Create Products Customers Crave: Design Thinking 101

Doing what’s best for our customers can certainly help our brands succeed long-term. But what are the best strategies to help us get there? Design thinking is one and can make our products better and more relevant for customers. When I think of the design thinking process, I know it’s an ongoing process. Feedback doesn’t start and stop. It’s ongoing.

“I have seen a shift,” said Crystal Carter, head of SEO communications at Wix, on how companies use feedback. “It used to be that everything was very much ‘we must do a report on the feedback. We’ve had the feedback and the feedback started and the feedback has now finished. And meanwhile, the whole situation has completely changed.”

That’s where a well-run design thinking process can also help to make sure feedback is up to date and helps along the way.

Design thinking also helps to think about the customer as a person with problems and needs that your product or service can solve and help with.

“Be open to what the market is trying to tell you it needs,” said Jenn Mancusi, CRO at Voxopme.

“It’s so easy for that to sometimes get missed,” said Voxpopme CTO and Co-Founder Andy Barraclough about thinking of your customers as people on an episode of “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show.” “In a tech business, you refer to your users, and the connection to the customer gets lost a little. So for me, it’s really about who that person is that is interacting with that product.”

Then, of course, you want to keep that focus and alignment going across all the teams.

“It’s so easy to look at a number, a user, a usage stat,” Andy said. “But it’s really about that person you are trying to empathize with.”

The design thinking process

Teams go through stages and think about what stage they are in with a specific product. Let’s look at design thinking and how you bring customers into each stage. The stages are:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

“And I think the real key is – all those stages feed into each other,” Andy said.

Sometimes teams bounce around stages.

“Innovation is like this, and it’s not a linear process,” said Nick Graham, global head of insights and analytics at Mondelez International, explained on “Reel Talk.”

Read next: Do this to be innovative in business

Design thinking is an agile process and an important key is to learn from each step and integrate those learnings into the next steps, said Jeff Jones, author of “Three Wise Monkeys.”

“It’s also a way to avoid what I call researcher’s regret,” he said. “You get to the end of a significant piece of work and say, ‘ugh, why didn’t we ask…?'”

Specific customer feedback

Rand Fishkin, the founder of Spark Toro, mentioned in an episode of “Reel Talk” that a good number of target customers will judge a product on its first impression for the foreseeable future, which makes it even more important to roll out in a way that appeals to customers.

“If you launch a minimal viable product and many people see it for the first time, they will remember their experience with that product,” Rand said. “They will not go, ‘I see this is a promising product, and someday it can be great, so let me give the team time.'”

Rand said he took that to heart when they launched Spark Toro. They wanted it to be as close to perfect for an initial rollout. They invited Beta testers and went from there.

“We did two rounds of that Beta and invited several hundred folks to play with and try the product for free,” Rand said. “That first version looked and felt completely different. And we got a lot of feedback about that.”

Read next: What business growth strategies are best for my business?

Empathizing with your customers

Let’s take the empathize stage. This is where you need to understand the customer’s problems and how you are trying to solve them. This can be easier to do when facing the same problem as a consumer.

“This is where we need to immerse ourselves into the environment of our customers,” Andy said. “And then how do we socialize that internally.”

Then use the feedback you are getting to make beneficial improvements to your customers.

Jenn said that companies genuinely need to empathize with their customers. Customers can tell when empathy isn’t meant.

Defining a human-centered problem statement

From there, create a problem statement that focuses on the person.

“When you start with the empathize stage, you can then think about that actual human at the end of the product,” Andy said. “What’s that problem statement we are trying to solve for that individual? And a lot of that is gathered from the empathize stage.”

"We need to move from 'customers' to 'people' and really listen to them."

This process helps the team analyze and synthesize observations.

The wording also matters here. For example, Voxpopme has a process to gather customer feedback and internal ideas. Years ago, this was called a “feature request,” a term abandoned because it wasn’t focusing on a human-centered problem, said Jenn.

“Using the term ‘feature request’ or ‘idea’ was skipping the empathy stage, and it went right into ‘I have an idea,'” Jenn said. “It’s essential to understand the problem.”

Pass the message on internally

Some internal teams don’t hear directly from customers who make this approach even more critical, Andy added.

If a product team gets asked to create features, they can do that, but it’s also easy to miss an opportunity for improvement if they don’t know why a feature was requested.

Video insights have been quick and very consumer focused to start that learning process.“You have to make a conscious effort to disseminate that information,” Jenn said.

Elisabeth Trawinski, director of insights and analytics at Reckitt, on an episode of “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show,” also mentioned that her team uses video surveys in this early stage of the customer journey.

“To understand people what the reality is,” she said. “Getting their language and understanding.”

Her team also uses video surveys to understand what else to dive into deeper as the process evolves.

“What are the questions we should ask,” she said. “Video insights have been quick and consumer-focused to start that learning process.”

David Kidder, CEO of Bionic and who spoke at the 2021 Virtual Insight Summit, said companies need to stop making things for customers but instead “solve with them. Shoulder to shoulder. With trust. And be with them.”

Ideas for product improvements

“From there, we feed into ideation,” Andy said. “Ideation is also about volume.”

Bring lots of ideas, brainstorm, and get feedback from your customers. One way to come up with many ideas is to have “Worst Possible Ideas” sessions.

What's the problem statement we are trying to solve for that individual

“I first learned about Worst Possible Ideas sessions from you a couple of years ago,” said Jenn. “And I love doing them… even outside of product development.”

Since many great ideas start with horrible ones, this is a great way to get people to be comfortable, get in the right mindset, and start sharing things that they may consider a terrible idea, but that is actually a good one. Or it could turn into a good one.

“We need to get our teams to put the customer at the forefront of these ideas,” Andy added. Remember to talk to others in your organization to find out what customers are saying. That includes anyone who talks to and hears from customers:

“All of those perspectives can feed into the ideation of that idea,” Andy said.

Read next: Why you need centralized data to help your brand be more customer-centric

Encourage feedback

Gia Laudi, co-founder at Forget the Funnel, says it’s vital to give your teams the freedom, and “ironically, you do that by giving them constraints,” Gia said on another podcast episode. That can then help them understand the moment when customers take the leap of faith to buy your product.” 

Create a culture of feedback

Take steps to create a culture where feedback isn’t just appreciated but a part of everyday life. Create a culture that’s conducive to feedback and brainstorming.

You can go the route of an always-on video feedback channel using Voxpopme or even have a brainstorming or feedback channel on Slack where people can freely throw out ideas and constructive feedback. This will help your team become more comfortable giving feedback and give them a chance to get to know one another better.

Work with outside help to uncover solutions

You likely have several vendors or agencies you work with regularly. Assuming you have a great relationship, vendors and agencies are a core part of your team. So don’t be afraid to ask them how they feel about a particular idea or solution.

Their experiences are unique and can yield original and often valuable insights. And because they know your business well, their external feedback will come with the advantage of being reinforced with knowledge of your company.

Keep the feedback flowing

Continue contacting your customer base and requesting video feedback on your ideas. Since consumer behavior is still changing as you go through development, there’s never a wrong time to ask for feedback. Even if you feel you’ve arrived at a great solution during the ideation stage, some last-minute feedback can help you make minor tweaks. This feedback will only serve to make your next round of product development even more robust.

If you’re noticing a theme during this stage, that’s great. Ideation is all about receiving feedback and taking it to heart. Once your idea is feedback-proofed, it’s time to prototype it.


We come up with inexpensive versions of what we think we want to do—for example, wireframes.

At the prototype stage, your focus is on creating your tangible solution to the consumer problem. You’ve gotten a ton of feedback and gone through ideation—now, it’s time to make a solution based on your feedback thus far.

Work with your team to create a minimum viable product (MVP) or rough draft equivalent, then reach out to your audience for feedback ASAP. Of course, you’ll want to ensure you’ve followed all MVP best practices. Otherwise, the input will be for naught.

Once you’ve received feedback, it’s time to make sense of it. If feedback is negative, don’t fret. Instead, look through the other stages of the product development cycle and ask yourself where things may have gone wrong. It’s possible your prototype missed the mark, but it’s also possible you missed a vital data point during an earlier stage.

For example, maybe you missed feedback during the “Define” stage and solved a problem that didn’t exist. By carefully examining each step and reviewing your feedback, you can determine where things went awry.


Then in the testing phase, we can see if it can work. “Are we accomplishing what we are trying to accomplish?” Andy said. “Did it meet our expectations with what we are trying to do with the problem statement?”

Getting customer feedback

Often, companies wait until the testing phase – or later – to get customer feedback. But as part of the design thinking process, getting feedback at different stages can help make products better one step at a time, Andy explained.

Global insights leader Jennifer Pembroke Johnson said it’s crucial to get customer feedback early in the process – something she describes as being consumer-first.

How to get feedback

In a software product, you can ask for feedback in specific places in the platform where it makes sense. Asynchronous video surveys are another way.

Read next: Customer health: How do you measure relationships with your customers?

“It’s also good to understand where to get that customer feedback,” Andy said. “What best suits your customer to want to give you that feedback. It’s always great to see how many customers want to give feedback.”

It helps with the relationship, too, Andy added. They feel listened to, and this can even impact the quality of their feedback positively.

“That’s an excellent distinction – how does the customer want to be involved?” Jenn added. “What medium do they want to use, and what’s the timing and being conscious of that?”

It’s certainly a big win when a customer notices a new feature and mentions that the last feature was a challenge for them.

“The customers saying ‘you solved my problem,’ that’s the goal,” Jenn said.

Once that feedback comes back, make sure it’s shared internally with the right people. “That’s when you get that energy going,” Andy said.

Overcoming biases

Of course, we all have our own biases. That also applies to product development. The closer we are to the product, the harder it can be to spot some problems and perspectives.

“That’s something to be conscious of,” Andy said. “Especially at the start of an idea. You want it to succeed. You want that to be the answer. It’s so easy to be blinded by that idea.”

This can come into play especially when starting a new company or a new product. “You want that to be the answer, but you have to bring it back to reality,” Andy said. “You have to check yourself.”

It’s helpful to have diversity on the team and get different ideas and perspectives.

Read next: Hiring for multicultural research

Look at the numbers. If changes lead to worse business metrics, that’s not an excellent way to grow the business, Jenn added.

“Be open to what the market is trying to tell you it needs,” Jenn said. “I know we think our ideas are the best ones, but rooting them into customer feedback will help us continue growing and creating something better.”

Andy added that it’s essential to be truthful with the data you are getting. “It’s so easy just to dismiss it,” he said. “And it’s so easy to twist data to twist your narrative.”

Many times that’s not even done on purpose, Andy said. “It just kind of creeps in.”

The importance of having a thesis

Nick of Mondelez said that there’s value, however, in having some ideas and then trying to figure out which ones may be valid and which ones aren’t.

But always keep the customer at the forefront, he said.

"Turn it into what is the consumer or shopper problem to solve."

How do we know the roadmap is on the right way?

“I think it’s about getting to that next step where you can get some feedback,” Andy said. “We try to get things out to our customers’ hands to see it.”

Andy says he makes it a goal of getting the update to a six and not a 10 to get it out the door so that feedback can be gathered and the roadmap can be evaluated continuously.

“It compounds and compounds,” Andy said. “For me, it’s about getting things into the hands of our customers.”

And as companies grow, it does feel like your process is slowing down, but there are different expectations from customers once they have experienced your product, Andy said.

“The risk piece is a big challenge,” Jenn said. “Are we happy doing something 80 percent or 70 percent? As a smaller business, you have more freedom to do these things.”

“But bringing in the customer at every step can help you with that,” Andy said. “The risk isn’t about going to market. But it’s about where you could have been had you brought the customer in earlier.”

Getting customer feedback into your day-to-day

The trick now is to get the feedback process into your daily work.

“Many think of customer feedback as getting in the way,” Andy said. “At the start, it feels like it’s difficult to do. But if you get into the habit of doing it at every stage, I feel like it’s something you can do.”

Doing a study or getting feedback doesn’t slow you down when the process is defined and part of the workflow.

Take a look at this Valentine’s Day love letter campaign. We gathered feedback from 100 consumers for dozens of brands in just a few hours. The analysis was mostly automated. To review it took moments.

To get started, see what you are already doing and then start from there. It won’t take as long as you might think, and it can help you be more customer-centric.

Share internally what was learned during customer calls.

Voxpopme Director of Product Niamh Jones said on “Reel Talk” that the team creates internal showreels to share with others, and once a month, Niamh and Betsy Nelson, former product marketing manager at Voxpopme, hosted an internal podcast to share the latest findings from customer calls.

“Just like our customers, employees have different preferences,” said Betsy. “Some like to read; some like to watch videos, and some like to interact with a web page. So we are trying to get that information into as many mediums as possible.”

Betsy likens it to a go-to-market strategy.

“This is go-to-company,” she said. “We are taking the same strategy.”

Design thinking: "Democratizing customer feedback internally is really important."

Why design thinking can be challenging for companies

It’s perhaps not how products used to be developed, said Nick. Traditionally, you look back at what customers have said,

“Well, they said this,” he said.

In a design thinking process, you might go back and ask something else. You look forward, as opposed to backward, he explained.

"Learning in the moment you can iterate and change this and then next week you can try something different."

Is design thinking working for you?

Tying all the steps of design thinking together can make our products better, keep our customers engaged, and keep employees in the loop. Sounds like a win-win-win to me.

Jude Olinger, CEO of The Olinger Group, said that even when you involve the customer from the get-go and follow design thinking best practices, you might still need numerous iterations of a product and service. So don’t give up. Instead, keep learning, listening, and understanding consumers’ pain points, and keep iterating on the solutions you can offer.

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