for homeless children in Rio de Janeiro in unemployed families?” This opens a new line of thinking and will prompt you to ask more meaningful questions around the intention of your business.

5. How-Ladder

All of the previous techniques are targeted at defining the need you seek to address, but it’s equally as important to explore how you plan to solve it. The ‘How-Ladder’ design thinking web diagram is the same in structure as the ‘Why-Ladder’, but it now asks the question, “How.”

As such, you can use your ‘How May We’ statement to guide your thinking on all of the possible ways and mediums for addressing your identified need. For example, you may look at the issue of food insecurity and identify that food pantries, employment opportunities, and raising awareness are among some of the approaches you could take. Furthermore, a subset of the food insecurity approach could also be educational resources, which can also be broken down further for specificity.

The goal is to fully break down all of the possible avenues until you’ve identified several specific solution tracks. Once you’ve selected the seemingly most viable and impactful path, you can start validating the idea through market research.

Ideate with Research

As you continue to ideate and refine your solution, the process should always be supplemented with research. It is vital to understand the issue you are working with to best serve your beneficiaries, and conducting primary and secondary research does not stop after you ideate, test, validate, and launch your startup idea.

Your business model will continue to evolve over time. As the market is constantly changing, applying research and feedback from beneficiaries, stakeholders, and other businesses is vital to ensuring success in continuity. Taking a strategic approach to collecting this evolving information by using design thinking techniques can be greatly beneficial. By utilizing these five helpful tools, you can start and continue your entrepreneurial journey with organization and intentionality for innovative success.

This article is from the Innovation Capsule series, a commentary article series published by the Herb Kelleher Entrepreneurship Center (HKEC) that focuses on analyzing and creating dialogue around startup culture, best practices, innovation in the industry, and more. The HKEC offers a variety of dynamic resources to UT Austin students, including competitive funding opportunities, networking events, informative article series, mentorship and more.

To learn more about the entrepreneurship resources that the HKEC has to offer, visit our website and subscribe to our newsletter to get involved with future opportunities!



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