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Design Thinking Towards Product-Market Fit

Updated: Apr 9

In the fast-moving startup world, nailing product-market fit (PMF) is pretty much the ultimate win for entrepreneurs. PMF signifies a perfect alignment between a product and the market's needs, ensuring a startup's survival and growth.

This intricate process requires a meticulous approach, where design thinking plays a pivotal role. From idea generation to testing early products, design thinking provides a fully-fledged methodology to help innovators, designers, product builders, startup teams and business executives.

The design thinking process starts with research and ends with an initial product. This methodology is designed to overcome ambiguity and put structure to product and new venture development.

In this article, we explore how the fusion of design thinking methodologies with the 7 Fits Product-Market Fit Framework can empower startups to navigate their path to product-market fit with precision and innovation.

Here is a quick agenda of the article:

Design Thinking Definitions and its Relationship with the Lean Startup Methodology

Let us start by talking about the fundamentals. In its essence, design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that many different business entities i.e. startups, product teams and designers to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems, prototype solutions and test them.

It involves five key phases—Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test—each serving as a step towards understanding and solving the users' needs creatively and effectively. By empathizing with the users, defining the problems, ideating on possible solutions, prototyping, and testing these solutions, teams can uncover innovative outcomes that might not be immediately apparent with a traditional problem-solving approach.

As the 7 Fits Coaches, we are advocates of both the Lean Startup and the Design Thinking. While developing our 7 Fits Framework, we got the inspiration from these two methodologies. Thus, we believe the Lean Startup and the Design Thinking are complementary and symbiotic, offering startups a robust framework for innovation.

Design thinking, with its core emphasis on empathy, creativity, and user-centric problem-solving, provides the groundwork for understanding and defining customer needs and challenges. It's about exploring wide-ranging solutions through a creative lens before zeroing in on the most promising ideas.

On the other hand, the Lean Startup methodology, which focuses on building a minimum viable product (MVP), measuring its success in the real world, and learning from the results, offers a structured approach to quickly test, iterate, and refine these ideas based on actual customer feedback.

Essentially, design thinking helps to ensure that the right product is being built—guided by deep user insights and innovative thinking—while Lean Startup principles ensure that this product is built right—through rapid, data-driven validation in the marketplace. Together, they form a powerful duo that enables startups to innovate responsibly, ensuring that products not only meet market needs but also resonate deeply with users.

Diamond Model and the 5 phases of design thinking: 7 Fits Towards Product-Market Fit

Is Design Thinking only relevant for Designers?

The notion that design thinking is exclusively within the purview of designers is a widespread misconception. In reality, design thinking is a versatile, user-centric approach to problem-solving that transcends disciplinary boundaries. Its core principles—empathy with users, collaborative ideation, iterative prototyping, and a bias towards action—are universally applicable and beneficial across all facets of a business, from product development and marketing to customer service and organizational strategy.

Broad Applications Beyond Design

- Product Development: While its roots are in design, design thinking’s methodologies empower product teams to innovate by deeply understanding customer needs and continuously iterating product offerings based on feedback, a critical aspect of the 7 Fits Framework.

- Strategic Planning: Executives and strategists leverage design thinking to navigate complex business challenges, envision future scenarios, and develop strategies that are both innovative and customer-aligned.

- Marketing and Customer Experience: Marketing teams use design thinking to craft compelling narratives and create experiences that resonate on a deep emotional level with their target audience, ensuring that every touchpoint is thoughtfully designed to meet customer expectations.

- Organizational Change and Culture: Beyond external products and services, design thinking can facilitate organizational transformation, fostering a culture of innovation, collaboration, and continuous learning.

- Building a new venture: Entrepreneurs and startup teams can use design thinking every time they get to create a new business. In this article, we will dive into the details of how best founders can exploit design thinking.

Democratizing Innovation

Design thinking democratizes the process of innovation, inviting individuals from all organizational levels and departments to contribute their insights and ideas. By doing so, it harnesses a diverse range of perspectives, leading to richer, more inclusive solutions that are more likely to meet the varied needs of users.

A Mindset Shift

Embracing design thinking requires a shift in mindset from a focus on solutions to a focus on people—understanding their needs, behaviors, and frustrations. This shift is not limited to designers but is crucial for anyone involved in creating products, services, or strategies that aim to address real human needs.

Design Thinking for Startups

For startups, operating in environments characterized by uncertainty and rapid change, design thinking offers a strategic toolkit that goes beyond traditional business thinking models. It empowers startup teams to adopt a user-centric approach to product and service development, ensuring that solutions are not only innovative but also deeply aligned with user needs and desires.

Fostering a Culture of Innovation

- Encouraging Creative Confidence: Design thinking instills a culture of innovation within startups by encouraging teams to embrace creativity, experimentation, and the willingness to fail and learn. This mindset is crucial for startups aiming to disrupt markets or create new niches.

- Collaborative Problem Solving: It promotes a collaborative environment where cross-functional teams work together, leveraging diverse perspectives to solve complex problems. This collaborative spirit is essential for startups, where resources are often limited, and the synergy of skills can lead to breakthrough solutions.

Enhancing Customer Engagement

- Building Empathy with Users: At its core, design thinking involves developing a deep understanding of users' lives, needs, and challenges. For startups, this empathy translates into products and services that genuinely resonate with target audiences, fostering stronger customer engagement and loyalty.

- Iterative Learning Through User Feedback: By prototyping and testing with users, startups can gather feedback early and often, refining their offerings in real-time. This iterative process ensures that the final product is closely aligned with user expectations and market demands.

Navigating the Path to Product-Market Fit

- Rapid Prototyping and Validation: Design thinking accelerates the journey to product-market fit by encouraging rapid prototyping and validation of ideas. Startups can quickly iterate on designs, test assumptions, and pivot as necessary, significantly reducing time and resources spent on non-viable solutions.

- Strategic Decision Making: The insights gained through the design thinking process inform strategic decisions, from product features and user interface design to marketing strategies and customer service policies. This strategic alignment ensures that every aspect of the startup’s operation is optimized for success in the target market.

Design thinking is not just a methodology but a strategic asset for startups. It provides a framework for navigating the complexities of launching and scaling innovative solutions in today's competitive business environment. By embracing design thinking, startups can cultivate a culture of innovation, deeply engage with their customers, and streamline their path to product-market fit.

This human-centered approach to innovation empowers startups to create products and services that not only meet market needs but also have the potential to redefine markets and create entirely new opportunities for growth and impact.

Design Thinking: the Lean Startup Angle

The Lean Startup methodology, with its emphasis on building a minimum viable product (MVP), measuring its success in the market, and learning from the results, offers a structured approach to startup development and scaling. When intertwined with design thinking, this approach gains an even deeper layer of customer empathy and innovative problem-solving, enhancing the effectiveness of each Lean Startup cycle.

Design Thinking: the Lean Startup Angle and the MVP

Enhanced Customer Empathy

  • Deep Dive into Customer Needs: Design thinking’s first principle, empathy, complements the Lean Startup by ensuring that the MVP is not just a minimal product but is deeply aligned with the real needs and desires of the target users. This synergy ensures that the build-measure-learn feedback loop of the Lean Startup is centered around solutions that customers genuinely want and need.

Ideation and Experimentation

  • Broad Ideation Leads to Better MVPs: The ideation phase in design thinking encourages thinking beyond conventional solutions, leading to more innovative and potentially disruptive MVP ideas. When these ideas are tested in the market, startups can discover unique value propositions that resonate strongly with their target audience.

Validated Learning with a Creative Twist

  • Creative Problem Solving for Market Feedback: The iterative nature of the Lean Startup approach is supercharged with design thinking’s creative problem-solving strategies. This combination allows teams to develop more inventive and effective pivots based on customer feedback, pushing beyond straightforward solutions to uncover deeper insights and opportunities.

Building on Lean Principles with Design Thinking

  • Rapid Prototyping and Testing: Both methodologies advocate for quick prototyping and testing. Design thinking adds a layer of user experience focus to the prototyping phase, ensuring that the MVP not only tests the business hypothesis but also addresses usability and desirability from the user's perspective.

  • Feedback Loops and Iteration: The iterative cycles of the Lean Startup methodology become more user-centered with design thinking. Each iteration benefits from a richer understanding of the customer, leading to more informed and effective pivots or perseverations.

The integration of design thinking with the Lean Startup methodology creates a powerful combination for startups aiming for product-market fit. This approach leverages the strengths of both methodologies: the Lean Startup’s focus on rapid, data-driven iterations to refine the business model, and design thinking’s emphasis on creativity, user empathy, and solving complex problems in innovative ways.

What is Design Thinking' in the Context of Product-Market Fit?

In the quest for product-market fit, design thinking serves as a strategic tool to ensure that products are not only viable but also deeply resonate with target customers. It aligns perfectly with the pre-launch phase of our 7 Fits Framework, emphasizing understanding customer problems, needs, and experiences. Through empathetic engagement and creative problem-solving, design thinking enables startups to craft products that address real customer pain points, ensuring a better chance of finding product-market fit.

How to Combine the Design Thinking Process with the 3 Pre-Launch Fits in the 7 Fits Framework?

While developing our 7 Fits Framework, we got the inspiration both from the Lean Startup methodology and the design thinking.

In the 7 Fits Framework, there are seven stages - which we call 7 Fits - startups must navigate to achieve product-market fit. The first 3 fits that are inherently aligned with the design thinking process are:

  • Customer-Problem Fit: We start by first developing a problem hypothesis statement and try to prove/disprove or replace this hypothesis.

  • Problem-Solution Fit: We list our current resources and try to understand if we can feasibly build a solution to address the problem that we developed in the Customer-Problem Fit stage.

  • Customer-Solution Fit: This is the stage where we get hands on and build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to test if our initial offering will be usable and desirable for our early adopter customer segment.

Design Thinking Triangle and the 3 Pre-Launch Fits in the 7 Fits Framework Towards PMF

Integrating the design thinking process and the 3 Pre-Launch Fits in the 7 Fits Framework involves:

1. Empathizing with the Customer: Understanding deep customer insights to achieve Customer-Problem Fit. This requires engaging directly with customers to understand their needs, challenges, and pain points. We can also name this phase as Idea Validation because it helps startup teams validate their initial startup idea.

2. Defining the Problem Clearly: Leveraging these insights to articulate the problem accurately, ensuring a solid foundation for Problem-Solution Fit. This stage aligns with the Define phase of design thinking, focusing on pinpointing the exact issues customers face and the ability of the startup team's to address these problems with their own resources.

3. Ideating and Prototyping Solutions: Ideation leads to creative solutions, which are then prototyped. These solutions are developed with the customer's needs at the forefront, aiming to validate the Customer-Solution Fit through MVPs, continous feedback and iteration.

By taking the steps in the design thinking process or in other words empathizing with customers, defining problems, ideating on solutions, prototyping, and testing, startups can navigate through these fits with a clear focus on customer-centric innovation. This alignment ensures that each step in the product development process is informed by real user needs and feedback, thereby increasing the likelihood of achieving a robust product-market fit.

Ideation and Design Thinking

Ideation in design thinking is the process where creativity and innovation come to the forefront. After defining the problem space, teams brainstorm a myriad of solutions without constraints, fostering an environment where no idea is too far-fetched. This phase is crucial for generating diverse solutions that can be prototyped and tested, ensuring a broad exploration of potential fixes to the user's problems. Ideation is not just about creating new ideas; it's about pushing the boundaries of what's possible, encouraging out-of-the-box thinking to uncover novel solutions.

FREE PMF BOOKLET: Customer-Problem Fit a.k.a Idea Validation

Design Thinking Ideation vs.

Idea Validation (a.k.a Customer-Problem Fit)

While ideation in design thinking is a divergent process of generating a broad spectrum of ideas, idea validation—or Customer-Problem Fit—focuses on converging on the feasibility and commercial desirability of these ideas among the target customers. Ideation is about quantity and creativity, encouraging teams to think without constraints.

In contrast, idea validation involves testing these ideas to see if they genuinely address the customer's problems effectively.

The transition from ideation to idea validation is crucial, as it ensures that startups do not invest in developing solutions that the market does not need or want. This validation is a core component of achieving Customer-Problem Fit, where the emphasis shifts from potential solutions to evidence-based confirmation that the right problem is being solved for the right customer.

Free Infographic: How to validate your startup in 6 weeks

Workshop on Design Thinking for

Startup Teams in the Ideation Phase

Conducting a workshop on design thinking during the ideation phase can be transformative for startup teams. Such a workshop should focus on fostering creative thinking, encouraging the exploration of innovative solutions, and teaching the importance of empathy in understanding user needs. Activities might include customer empathy mapping, rapid ideation challenges, and prototyping sessions. These exercises help teams break out of conventional thinking patterns, explore a wide range of solutions, and quickly iterate based on tangible feedback. The goal is to emerge from the workshop with a refined set of ideas that are deeply rooted in solving real customer problems, ready for validation.

Creating A Persona: Design Thinking vs. Early Adopters

In design thinking, creating personas is a strategy used to empathize with and understand diverse user needs and behaviors. These fictional characters represent key segments of the target audience, helping guide the development process towards solutions that meet actual user needs.

In contrast, identifying early adopters in the startup context focuses on finding real customers within the target market who are most likely to use and benefit from the new product early in its lifecycle.

Both approaches, while different in execution—fictional characters vs. real potential customers—serve to anchor the product development efforts in deep customer insights and needs.

Design Thinking and Innovation from a Lean Angle

Incorporating design thinking into a lean startup methodology enriches the innovation process by ensuring that products are not only developed efficiently but also effectively meet user needs.

The lean startup's emphasis on building-measure-learn loops is enhanced by design thinking's deep customer empathy and creative problem-solving approaches. This combination encourages startups to pursue innovation with a focus on real-world impact, ensuring that products are both desirable to customers and viable in the marketplace.

By integrating these methodologies, startups can navigate the uncertain waters of new product development with a balanced approach that values customer insights, rapid iteration, and the disciplined pursuit of innovation.

Design Thinking Examples from World Renowned Startups

Several startups have successfully leveraged design thinking to innovate and solve complex customer problems, leading to remarkable success stories. These examples not only illustrate the practical application of design thinking principles but also serve as inspiration for how startups can navigate their journey towards product-market fit.

Design thinking and startup examples: 7 Fits Framework Towards PMF

1. Airbnb: Initially struggling to gain traction, Airbnb turned to design thinking to empathize with users and redefine their problems. Through direct engagement with hosts and users, they redesigned the user experience, focusing on trust and community building. Their empathetic approach to understanding user needs and iterative design improvements led to Airbnb becoming a global leader in hospitality.

2. Dropbox: Facing the challenge of convincing users to adopt a new way of storing files, Dropbox used a simple, yet effective design thinking approach. They created a demo video that prototyped the user experience, clearly showing the product's value proposition. This approach helped validate the demand for their solution and attracted early adopters, propelling Dropbox to significant growth.

3. Uber: By focusing on the user's pain points related to traditional taxi services, Uber applied design thinking to redefine urban mobility. Their solution simplified the process of booking a ride, making it more convenient, reliable, and user-friendly. This focus on solving a specific customer problem through innovative design led to Uber transforming the transportation industry.

4. Tesla: Tesla has applied design thinking to redefine the driving experience. By focusing on the user's interaction with the vehicle, Tesla has introduced innovative features such as autopilot, over-the-air updates, and a minimalist interior design that centers around a large touchscreen interface. This user-centric approach to automobile design and functionality illustrates how design thinking can lead to revolutionary products that challenge and transform entire industries.

5. Spotify: Spotify’s success in the competitive music streaming industry can be attributed to its use of design thinking to deeply understand and cater to the individual preferences of its users. By creating personalized playlists and recommending songs based on listening habits, Spotify has crafted a user experience that feels both intuitive and deeply personal, encouraging longer engagement and loyalty among its user base.

6. Slack: Slack’s rise as a communication platform in workplaces around the globe is a testament to its application of design thinking principles. By addressing common pain points in team communication, such as email overload and the difficulty of finding past conversations, Slack has developed a platform that streamlines communication, fosters collaboration, and adapts to the needs of diverse teams and workflows.

7. Square: Square has leveraged design thinking to democratize access to financial services for small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. By focusing on the user experience of both merchants and customers, Square designed a simple, intuitive mobile payment system that removes traditional barriers to electronic payments. This focus on simplifying and improving the payment process illustrates how design thinking can create inclusive solutions that open up new possibilities for small and micro-businesses.

Design Thinking vs. MVP (Minimum Viable Product)

While both design thinking and the MVP approach are integral to the startup development process, they serve different, yet complementary, purposes in the journey towards product-market fit.

Design thinking plays a significant role in defining the problem, the customer and then in designing the early solution which can either be a prototype and/or an MVP.

An MVP, a key concept from the Lean Startup methodology, is the most basic version of a product that can be launched. It is designed to test hypotheses about the business model and learn about the customer's needs and behaviors with the least effort. The MVP approach is more focused on validation and learning in real market conditions, helping startups to iterate based on feedback.

Depending on the nature of the startup/product idea, the team can choose different routes in building the early solution.

  • Creating first a prototype, gathering customer feedback and using this feedback to develop an MVP

  • Building an MVP and gathering user feedback

If the MVP is too costly to develop, then creating a prototype first can be a financially feasible method for the startup/product team.

The relationship between design thinking and MVP can be viewed as a continuum where design thinking helps in understanding the problem and ideating on possible solutions, and the MVP is used to test these solutions in the market to learn and iterate quickly. By combining the empathy and creativity of design thinking with the lean and agile validation processes of creating an MVP, startups can effectively navigate the complexities of achieving product-market fit.

Integrating design thinking with the MVP approach allows startups to ensure that they are not only building the product right but also building the right product. This holistic view is crucial for startups aiming for sustainability and growth in competitive markets, guiding them towards product-market fit with a customer-centric focus.


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A Recap: Design Thinking Towards Product-Market Fit

Integrating design thinking with the 7 Fits Product-Market Framework offers a structured yet flexible approach for startups striving to achieve product-market fit. This blend encourages a deep understanding of customer needs, fosters innovative solution generation, and emphasizes rapid prototyping and testing. By following these integrated steps, startups can not only navigate the complex landscape of product development with greater assurance but also significantly increase their chances of success in the market.

In conclusion, the synergy between design thinking and our 7 Fits Framework equips startups with the tools and mindset necessary to create products that truly resonate with their target market. It's a journey of constant learning and adaptation, where each iteration brings startups closer to the coveted goal of product-market fit, paving the way for sustainable growth and success in the competitive business landscape.


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Minimum Viable Product Examples from Renowned Startups

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Examples of Minimum Viable Products from Renowned Startups

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