Design Thinking In Tech — Solving Wicked Problems

We spend our days helping early stage tech startups identify and attract the top talent they need to drive their businesses forward. Our work gives us a front row seat to the trends and market forces that are shaping the future of tech. In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of buzz around the idea of “designers as founders”—with some of the most innovative and successful organizations led by former designers. This has helped the term Design Thinking enter mainstream vocabulary—it’s no longer only associated with the design function of a tech company.

To learn more about how Design Thinking is being applied to more than just software design, we recently sat down with David Axler. Axler is the Head of Growth and Business Development at Wave, a successful Toronto-based tech startup, disrupting how small business owners manage their finances. Axler is also the General Manager of the Payroll vertical of the business, and a Certified Design Thinking facilitator. While Axler was doing his MBA at the Rotman School of Business at University of Toronto, Roger Martin—who was a strong Early proponent of Design Thinking, focused on bringing different principles and ways of thinking into business—was the dean. Axler became certified in Design Thinking facilitation while working as a strategy consultant with Deloitte.  

Design Thinking — Not Just for Designers/UX

It’s a common misconception that Design Thinking is about designing the slickest interface or user experience. It’s not just about making things beautiful: it’s an overarching process that can used to solve business problems across industries.

Axler argues that organizations don’t need to run through a soup to nuts Design Thinking process to start seeing the value of the ideology. Concepts around brainstorming, and focusing on speed and volume over precision can have immediate impact on an organization. Axler often came up against organizational rigidity as a consultant, and Design Thinking helped to provide a way through:

“I’ve been in organizations as a consultant where the ideation process was so rigid, you’d come out of the early days of thinking about solutions with so few real ideas, because the focus was on precision and getting to exact correctness early in the process. Design Thinking is all about understanding possibility: understanding all the different angles and concepts, and then generating a large volume of diverse opinions.”

Design Thinking is agnostic of the problem itself: it’s all about finding ways to improve the process of solving a problem—and we’re all solving problems all the time. Using the principles of Design Thinking allows us to solve those problems more effectively and more inclusively—and to scrutinize the right type of problems in the first place, instead of scrutiny for scrutiny’s sake. It’s not just about coming up with the slickest looking design or UX—it’s much more exhaustive than that.

Design Thinking in Action

As GM, Axler’s ultimate goal is to grow the business—which often means identifying the different levers that will most likely drive growth.

“That often feels like we’re forced to find trade-offs between initiatives, and it’s my job to find the “and” where it feels like an “or.” How can we move faster and deliver quality, as opposed to choosing one or the other. How do we provide personalization at scale—it sounds like a contradiction. Design Thinking helps boil it down to a solutions based approach that doesn’t simply go down a jobs to be done checklist but finds ways to deliver innovative experiences and opportunities.”

The concept of designing for extremes is used often in Axler’s work at Wave. Instead of simply looking at your customer base and thinking about solutions for the most likely customer, this concept pushes you to think about customers at extreme ends of the spectrum—your most price sensitive or your most feature inclusive—and look for solutions that can satisfy both of those customers. This makes it highly likely that you’ll end up attracting the customers in between who make up the biggest part of your addressable market.

“In some ways, you’re forced to look at things through a different lens as a GM working in tech, because there’s just no playbook for what we’re doing. The scale and speed at which we’re growing is essentially unprecedented—other than maybe a handful of companies who have done it a year or two before us. So, because it’s my job to help my company, team, and business find the “and”—we need to have a process where the team is innovating the way they solve problems.”

As a company grows, it can be tempting to lose sight of the user psychology. Why bother doing customer interviews when you can just A/B test, right? Axler argues that rooting yourself and your solutions in the human needs and desires that drive your customers is a competitive advantage—by connecting with those emotions you create customer advocates. And, if your business is being sold or marketed by your customers because of their experience on a human level, you will win in the market.

Design Thinking Requires Trust

“Design Thinking as a concept is not something that anyone is allergic or resistant to when you talk about it. The challenge is the reality of moving at pace, specifically in venture backed business, where the operative mandate is always growth. Design Thinking takes time, and it’s got non-obvious outcomes—those two things in high growth environments can be very scary.”

Design Thinking introduces an element of risk in businesses that are already taking a ton of risk simply by virtue of the market or vertical they’re in. It requires a great deal of trust—which starts with effective management and leadership—and extends to the team and peers as well. In a world where we’ve likely gone too far on wanting to show the exact quantitative output for every input we provide, Design Thinking can introduce some mystery: there’s no way to say “if we spend 7.6 hours on Design Thinking, then it will increase ROI by 14%.” It’s about finding ways to deeply understand your base, which will have outputs further down the line—but that are difficult to point to.

Axler shared that his company uses “Design Thinking Sprints” to ensure that the deep empathy for the customer underpins the products they release. When you’re spending all year putting out new products and new solutions, it can be advantageous to take a set amount of time to devote 100% of the team’s energy on better understanding the target audience and market. That dedicated time and the learnings through those processes can have a profound impact later down the line, and can help others within the organization understand how relevant it is to bring in an integrative thinking approach.

Advice for Introducing Design Thinking

Axler recommends introducing Design Thinking to an organization in a low risk way. For it to be effective, there needs to be a lot of trust within the team—so starting out with low stakes can help you build the foundation you need. Instead of introducing Design Thinking as a way to solve a current complex business problem, start by using it as a team-building exercise.

For example, when introducing Design Thinking for consensus or alignment building during his time at Deloitte, Axler would start by running the Senior Leadership team through a Design Thinking exercise focused on the idea around planning the perfect vacation for the team. How would you define success of that vacation? It would need to be fun—but what does fun really mean, and how would you measure it? You can quickly get into some deep questions—about what it means to disconnect from work and recharge, getting the most out of that time—and thinking about how to test and measure those desired outcomes. Then, when it’s time to build alignment around an important business decision, you’ve already started to build up excitement about the Design Thinking process, and the implicit trust between team members that is required to make it work.

While it’s true that Design Thinking is really useful in UX and Customer Experience, it has much broader applications to solve business problems. If you look at the most innovative and successful companies—specifically in tech—you can see many fantastic examples of processes that were centred around Design Thinking, which has helped those companies get to where they are today.