Why Software Needs Design Thinking

05 May 2015

By Amy Halliday

Alex Cowan knows what it takes to build and market a successful technology product. And it’s not all about coding. “People often think that software works miracles,” says the serial tech entrepreneur. “But that’s not true. It’s magical only if you conjure the right relevance and usability into it. It has to empathize with your user.”

In “Software Design,” a second-year MBA elective Cowan taught this past year at the Darden School—aimed at students with no technology background—he demystified software product design by offering a decidedly low-tech approach for high-tech projects.

Cowan, a Fellow at Darden’s Batten Institute, is most recently the founder of Leonid Systems, an enterprise software company that was acquired by BroadSoft (NASDAQ: BSFT) in January 2015. He also coaches founders and executives and is the author of the 2012 book Starting a Tech Business.

Basic technology literacy is crucial for managers today. “Many of our MBA students are interested in tech companies,” says MJ Toms, the associate director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the Batten Institute. “That’s where the excitement is, and that’s where the jobs are.” But students headed for the technology sector aren’t the only ones who need some understanding of software and digital innovation. Even businesses in nontechnical industries are largely dependent on maintaining a competitive advantage in software, and software has taken over large sections of the value chain in many industries. “Marc Andreessen was prophetic when he said in 2011 that ‘software is eating the world,’” Toms notes.

Software is also central to many ventures in Darden’s i.Lab Incubator. “Non-engineer entrepreneurs often find someone who can develop the technology for them,” says Toms, “But we’ve seen that their lack of basic knowledge can be a problem. And sometimes they hire a programmer before they’ve asked all the right questions about their product and their market.”

Asking the right questions—solving the right problem—is at the core of design thinking, the approach Cowan focused on in the MBA elective. Design thinking, a disciplined process from the world of industrial product design, involves developing a deep understanding of customers and of the problems they face, rapid prototyping, and experimentation with users. The approach has been increasingly applied to both business and non-business challenges. “Alex’s use of design thinking in the very targeted realm of software helps make the process much less abstract for students,” says Darden Professor Jeanne Liedtka, an expert in design thinking who is currently researching its application to social problems.

“Some of the students thought at first that I would be teaching them how to build software,” Cowan says, “but I actually focused on helping them figure out how not to build software, at least not custom software. People often apply software where it’s not needed, or not needed yet. If it is necessary, then you can often leverage an off-the-shelf product, which is much less expensive and much more flexible than developing something custom from scratch.”

“Many of the students in the class will be playing non-tech roles in the business world,” he says. “They’ll be in finance or brand management. Some of them will be entrepreneurs. My goal was to help them learn how to approach software and other digital innovation challenges with a product designer’s mind-set.” To that end, in addition to introducing students to the technical components of software products and how to choose and work with a partner, he focused on developing deep empathy with users, understanding their needs through the development of user personas, and building prototypes to test with potential customers.

It’s the kind of process students can apply in many of the settings they are likely to encounter throughout their careers, Cowan notes, whether they’re entrepreneurs or in a big company, and whether they’re facing a product design challenge or questions about strategic initiatives. “The tools and approaches of designers enable collaboration and often yield better outcomes,” he says. The structured approach of the designer provides a way to manage through uncertainty and get things done in a big corporate environment.

Cowan has also used the tools of design in workshops with ventures in the i.Lab, where he’s focused on how to start working with customers, defining problems before jumping to a solution, and testing product ideas. He has helped the fledgling entrepreneurs sort through what can seem like a bewildering array of tools and approaches—design thinking, lean startup, and agile, among others. “Faced with too many practices to choose from, it’s in our nature to get overwhelmed and just revert to old habits,” he notes. “A lot of these practices run counter to our wiring, so I try to help students decide which ones to use and then stitch them together in a systematic way. That gives them the confidence to apply them consistently.”

For the 2015–2016 academic year, Cowan will follow “Software Design” with a second course, “Software Development,” that includes some coding. “MBA students in an accounting course are learning how to put together and read financial statements,” notes Toms. “They gain some basic literacy with the tools and techniques. That’s important even for students who will not be in an accounting or finance role, because it’s such an integral part of business. The same is now true for software. You don’t need to be a coder, but you do need some basic literacy.”

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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