Use design thinking on idea generation

By Gabriel Onyango

A lot of thought, effort and time goes into finding new ideas to turn into businesses. The irony is, despite all the effort we put into discovering these ideas, our approaches are dangerously flawed; with a narrow focus on solutions rather than the problem. Unless we put the user/customer back into the idea generation equation (human centered design), our solutions will struggle to be accurate.

The problem

According to a 2016 report by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), up to 400,000 micro, small and medium sized enterprises – close shop every year. The reasons vary from, high competition, low sales, reduced revenue to high operating costs. No matter the reasons, one question always on the mind of anyone who loses a business is:  Should I have started it in the first place?

By not involving users in developing business solutions, we risk coming up with ‘desk ideas’ – full of assumptions, and incomplete information.

Human centered design

Dennis Gikunda, Innovation Director Mastercard Foundation in an event where he was speaking on this topic gave an  example of design thinking at work. A group of designers (users of design thinking principles) were trying to solve the problem of lack of market for farmers. They went ahead and spent a day in their farms, observing what farmers did and how they went about it (this is central to human centered design). After the exercise they realized that the problem wasn’t  lack of market per se, but that the farmers  grew many different products in small quantities. The issue now, was finding a way for these farmers to dispose of these small amounts profitably; for instance, a system of exchanging produce with neighbors.

Had these designers not gone to the farms, they would probably have come up with some fancy app or an SMS service to help farmers find market despite that not being the root problem.

Principles of design thinking

Anyone looking to solve problems using design thinking has to be willing to question their existing assumptions. An open mind is a vital tool of the trade.

Designers are often encouraged to be creative and come up with as many ideas as possible no matter how silly they are (those quick to criticize are advised to ease up on the finger pointing).

Design thinking involves a lot of experimentation, bad ideas are weeded out through experiments to remain with the most promising ones.

Five phases of design thinking

Human centered design is achieved through a number of phases. These steps don’t always have to come in this particular order and can often occur randomly.


Put yourself in the shoes of the user and feel the pain they experience due to the problem.

Define the problem

Identify what the real problem/need is, don’t assume; visit users in their environment, use the product yourself, use the ‘Five Whys’ technique to find the root cause.


Challenge assumptions and generate ideas for possible solutions, as many as possible, and keep on questioning them while empathizing with the user.


A prototype is a simple version of your intended product or service. It can be made with paper or wood, it can be a drawing, or even a video showing how your non-existent product will work. Basic rule of a prototype is, it should create/show/depict the experience you intend to give with your final product.


Go out to the field or internet, and put your product into the hands/ears/mouth of your intended customer, listen to what they say. What do they like or dislike about your product (prototype)? What suggestions are they giving? Use the feedback to make changes. In some cases, the feedback could be so bad that you have to abandon the idea. However isn’t it better to fail early and quickly than years and millions of shillings later?

Design thinking principles can be used in many professions; artists use it, engineers and architects have mastered it, musicians love it. Entrepreneurs won’t be able to live without it, but only if we are willing to try.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.