Steve Blank on Design Thinking vs. Customer Development

  • September 12, 2014
  • Scott

I saw this post more than a month ago but it took me a while to come back to it and read it.  Steve Blank has written the definitive works on Customer Development already, and with all the discussion of Design Thinking lately, I saved the article for a later read.

So what does he have to say about it?

Two methods, Design Thinking and Customer Development (the core of the Lean Startup) provide the tactical day-to-day process of how to turn ideas into products.  While they both emphasize getting out of the building and taking to customers, they’re not the same. Here’s why.

Skipping ahead, here’s the part that really resonated to me:

I invented the Customer Development process trying to solve two startup problems. First, most Silicon Valley startups were (and primarily still are) technology-driven. They are founded and funded by visionaries who already have products (or product ideas based on technology innovation) and now need to find customers and markets. (Think of the early days of Intel, Apple, Cisco, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.)


Design Thinking doesn’t start with a founder’s vision and a product in-hand. Instead it starts with “needs finding” and attempts to reduce new product risk by accelerating learning through rapid prototyping. This cycle of Inspiration, Ideation and Implementation is a solutions-based approach to solving customer problems.

If you’re a big company, employing Design Thinking – likely you already have customers… and what you are searching for is a way to better serve their needs, or identify their needs that you can serve with your products or new products.

With a startup, you’re searching for the customers in the first place.  But, as a large company, you can also apply customer development to try to find a market fit for your product ideas…

How does this apply to BPM?  Are we doing Design Thinking or Customer Development?  Or neither?  The succinct descriptions would seem to indicate Design Thinking:

  • Customer Development starts with, “I have a technology/product, now who do I sell it to?”
  • Design Thinking starts with, “I need to understand customer needs and iterate prototypes until I find a technology and product that satisfies this need”

We’re not searching for the technology and product, but rather the right processes and designs, in order to meet the needs of either customers or company. Still, like a true BPM practitioner, I like to borrow from both schools of thought…






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