Design Thinking & Minimum Viable Product: Is This the Right Approach?

Masha Panchenko

Design thinking has become a highly popular approach during the last 40 years. It is used in IT, business, education, design — literally everywhere. There is even a book about applying design thinking for personal use called “Designing Your Life”.

Eleken is a SaaS design agency. We don’t know if design thinking will help to change your life for the better, but what we know is that design thinking is a great approach when it comes to building an MVP. Let me explain how.

What is design thinking?

As it happens with some of these words that get overly hyped, at some point we are not sure anymore if we know what it really means.

design thinking sponge bob rainbow

The founders of design thinking, IDEO studio, say that design thinking is a practice for solving problems. This is the main thing you have to remember. To get in more details, here is the official definition of idea thinking by Tim Brown, Executive chair of IDEO:

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.

This one might seem a bit complicated, but we’ll break it down later. For now, focus on the keywords: human-centered approach and needs of people.

If I had to explain the concept of design thinking to a 6-year old, that would be something like this:

Design thinking is a way of solving problems that starts with finding out what is the problem, what people need, then coming up with an idea, and finally checking if it works.

That sounds like the most obvious way of solving problems, right? However, not every product manager follows this path when building an MVP. Before we explain how to apply design thinking to MVP, let’s recap what minimum viable product actually is (jump to the next part if you know it well).

What is a minimum viable product?

MVP, or minimum viable product, is a test version of a product or service with a minimum set of functions that brings value to the end consumer.

The keyword here is “value”. Vague word “viable” means that the product actually solves the user’s problem. And if after testing we find out that it is not viable enough, we start it all over. That is why “minimal” is important: the less investment we make in the beginning, the easier it is to discard the failed product and build a new one.

what is mvp meme

So, instead of asking “What is a minimum viable product?” we should be asking “What makes a good minimum viable product?”

Here is a check-list for designing a good MVP (we also have a detailed instruction on how to create a minimum viable product):

  • Define the problem and target audience
  • Run research on both users and competitors
  • Find that minimal set of features that are enough to solve the problem
  • Don’t forget about testing

However, even with such a clear concept as an MVP, there are a bunch of misinterpretations that make some product managers create non-viable minimum products and others — to claim MVP an outdated term. To bring justice to this great concept, we wrote a whole article on why MVP design matters.

Ok, enough with definitions, what is an example of a minimum viable product? To get an idea, you can check out our list of  MVP examples. But in short, here's a perfect example of an MVP:

mvp vs product. Basic donut vs a donut with icing
Image credit: from-another-point-of-view.blogspot.com

Now that we have sorted out what MVP and design thinking are, let’s combine these two concepts.

Design thinking approach in MVP

Values and principles

Design thinking is not just a sequence of steps, it is a different way of seeing a problem. Accepting the principles of design thinking is no less important than following the steps. Here is how each principle can be applied in MVP.

design thinking values: optimism, empathy, experimentalism, collaboration, integrative thinking
Icons by Icons8

Empathy

For many teams, the process of developing an MVP might be one of the very first times they really get to know their users. Empathizing with users instead of just learning their consumer patterns is what design thinking teaches us to do. And we are talking not only about user interviews — empathy is needed at every stage of the product design process.

Optimism

MVPs are often built as a thing for testing, something that is likely to fail and will need to be revamped. That is why optimism is crucial: you have to remember to go on whatever happens.

Integrative thinking

Or thinking differently, in other words. With an MVP, we aim to build a new solution to a problem. Naturally, we need to come up with original ideas, something that hasn’t been made before. Give a chance to the craziest ideas, and if they don’t come on their own, try implementing some  brainstorming strategies.

Experimentalism

There are people who think of a minimum viable product as a big experiment, and there are those who would disagree. Whichever side you take, a dash of experimental spirit is essential for designing a good MVP. Remember that we run competitors’ research not to just copy their methods.

Collaboration

Minimum viable products are often built with a very small team. When there are just a couple of developers working on it, they easily get stuck in their own mindsets. Inviting people with different backgrounds to collaborate is important even if there is no budget for that. You can ask your users for help, or even friends.

If all this seems too abstract for you, don’t worry, it will become clearer in practice. If you want to see how Airbnb, Uber, and IBM apply design thinking approach, we have some examples of design thinking.

Step-by-step guide to building an MVP using design thinking approach

Design thinking process has this circular or 8-shape structure. You have to go through all the stages at least once to ensure that the solution to the problem is the best option possible. Often you would have to iterate more than once.

design thinking process: define, empathize, ideate, prototype, test
Image credit: maqe.com

Now, let’s go through each stage and see how each of them works in the case of MVP.

1. Research

Every guide to design thinking will warn you from doing literally anything before you do at least some research. The same goes for MVP design. When resources and time are limited, as it often happens with minimum viable products, you should focus mainly on competitors, market research, and user interviews. If you can do more, perfect, but this is the minimum.

2. Define

When we want to minimize the effort, we have to know very precisely what we are doing, for whom, and why. When you aim to help all the world and make life better, design thinking won't do much for you. Even when you think that the problem is crystal clear, take some time to phrase it and make sure that everyone in the team knows about it. Our brain starts working on the problem unconsciously only when the question is stated clearly.

3. Ideate

When you need to come up with a new solution for an MVP, you need new ideas. That's clear, right? However, in design thinking ideation is not just about picking a solution. The most important thing is to come up with non-standard, innovative ideas, and you need to have more than one. 

You have to go beyond those typical solutions that come to mind first. There is a whole science of "idea fishing". You may use our list of top ideation techniques that will get you going.

4. Design

Yes, here we come to the “actual design”. Note that this is the fourth step, not the first. When building an MVP, it is important not to forget about user experience.

Designing a sophisticated user interface is typically excessive for an MVP, as well as adding too many features. However, as a UX design agency, we have strong evidence that good user experience adds value to the product at any stage of development.

5. Test

In the case of MVP, testing takes place both before and after the launch. First of all, you should test usability, and afterward — customer satisfaction, system usability, and all the other UX metrics that fit into your budget.

6. Iterate

Once you have a minimum viable product that is functional and, well, works, it is time to… build another one. Well, not exactly. What I mean here is that you shouldn’t fall into temptation to just go on once the product is out there and somebody is using it.

The purpose of MVP is to build a functional and usable version of the product and test it. Once the testing showed results, you can go for the second circle, or rather a spiral: gather user feedback, empathize, define new challenges, ideate, find the solution and design it, build a prototype, test… And so on.

To sum up

This was Eleken's personal take on guiding how to use design thinking in MVP development. Of course, no one's perfect (except the design we make for our clients) and you can adjust the process to your personal needs. But what is crucial to remember is that design thinking indeed brings a ton of value to the MVP development, such as:

  • Design thinking helps to create a product that brings real value to users
  • Motivates you to test MVP as much as possible
  • Advocates research
  • Promotes creative ideas and original solutions.

With design thinking, you are likely to make something bigger than a minimum viable product. You may end up with a minimum loveable product. Want to learn more about that? Read our article MLP vs MVP: Which One Brings Customers?

Read more about SaaS design