Integrating Lean Startup and Design Thinking

Both Lean Startup and Design Thinking are promising approaches in order to target innovation. The Lean Startup concept is an appropriate choice for creating new businesses through development of an already existing idea or vision. Design thinking, on the other hand, might be preferred if the right business idea has not been found yet and customer needs or problems are still vague.

Therefore, both approaches should be capable of complementing and benefiting from each other. An interesting paper from Roland M. Mueller and Katja Thoring discusses the integration of both approaches, resulting in a combined process model. The authors highlight the following potentials to improve either of the two innovation concepts:


Potential to improve Design Thinking

There is potential to improve the design thinking process by converging the two strategies in terms of the iteration. Pivoting as it is practiced in lean startup seems to be a promising opportunity to strengthen the design thinking process. This means to implement feedback testing and iteration loops earlier in the process, even before there is a prototype. This could happen for example after the Point of View or after Ideation. The testing of early problem hypotheses, that can be falsified or validated, might save time and resources, and could result in a better output of successful project results. Moreover, it is suggested to implement metric-based evaluation techniques as they are commonly used in lean startup. For example, testing in design thinking is mostly performed qualitatively in the analyzed literature. Therefore, checklists or specific test environments that allow for quantitative measuring of user feedback (such as landing page design, smoketest, etc.) should be implemented in the design thinking process. Also, it is suggested to develop a business model in addition to the prototype, to validate the viability of the concept.


Potential to improve Lean Startup

Unlike design thinking, lean startup does not describe specifically how customer input could be collected. Qualitative research methods—e.g. ethnographic methods—could be applied to improve the definition of the targeted customers and to identify their needs and problems. Similarly, we suggest adapting the synthesis methods from design thinking. Structured frameworks or the generation of a qualitative persona might help lean startup to better understand and develop their customers and their respective needs and problems. Both should be scheduled at the beginning of the process. Lean startup could also benefit from the use of ideation techniques, as they are applied in design thinking, to develop concept variations. Although lean startup usually starts with a concrete business idea, it might be helpful to use structured ideation methods to iterate that idea within the process, specifically before the problem-solution fit is achieved. Consequently, pivoting should be applied earlier (already on the initial concept). And finally, qualitative feedback evaluation, such as qualitative user interviews, could be implemented in the pivoting steps, in addition to the metric-based evaluation techniques.

The resulting process model is called “Lean Design Thinking” and integrates the most promising features of both approaches. I think it’s a useful attempt to merge these increasingly upcoming frameworks. The Lean Design Thinking process may help to explore entirely novel innovation opportunities – where both market/customer needs as well as solutions are unknown at the outset – while staying customer-centered all along. If we ensure a match between what the market needs and what we are offering, there is a good chance our innovation is going to succeed.

Lean Design Thinking

For further details, I recommend reading the entire paper:

Robert M. Mueller and Katja Thoring: Design Thinking Vs. Lean Startup: A Comparison Of Two User-Driven Innovation Strategies, 2012 International Design Management Research Conference

About Ralph-Christian Ohr

Experienced innovation management and corporate development professional. Consulting on organizational and personal capabilities for high innovation performance. Integrative thinker. T-shaped.

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8 Responses to Integrating Lean Startup and Design Thinking

  1. Pavel Bogdashov February 3, 2014 at 1:46 AM #

    I like your thinking on this – I am less familiar with design thinking, yet I am a practitioner of lean startup and use it daily in my work.

    And I agree with the ideas on developing lean startup to give it a creative boost (add ideation tecniques) and in some areas – scientific boost (ethnographic methods for defining the target customer).

    I also like the visual scheme you used to summarise how “Lean Design Thinking” – it clarifies how the two approaches could compliment and make up one.

    • Ralph-Christian Ohr February 8, 2014 at 1:19 PM #

      Thanks for your kind feedback, Pavel – it’s good to hear that integrating design thinking features makes sense to a lean startup practitioner.

  2. Wendy Castleman February 7, 2014 at 4:34 PM #

    Yes, we did this over 2 years ago at Intuit. We’ve found they blend beautifully for much better outcomes than either alone.

    • Ralph-Christian Ohr February 8, 2014 at 1:15 PM #

      Thanks for your comment, Wendy – it’s great to hear that this process has been practiced successfully at Intuit. Intuit is known as one of the forerunners in experimental innovation approaches. If you know of any case examples, please let me know.

  3. Ryan Wynia February 9, 2014 at 8:01 PM #

    Always Be Creating (value)

    I fear we’re assuming lean and design thinking happen in a vacuum. They do not. They are always informed by other approaches and methodologies (both tacit and explicit), cultural nuances and practitioner capability. We would be remiss to generalize the evolved practice of lean and design thinking.

    Notwithstanding, I like this, Me. Ohr. I think it’s helpful, too, to recall lean’s roots as a process and performance improvement tool… Before if was en vogue a la within startup movement. Gary Klein observes a fundamental distinction captured in the comparison of lean and design thinking: reducing errors and gaining insights, respectively. To that end, Klein says, “ideally, reducing mistakes would at least help us gain insights, but I don’t believe that’s how it works… I suspect the relation [between the arrows] runs the other way. When we put too much energy into eliminating mistakes, we’re less likely to gain insights. Having insights is a different matter from preventing mistakes.” (Seeing What Orhers Don’t, Gary Klein)

    So while approaches to value creation are fluid, I definitely appreciate and agree with your point here, RC Ohr. I think the question that should inform the attempt at fusion, per Klein above, is the understanding of what each approach has each been created/successful at producing. It’s this insight that will lead us to the most prudent approach yet.

    …or at least that’s what I think today. Might be different tomorrow. 😉

  4. Gerardo February 13, 2014 at 7:21 PM #

    Me parece muy acertado el enfoque, normalmente la discusión empieza sobre que metodología usar, pero al combinarlas podemos aprovechar lo mejor de ambas cuando tenemos la idea clara de lo que tenemos o no.


  5. Dale Morris May 13, 2014 at 11:56 PM #

    Mr. Ohr,

    I like seeing this kind of thinking going on in the tech sector. I have been approaching start-ups with this type of thought process for some time now yet many still resort to crowd-sourcing out their design work to greatly reduce their costs. Many now in the Lean Start-Up community don’t even consider a logo in their first public pass.

    I also read the attached article and found it very useful, yet as Ryan above delineates, I feel it needs some fleshing out.

    I have recreated the chart for my own blog (with the appropriate credits) to make it a bit more appealing to the end user. Also as I further study the article referred to in this post
    I may in fact create a new chart with the addendum info included.

    Thank you for posting your thoughts and the related links on this (perhaps) hypothesis and/or theory.


  1. Innovation Excellence | One Size Doesn’t Fit All Innovation - March 5, 2015

    […] As we can see from the chart, e.g. Design Thinking is primarily used in the Insight and Problem step, whereas Lean Startup is geared to the Solution and Business Model step. That’s similiar to the Lean Design Thinking process model, as outlined earlier. […]

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