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Emprendimiento digital, startups, Big Data Analytics y nuevos modelos de negocio

Connections and differences between Customer Development and Design Thinking: where does one start and the other end?

At the end of last July Steve Blank published an article in his blog where he analyzed the differences between his Customer Development methodology and the Design Thinking proposal. It seems clear that those two approaches share a strong connection, as both are essentially based on out-of-the-building observation and direct interaction with potential customers to co-create a solution according to their problems and needs and the feedback gathered from the experimentation by those customer with successive prototypes or MVPs that are refined iteratively. These similarities in their foundations makes the border or distinction between those methodologies a bit vague, and when we plan some experiments or interactions with customers one doesn't really worry (at least in my experience) about whether what one is doing is considered Design Thinking, Customer Development or both of them at the same time (what might suggest that in the end the "label" is the least of our worries).

Interestingly enough, the article written by Steve Blank does intend to draw a clear line dividing those two approaches. The two main arguments supporting this division, according to Blank, are based on the different features of a startup compared to those of a established company, and they are as follows:

- A startup has a pressure and a sense of urgency (so that they don't run out of resources before validating their innovative proposal, which would imply to close that emerging company and to fire the team) much more noticeable than in the case of an established company that wants to explore an innovative project. This makes innovation processes (and, among them, learning from customers) to be different in one case or the other.

- Customer Development was conceived by Blank thinking about startups launched by "visionaries" that startup with a solid idea about a product and search for customers and markets wanting it. Thus, they have that pressure and sense of urgency to find those customer segments (and reaching product/market fit) before running out of resources. Design Thinking (at least according to Blank) is not devised thinking of an entrepreneur's vision of the product he/she wants to build. Instead, it focuses on "searching for problems/needs" using a process that attempts to reduce risk through learning and iterative refinement using prototypes.

In my opinion there are some key aspects in Blank's arguments that are very interesting and worth taking into account, but some of his conclusions don't seem to me as solid as to draw such a clear distinction between both approaches.

On one hand we have that idea of the "need for speed", the sense of urgency and the pressure not to run out of resources. It is clearly true that a startup doesn't usually begin their project with the amount and quality of resources that a company has to explore innovative projects. This implies that (1) the startup has to use a work method oriented to achieve "more with less", and (2) companies, in many cases, have tended to face these projects without the required diligence in order to be very conscientious about goal achieving and work efficiency. Following this reasoning, I understand that the difference would not be so much in the intrinsic features of each method as in the spirit with which the project is faced and the team's self-imposed thoroughness to achieve results (or pivot/abandon) according some milestones and resource-consumption criteria (and considering the present socioeconomic context I don't think that any explorative project is going to be faced with a very "relaxed" view on resource consumption, whichever the type of organization involved).

On the other hand, there is this difference between "product looking for market" and "search for the needs in a market", which Blanks presents as the basis of one methodology and the other. I don't think either that it really adjusts to the reality to think that entrepreneurs start with a quasi-immutable product and search for the customer segment for which that proposal is a clear fit. As I understand it, hypothesis refinement about the value proposition and about the customer segments go hand in hand (and in case we have to start detailing one of them more than the other, my proposal is quite clear), and we should face the exploration process without starting with a preconceived and completely closed idea about the product to build, being flexible enough to adapt ourselves to the market needs we identify along the process (always being aware of our focus regarding the type of problems to explore and solutions to build). This would lead to use both methodologies and their tools (be they Customer Development interviews or other techniques related to Design Thinking) in any case, what reinforces the idea mentioned at the beginning of this post, that is, that the fundamental aspects of both methodologies allow us to leverage a combination of them (forgetting about their "labels") and that the differences may very well be caused by the spirit and diligence of the team or organization launching the project, rather than by core aspects of the methodologies.

[Haz clic aquí para la versión en español de esta entrada]

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