For the past 10 years, the world of tech and business has buzzed with this idea: “Design thinking can change the world.” It’s been repeated at companies like IBM, Uber and L’Oréal and in disciplines as diverse as urban planning, architecture, fashion, engineering and solving resource shortages in places like Africa and Peru.

Design thinking may have become a buzzword all across the business world, but not without a healthy dose of skepticism. The bold claims seem overreaching and nigh impossible — tech has promised to solve lofty problems before and fallen short. However, beneath the buzz are a series of proven methodologies that have been put to work to reduce risk, promote consumer adoption and create novel products in niches that others have neglected — or simply haven’t even seen!

The opportunity for distillers and spirits product creators is becoming clearer. The craft-spirits sector has rapidly expanded in the past 20 years. In 2010, it may have been enough to simply be “the first distillery in _________ since Prohibition” to cultivate a following and establish a successful business, but those quick wins are long gone. There are few spirits niches not occupied by high-quality craft spirits producers. Bars, liquor stores and consumers have been inundated.

How can distillers create products that stores want to stock and consumers want to buy?

Design thinking presents an alternative approach that has been applied successfully to a number of other businesses and can be applied just as readily to a startup distillery or one looking to improve the performance of its products in the marketplace.

What Is Design?

Design is not what people often think it is. When people hear the word design, they often think of pretty pictures, well-decorated rooms and aesthetics. These things, while attractive and valuable, are not design. Design and art are somewhat opposed.

Art is the act of creating for the sake of creating. When an artist grabs her paintbrushes and a canvas and paints whatever she wants, she is creating art to express herself. When she creates a painting with the express intention of selling it, she may consider, “What sort of things do people buy?” She may visit stores and ask, “What size of canvas will the stores I wish to sell my work at want to carry?” She could even talk to consumers to see how much they’re willing to spend and determine, “What quality of paint should I use so that I’m able to make some money and buy dinner tonight?” In these latter scenarios, she is designing. That is, she is thinking about the outcome she wishes to bring about and intentionally making decisions that support those ends. If she makes the wrong decisions, her piece may not sell.

Design has more in common with science. That is, design formulates a goal and tests whether or not something accomplishes that goal. What has driven the adoption of design thinking by business is that it has shifted the model from the business designing what they think the consumer wants to a series of methodologies that help the business actually find out what the consumer wants.

Art is a worthwhile pursuit and is not at odds with commercial success. Some distillers started distilling spirits as a way of expressing themselves. There are plenty of stories of a distiller going out and creating a product simply because that is what they and their friends like to drink. Design thinking isn’t here to tell those distillers that they’re wrong or even that their products are bad.

Design thinking is merely an alternative approach to product design that reduces the risk in product development by putting the consumer first. Additionally, the application of these approaches can strengthen the business plan of startup distilleries by applying the same tools used in other professions to create successful, enduring businesses.

There is also a competitive-edge aspect to it. Major international distilleries rarely release a product without extensive research and testing. The pink gin fad of 2018 wasn’t the invention of one person in a back room. It was the result of extensive study which suggested that there was a latent desire for floral, low-ABV spirits that was not being filled by the flavored vodka market.

The Design Thinking Process

The process of applying design thinking to any problem can be summarized in five steps.

In this part of the process, the design thinker is asked to set aside all of their assumptions and listen. Listen to the people you want to use your product and gain insight into their needs and motivations. Oftentimes, this part of the process is described as “research.”

Of all the steps of the design thinking process, this is the one that is often newest to people who haven’t worked in fields that have used this approach. Later in this article are several techniques designers use to understand users and consumers in more detail.

Define the Problem.
Take everything you’ve learned in the empathize and research phase and begin to define the problem you’re going to solve. Share what you’ve heard with your partner(s), your friends and family. But don’t define it from your perspective, define it from your drinker’s perspective. For example, “Bartenders need a good story to hook a person on a new gin.” Or “consumers are looking for a craft whiskey that they don’t feel bad about mixing with ginger ale for their less-sophisticated friends.” (These are made up for the sake of explanation.)

At the end of this step, the problem statement should inspire further inquiry — for example, “How might we design a gin with a compelling story that a bartender can quickly share with a customer?” This should nicely set you up for the third stage.

Come up with Ideas.
This is also called “ideation” or “brainstorming.” The old aphorism “there are no bad ideas” should apply here. Don’t censor yourself or your team. Try to come up with as many solutions as possible to the problem.

Could a stave or chips get you the same effect? Could you approximate the taste of fennel in your Swedish aquavit using a combination of anise and licorice? Could we better meet the needs of our on-the-go consumers by packaging that vodka in a bag? True, there are a lot of regulations to consider, but this isn’t the time to get hung up on them. Expand your mind beyond the Beverage Alcohol Manual or the prescriptive category definitions.

This is where the fun comes in. For some products like gin, this might be experimenting with the still and seeing what comes out. For others, this might mean talking with your suppliers to see what’s possible. The goal here should be to find the best solutions to the opportunities you identified earlier on.

This is also where reality can kick in. How would we get label approval? Where will it appear on the shelf at my local store? Under Regulation 2019/787 of the European Union, where would it fit? Would I ever be able to sell this in the EU?

Once you’ve prototyped out some ideas, how do you know which solutions are the best? The answer is simple…

You Test.

Take your idea back to one of the bartenders you talked to earlier. Does the story resonate with actual people? Take your prototype gin to some actual people. What do they think? Do they like it? Do they get what you’re doing?

Take what you hear, refine and take it back to more people.

The important part to keep in mind is that not every solution is going to survive this step. Young writers are always told to get comfortable with the idea that you need to “kill your darlings.” You might be in love with the idea, but if it’s not working, you need to let it go.

If testing sounds onerous and time-consuming, it’s much less so than might be expected. Over decades of study, it’s been found that the more tests you do, the less you learn. If that sounds paradoxical, let’s walk through an example. With the first tester, everything is new. The second tester will likely say some similar things and have some similar experiences to the first person. The third user will say something you’ve heard twice already and, in addition to a couple of new notes, may double down on a couple of things tester one said and a couple of things tester two said (and so on).

According to a study conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group, after only five tests, you’ll uncover at least 80% of the insights that there are to find. Rather than test one prototype product with 100 people and find out everything before heading back to the lab, the data says test with five and then iterate. Iterating based on feedback is the most important part of the process, as this is where you refine the end product and better align your solution with the consumer’s problem.

Toolbox— some methods for getting there

Interviews are the bread and butter of any good empathy process. It can’t be stressed enough: An active conversation is the most important part. Conducting an empathy interview over email doesn’t provide sufficient opportunity for follow-up questions or picking up on things like tone, body language or pauses.

The hardest part is finding people to talk to. If you have connections in your local industry, feel free to reach out to them. However, your most valuable insights will come from people you don’t personally know. Sites such as Reddit have active communities centered on nearly every major (and minor) spirit, in addition to discipline-specific communities. If you do reach out in communities like these, please consult the community rules first.

Other agencies specialize in recruiting people for studies like this. However, be aware costs vary and can often be quite expensive. The advantage can be that you can get super granular and segment your market by gender, income, age and other demographic variables.

These five tips will help you get the most out of your interviews.

Have your questions ready ahead of time, even if they’re just short notes for yourself. Make sure you are prepared.

Ask to record the conversation. It’s incredibly hard to accurately remember every detail of a conversation, and you’re bound to lose some details. If you record, you also gain the benefit of being able to share the conversation with members of your team. If the participant does not agree to record the conversation, continue with the interview. Allot at least 15 minutes immediately after getting off the phone to write down everything you can remember. Try not to stack multiple interviews back-to-back for this reason.

Ask follow-ups. To really understand someone, you need to understand “why” they did something. However, we’re often conditioned to have an adverse reaction to someone we don’t know asking us, “Why?” Experiment with alternative ways to asking why without saying why. For example, “What made you think that?” “Was there something that happened that made you do that?”

Don’t be afraid of silence. Let five to seven seconds pass after asking a question, or listening to an answer, before you start to talk again. It takes people a couple seconds to process their thoughts. Moreover, many people are uncomfortable with silence and will begin to fill it by providing more details. Many interviewers struggle with this because they themselves want to fill the silence, too.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Never mind that Henry Ford never actually said that, the lesson is still extremely important. Psychologists say we all are poor judges of what we want and what will drive us to do something later on. This is a mistake made by a lot of tech companies. “I asked people if they wanted this, and they said they did!” The company makes it, and then no one buys the product. The company blames the people they spoke to. This isn’t the beginning of a healthy business-and-consumer relationship.

Instead, ask people to tell you a story about a time they did something. When did they order this kind of drink or spirit? What were they doing, and with whom? What we did in the past is a much better predictor of what we will do tomorrow. Furthermore, it also suggests to the interview subject to provide details like setting, time, a beginning and an end. It allows you to listen more.

Focus Groups
If you are a good facilitator, these can be a rapid way to gain interview-quality feedback from a large number of people. Furthermore, sometimes a person in the group will bring up something you hadn’t even thought of — and others will riff on it.

The downside is that these can be very difficult to manage. Often, there are one or two people that dominate the conversation. Hierarchies of power play out very strongly in these venues. If you do conduct a focus group, be ready to call out quiet people, cut off talkative people and change the subject when things go off the rails.

These can be good at getting numerical quantitative data from a large number of people. Tools like SurveyMonkey and Type Form are excellent and easy to use.

There are two major considerations when setting up one of these. Recruiting users can be difficult and it’s hard to expect a 100% completion rate. Self-selection bias can skew your results, especially if you mass-mail it. Secondly, consider your sample size. Small survey groups can provide results which are not statistically significant (that is, the result you see may likely be due to chance rather than a reflection of an actual preference). Look to get a minimum of 200 completed surveys before you derive conclusions from the data.

Contextual Study
One of the best predictors of what people will do and what drives them is to go visit them in their own environment. If you’re designing a product for people who make cocktails at home, try to set up a visit to their home bar. Have them mix you a cocktail. Observe what you see. How much space do they have? How many types of a spirit do they have?

One of the best places for conducting a contextual study in the spirit industry is to go to a local bar you want to one day have your product in. Sit at the bar and observe what people are ordering. How does the bartender communicate with his clientele? What spirits is he reaching for? Chat with the customers about what they’re drinking and why they’re ordering it. If you don’t tell people who you are and you’re just chatting with people, you can often find out a lot about the environment your spirits will be looking to find a space in.

Card Sorts
In a card sort, a consumer is given a deck of cards and is asked to sort them into categories that make sense to them. This activity can help give insight into what expectations a consumer brings to a topic or product.

For example, in 2018 I created a card sort to help better understand consumers’ understanding of gin botanicals. I gave them six broad descriptive categories, including flavor descriptions like “spicy,” “citrusy” and “floral.” I then gave them a deck of cards with botanicals that were named prominently in major gin brand marketing materials. What I found was that gin drinkers have only the most basic understanding of what a botanical tastes like when distilled. Coriander appeared at least once in all six categories. What we learned from this was that when gin distillers market their gin by botanicals alone, drinkers have little understanding of what the spirit in the bottle will taste like.

Card sorts can be devised to test any number of consumer word associations. They are easy to run and can quickly yield insights from even a small number of tests.

Journey Mapping
Once you hear some stories, it can be helpful to draw out what you’ve heard. A decision about buying a product rarely begins and ends in the same place. A person might have heard about a spirit from a friend, then Googled it and read some reviews before going to a bar and ordering it.

Visualizing the stories you hear can help you and your team visualize opportunities for getting the word out, or for creating brand awareness. Your drawing skills don’t matter — just get it out.

Design Will Improve Your Business

Solving a discrete problem rooted in consumer research makes your marketing and outreach easier as well. It helps your ambassadors determine who to reach out to. Furthermore, by ideating and creating a problem statement, you’ve already written your elevator pitch. Tell a bar program manager what market you’re reaching or what problem you’re solving, and you’re giving that person a clear reason why your product needs to be on their backbar.

The biggest benefit to design is that it reduces the risk of failure. The worst thing that can happen is to launch a product and to then find out that consumers don’t like it. Or that bartenders struggle to pour from your bottle when they’re in the weeds and the crowd is three people deep. Or that your label isn’t readable from a distance or by people who are colorblind. The reasons are myriad.

There’s a large number of reasons products fail. But it’s not a coincidence that many large startups apply design thinking to reduce that risk and ensure that they’ve reduced the risk as much as possible. While using all of the methodologies above isn’t a guarantee of success and consumer acceptance, it will make it more likely that your product will succeed in a marketplace that is projected to continue growing in the coming years.

Learning More About Design

Design is a massive discipline unto itself. If you are interested in learning more about how design thinking works or how other businesses have applied design thinking to innovate and create successful products, these are a good place to start.

Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Tim Brown

The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking Is the Next Competitive Advantage, by Roger Martin

Online course in design thinking from IDEO:

For a list of common research methodologies with concise instructions: