Tag Archives: design thinking

Understanding Customer Needs (Diamond 2)

Let’s say I want to create a better eat-at-home meal solution for work-from-home professionals. That’s not really a strikingly novel problem. Indeed, food and beverage services are some of the oldest businesses in existence. I will face fierce competition to do the job. Why will customers choose my solution and not those of my competitors? 

Maybe because I do a better job of advertising, or because my product is more available, or because it’s priced lower. Those things are important for sure. But, much more significant, customers will choose my product if it better meets their needs.

The second diamond in the triple-diamond design process begins with a job to be done, understands the customer needs, and identifies one or more insights. There are two key goals of the second diamond. The first is to comprehensively catalog your customers’ needs. The second is to identify one or two latent needs – needs that are important but not yet addressed in the marketplace. We call these latent needs insights and they are useful in pulling a compelling solution concept when we get to the third diamond.

What are Customer Needs?

We aren’t here only talking about fundamental human needs in the sense of food, shelter, and belonging. Rather, for any given job to be done, customers typically care about 30 to 50 distinct attributes of a potential solution that if provided will result in greater satisfaction. We call these attributes needs, and they tend to vary a lot across individuals. For example, consider these two products. First, the Wendy’s Pretzel Bacon Pub Triple Cheeseburger. Second, the Soylent liquid meal. Both are solutions to the job “How might we provide lunch to hungry workers?” But, clearly the burger is better at meeting the primal craving for fat and salt, and the Soylent is better at meeting the need for high efficiency.

Wendy’s Pretzel Bacon Pub Triple Cheeseburger (Source: Wendy’s)
Soylent read-to-drink meal (Source: Soylent)

You have a focal customer, or type of customer, sometimes called your beachhead market, and represented by your customer persona. Once you have specified the target segments, a goal of the second diamond is to create a comprehensive list of user needs. There are entire textbooks that teach the methods for understanding user needs. In fact, I am a co-author of one of them (Ulrich et al. 2020). Here is an example of a comprehensive list of customer needs for a music player.

Example comprehensive list of customer needs for a music player.

How to Identify Customer Needs

In sum, you create this list by doing a set of open-ended interviews with individual potential customers. You interpret what you hear and see in terms of the individual underlying needs. 

You do your best to express these needs independently of solution concepts. So, instead of stating that the music player has a touch screen enabling a finger to rearrange the order of a playlist, you state that the music player allows the user to predetermine a sequence of songs, a statement independent of any particular solution concept. 

Once you have a comprehensive set of unique needs, you arrange them into clusters. For example, the primary need “The music player lets me control the music” is supported by a cluster of secondary needs that are more specific and detailed like “The music player lets me easily find and play music I have enjoyed previously” and “The music player lets me reduce frequency of play of a song.”

The full needs list is important for the ultimate product design. After all, you don’t want to miss anything important. You may also at some point use more formal quantitative customer research tools in order to understand which needs are most important across different market segments and the relative importance of say price and convenience for a particular segment. But, in the triple diamond model of design, our goal is the development of a compelling solution concept, and for that purpose, we are doing an initial exploration of customer needs in order to understand the important unmet needs among our potential customers – what we call an insight.

What is an Insight?

A woman named Emily Harper recently posted a video on the social media site TikTok showing how she prepares ground beef for use in recipes. With the comment that all this fat is disgusting, she is shown first cooking the meat and then washing it thoroughly with hot water using a wire strainer. The video went viral with seemingly half the world aghast that she had removed all the flavor from her food, and the other half thrilled at this revelation of a new technique for healthy living.

Your job as a zero-to-one product leader is not to pass judgment on crazy customer behavior. Rather, you benefit from acting like an anthropologist and asking yourself what deep insight does this behavior reveal about the nature of your potential customers.

In thinking about the opportunity for 99 Bowls, a service providing immediately available yummy food for work-from-home professionals, I hope to observe Emily with a curious and open mind.

The insight I derive from watching Emily going to extreme lengths to adhere to strict dietary constraints is that some individuals feel a compelling need to tightly control the macro nutrient profile of the food they eat.

Among designers, the term insight refers to a user need that is:

  1. authentic
  2. non-obvious, and
  3. significant.

Authentic means that the insight is based on an actual observation of users in the target market.

Non-obvious is self explanatory.

Significant means that if your solution addresses the need it would result in a meaningful enhancement in the value perceived by the customer.

In the second diamond of the triple-diamond model the designer achieves two goals: first, comprehensively identify the customer needs in the target segment and second, flag a small subset of those needs that comprise insights. 

Four Categories of Needs

The result of a set of customer needs interviews is a comprehensive list of customer needs, usually 30-50 distinct items. These needs can be sorted into four categories, illustrated by a framework from the Japanese total quality movement of the 1980s and 1990s called a Kano Diagram.

Four categories of needs as represented by a Kano Diagram. (Adapted from original by KTU.)

The horizontal axis is the extent to which the need is satisfied by the solution. The vertical axis is the resulting change in customer satisfaction, or perceived value of the solution.

The “don’t care” needs are needs that are irrelevant to the customer. Address them or not –  the customer’s satisfaction does not change. For example, for me, whether or not the food you deliver to me is gluten free, I don’t notice or care.

The “linear” needs are those for which the customer’s satisfaction is essentially directly proportional to the extent to which your solution addresses the need. For example, affordability is often a linear need. When the food is a little more expensive, I’m a little less satisfied.

The “must haves” are needs that if fully addressed do not result in dramatic improvements in satisfaction, but if not addressed at all, result in extreme dissatisfaction. For example, if a food container is microwavable, I don’t particularly notice. However, if the container immediately melts or sparks in the microwave, I’ll be very dissatisfied.

The “latent” needs are needs that if unaddressed are not missed, but if addressed result in surprise and delight. For example, if my food service allows me to precisely specify the macronutrients of my lunch, say 20% carbohydrates, 40% fat, and 40% protein, I’m thrilled.

While there have been some attempts to use the Kano framework quantitatively based on survey methods, it’s mostly conceptual. It gives you a way to think about customer needs and to direct your investment. Ignore the don’t cares. Deliver the must-haves. Invest at competitive parity in the linear needs. But, then, seek out the latent needs like hidden gems. The latent needs are by definition non-obvious. To the extent that they derive from your observation of users, they are authentic. Those that are significant – a big deal for customers if addressed – are insights. These insights will be used in the third diamond to pull compelling solution concepts.

How to do Customer Interviews

OK, but how do I actually get the information to identify the customer needs. Put simply, you get out of the office and interact with customers.

More specifically, you conduct at least 10 one-on-one interviews for each distinct market segment. For new zero-to-one products you’ll probably just have one beachhead market. Perhaps surprisingly, you need just 10 interviews to identify 90 percent of the customer needs that would eventually be revealed by interviewing hundreds of customers.

I recommend you do these interviews as follows:

  • Identify about 10 potential customers for each segment. These customers need not be typical. In fact, they could be extreme in some ways. After all, our ultimate goal is to find unmet needs, and sometimes the extreme users are better at revealing those needs. For example, if our segment is work-from-home professionals, we might interview some professionals who work from highly remote locations, say a cabin in the mountains. Or, we might interview workers who are extremely passionate about food, so called foodies, say those who are food writers. Or possibly those with extreme food regimens, say adherents of ketogenic diets.
  • Conduct the interviews either alone or with one other person. You can get by doing them alone, but you’ll find it easier to keep track of what you learn if you have a partner. The other advantage of doing interviews in pairs is that you can engage a lot of people in the process. For example, bringing members of your technical team on interviews is a very powerful way of developing empathy for the customer.
  • You can use an audio recording device, but honestly I rarely do. I think notes are pretty much just as effective. I think recordings are a bit obtrusive and they are rarely actually transcribed and used. Having said that, I do take a lot of photos and even some short video clips, as the visuals are very helpful in reporting on the interviews and in remembering specifics.
  • Do the interviews in the customer’s use environment if possible. If interviewing office workers about lunch, do the interview around lunch time at their offices. The reason for this approach is that you are going to observe as much as you are going to listen. You will develop an entirely different and better understanding of your customer if you observe them in their own world.
  • Plan on about an hour of unstructured conversation. I know this is a bit daunting for many people, but I’m pretty sure you can do it. I have four questions that I use to get the conversation started, but rarely need them. You simply start with an open-ended question related to the job to be done. For instance, “what’s your plan for lunch today?” Once you’ve asked a question, listen carefully to the response and look for an open door. For example, your customer might say, “well, I usually skip lunch.” That’s a huge open door. You know what to do – step through the door by asking, “really? Why’s that?” I guarantee a big fat customer need is about to be delivered to you with that question. The response might be “i’m trying to lose a few pounds” or “I don’t have time” or “I’m planning to eat a big dinner later” or “I forgot to bring my food” – whatever the customer says, you’ll learn a lot. If you walk through a bunch of doors and find yourself way off topic, bring the conversation back to the job to be done with one of your prepared questions. The prepared questions I like are “How do you currently do the job” which you’ll ask more naturally like “what do you do most days for lunch?” or “What issues do you consider when choosing what to do for lunch” or “what most annoys you about lunchtime?” or “what would be your perfect lunch experience?” Any of these questions will result in more open doors – then you step through them.
  • Whenever possible, ask the customer to show you as opposed to tell you about the question. For example, if the customer responds “I bring my lunch” ask to see the lunch itself. You’re going to learn a lot by observing them. For example, you might learn about office food storage, or dietary preferences, or portion sizes, all revealing of needs in a more direct and truthful way than would be an oral response to a question.
  • After your interview, sit with your partner and debrief. Revisit the conversation and identify as many needs as you can, even if obvious or obscure. This process results in a long list — usually 30-50 distinct needs. I say usually, but for some complex products there could be many more. I once worked on a project to design a better blood pressure monitor, and we identified about 400 distinct customer needs.
  • Finally, work to identify those needs that could be considered insights.

What About Large-Scale and Quantitative Market Research Techniques?

The triple diamond model of design is highly effective in understanding latent customer needs and in developing novel solution concepts in response to those needs. However, it has no mathematical underpinnings. There is no notion of statistical significance or estimation of the magnitude of a consumer response to a given feature. Many of you probably have backgrounds in engineering, economics, or mathematics and may be uncomfortable relying on such a qualitative process to create new products.

Of course your discomfort is justified. After all, in business we do really need to answer questions like how big is the addressable market? What should our price point and product specifications be? How will our new product fare in a competitive landscape?

These and other important questions are best answered with quantitative market research tools. 

But be careful – the triple-diamond model is intended to engage you in a rich and multi-sensory way with the customer. You won’t achieve that goal with a web-based survey. Avoid the impulse to employ quantitative market research techniques until after you have used the customer-centered, qualitative approach captured by the triple diamond model.


Ulrich, Eppinger, and Yang. 2020. Product Design and Development. McGraw-Hill.

List of highest-calorie fast-food burgers available in the United States. https://www.eatthis.com/fast-food-burgers-highest-calories/

Wikipedia description of Kano Model. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kano_model

The Triple-Diamond Model of Design

I’ve been a product designer my entire adult life. Here is one of the products I created, the Belle-V ice cream scoop. In full disclosure, I had a lot of help from a talented team. When people see the product they impute genius to the designer – wow, that’s amazing. How did you come up with that?

I’m using an example of a physical good for specificity, but I’ve experienced the same kind of reaction to digital products and services.

The reality is that I learned an effective process when I was in my 20s and I’ve applied that process repeatedly, sometimes weekly or even daily for 40 years. When you only observe the outcome, the results seem magical. But, the truth is that a fairly straightforward sequence of process steps can reliably lead you to a great result.

Design is just another word for the pull approach to innovation. All design processes are a sequence of steps that begin with some articulation of the “what” and result in some description of the “how” – the process moves from what to how.

Commercial phase-gate product development processes are just an elaboration of that basic idea, with lots of detail. My textbook on product design and development (Ulrich et al. 2020) is a comprehensive description of that detail. Most of you working in larger organizations probably use some sort of phase-gate process that is specific to your industry.

But, here I’m going to abstract a bit, and focus on the elemental design process – what is design at its very core. While design is the core problem solving approach within the product development process, design can be applied beyond product development. It’s almost a building block of being human – of dealing with life.

My goal is to describe the design process in a way that it can be used in myriad situations, from the creation of a new product from scratch, to the improvement of an existing product, and even for solving internal innovation challenges such as finding new ways to reduce waiting times in emergency departments.

To reiterate, the standard phase-gate product development process is a fully elaborated methodology that typically includes the roles of different functions within the organization. It emphasizes not only what to do in each phase, but the notion of a gate that must be cleared in order to proceed to the next phase. I am now going to boil that basic process down to its essence to give you a tool I call the triple-diamond model that can be used not just in zero-to-one product development, but also in almost any other problem solving situation.

To give credit where credit is due, the triple-diamond model is my extension and elaboration of the Double Diamond Model articulated by the UK-based Design Council, a non-profit organization with the mission of improving design practices.

The three diamonds correspond to three steps. 

  1. Clarify the job to be done in a jobs analysis
  2. Understand the needs of the customer or user. 
  3. Create a great solution concept.

In practice, a fourth phase is usually important – implementing that concept in a way that the organization can actually deliver the solution. This involves writing the code, designing the parts, and planning for production.

The three diamonds each represent a cycle of divergent and convergent thinking. For each diamond, the designer explores alternatives, and then focuses.

The first diamond answers the question, “What is the job to be done?” It starts with a target customer and the gap or pain point as you have first sensed it, and it results in a carefully considered reframing of the design problem in terms of a job to be done. In fact, one of the critical elements of an effective design process is not even really problem solving so much as problem definition.

The second diamond begins with a job to be done and develops a comprehensive understanding of the customer needs, which are those aspects of a solution that could result in satisfaction and even delight if satisfied. The convergent portion of the second diamond identifies one or a few insights, which are essentially important customer needs that were previously not known.

The third diamond uses those customer insights to pull many possible solution concepts and then selects one or a few for further refinement and testing.

Let me show you how the three diamonds played out for the Belle-V scoop. I started with a vague sense that ice cream was really hard to scoop. In diamond 1, I focused on the at-home consumer of ice cream and came up with the job to be done “How might we better dispense bulk ice cream into individual portions?” In the second diamond, I observed people scooping ice cream and noticed that the wrist angle was quite awkward, even painful for some people. That insight allowed me to pull several different solution concepts, including the one that eventually was embodied in the product, a more or less conventional scoop, but with the scoop angled relative to the handle.

Of course, really, it’s diamonds all the way down. The triple diamond model focuses on the concept development process, but when the team proceeds to build the product based around a concept, it will almost certainly use additional cycles of divergent and convergent techniques in order to solve downstream problems, say for establishing a product architecture, or implementing specific components of the solution. For example, even after we had converged on the solution concept of an angled scoop, we did a huge amount of exploration to find the final form of the object. Another diamond focused on the detailed design of the shape of the scoop and handle. And for that matter, there was another diamond when we considered the surface finish of the scoop – divergent exploration of alternatives and then convergence on tri-valent chrome plating.

Some of you are thinking that this model seems pretty tidy for a very simple piece of hardware like an ice cream scoop, but may not apply to more complex goods and services, say to enterprise software or to a hotel experience. I have a couple of reactions to those reasonable thoughts. 

First, as an aside, there’s a reason they call it HARD-ware – it’s hard. Even a simple object like an ice cream scoop presents a lot of complexity and challenges when it comes to actually getting it to the marketplace. 

But, more substantively, for new, zero-to-one systems, software, or services, you must still devise an overarching solution concept. For example, consider LinkedIn – the top-level solution is essentially a user-created resume-like profile with the ability to establish a connection between two individuals, and then the ability to search 1st, 2nd, and 3rd order connections in the resulting professional network. Such an overarching concept could be developed with the triple diamond model. 

For established systems, the triple diamond will be unlikely to be applied to the entire product or suite of products, but rather more likely to a feature within that more complex product. For example, once LinkedIn had become a successful product, the triple diamond model could still be applied, but to a new feature, say the creation of the follower feature, which allows individuals to follow another person and get updates that person publishes, but without requiring the individual to become a bi-lateral connection.

Problem Solving, Design, and Design Thinking

I happened to be on a holiday ski trip when I was preparing for this video. (I know, that doesn’t sound like that much of a holiday.) I kept thinking to myself, skiing is fun, but it’s a huge annoyance to actually get on the slopes. For most novice skiers, you have to procure skis, boots, poles, helmet, goggles, and warm clothing. Then, you have to put all that stuff on. Then, while fully dressed in really warm gear you have to walk awkwardly from transportation to a ski lift, sometimes navigating a flight of stairs. Then, you put on the skis. By then you are sweating and your goggles are fogged up. Next you wait in a line. Then you get on a windy and cold ski lift and become quite chilled. When you finally get to the top of the mountain, you stare at a map trying to figure out the best route down. Finally, you get to slide on the snow, which is actually quite fun. I’m an incurable innovator and so I found myself posing the question, “How might we improve the experience of getting skiers onto the slopes?”

If I were a trendy corporate consultant, I would call this a “design thinking” problem. But, I’m actually a bit of a crusty old designer. I’ve taught design for more than 30 years. So, I have to ask “what exactly is design thinking” and how is it any different from plain old design?

Well, first let’s first go back to the definition of innovation and design.

I define innovation as a new match between a solution and a need. Innovation can result from a push – starting with the solution and looking for a need. For example, what might we use the blockchain for? Or, it could start with the need and pull the solution, like I framed the skiing challenge. “How might we improve the skier experience?” Design is innovation anytime you are pulling a solution from a need.

So considering our definition, the short answer to what is design thinking is that it is design. Really. You apply the same process to creating a better ski experience as you do to creating a better ice cream scoop, or a better fitness app. In fact, the word design thinking annoys a lot of designers, because they are usually less interested in thinking about problems than in actually solving them. 

Once I cool off a bit about the weird term “design thinking,” I realize there may be a gem of an idea in there, and that a bit of nuance may in fact be warranted.

A useful definition of design thinking might be that it is design of things we don’t normally think of as designed.

For example, here are some problems for which the design process could be used, resulting in solutions that would not normally be thought of as designed artifacts.

  • How might we improve the patient experience in the emergency department at our hospital?
  • How might we improve the convenience of using a bicycle for transportation?
  • How might we create a delightful food delivery service?

A lot of people talk about needing to apply more design thinking in business. I find myself wondering if the desire for design thinking is really just a reaction to the use of too many spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations, disconnected from customers and from exploration of solution concepts. This reaction reflects a desire for a different and better culture of innovation.

I do think that good designers exhibit a few desirable elements of culture. Interestingly, most of these elements don’t need to really be confined to design. Here are five:

  1. Designers exhibit a bias for action.
  2. Designers tend to be optimists, exhibiting a culture of yes.
  3. Designers tend to use exploratory prototypes early in the problem solving process.
  4. Designers tend to be skilled at visual expression.
  5. Designers tend to use empathic methods for understanding customers.

Despite my enthusiasm for all things design, I won’t argue it is universally the best approach to problem solving. For example, it would be a mistake to abandon elements of Six Sigma, Total Quality Management, the Toyota Production System, and data-based approaches. It would also be a bad idea to use a design process to find the volume of a geometric shape, a task better suited to an algorithm.

But, for a huge set of challenging problems, design is a great approach. It is fundamentally divergent and open-ended in its perspective on addressing user needs, and that’s useful whether you are designing a bridge, enterprise software, or an insurance claims process.


Karl T. Ulrich, Steven E. Eppinger, and Maria C. Yang. 2020. Product Design and Development. McGraw-Hill. New York.

Double Diamond Model. UK Design Council.