Applying design thinking to start-ups

Students from the Innovation Academy at UCD brought design thinking to client start-ups at the Wayra incubator, with interesting results

The UCD campus: Thirty innovation and entrepreneurship students from the Innovation Academy at UCD took part in the “design thinking” experiment at the Wayra start-up accelerator in Dublin. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

The UCD campus: Thirty innovation and entrepreneurship students from the Innovation Academy at UCD took part in the “design thinking” experiment at the Wayra start-up accelerator in Dublin. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh


The Wayra start-up accelerator in Dublin played host to a novel experiment last month. Thirty innovation and entrepreneurship students from the Innovation Academy at UCD entered the incubator to bring “design thinking” to its client start-ups.

Design thinking is a process through which businesses can design products that neatly meet customer needs. It has five stages, beginning with an “empathy” stage, which involves speaking to prospective customers and asking open questions to get a sense of their concerns. The second stage involves mapping these concerns and understanding the specific problems customers experience. The next stage, “ideation”, involves thinking of possible solutions to these problems. Then, at the “prototyping” stage, some of these solutions are mocked up so that in the final stage, “feedback”, the customer can be asked to give their input.

Satisfying a customer need

The five steps are repeated again and again until a product that perfectly satisfies a real customer need has been developed and fine-tuned.

“Brainstorming is often an unstructured mess, which occasionally delivers a nugget, but through design and system thinking processes, the outcomes are inevitably more valuable,” says Wayra Ireland managing director Karl Aherne.

Gotcha Ninjas, which focuses on software for the creche market, was among the Wayra start-ups involved.

After sitting down with Gotcha Ninjas and understanding their product, the student team’s next step was to get out of the building and find out creches’ most pressing problems.

The students contacted creche operators and posed open questions that would give them an insight into what these businesses really needed. There were questions like: “If you had a million euro, what would you do to help the creche?”

Unexpected answers

The answers were different to what the company thought they would be. When the team returned and started to stack up the insights captured in the research, it became clear that the main issues were staffing, absenteeism, paperwork and the flexibility of standby staff.

The team started to think of a new feature for Gotcha Ninja’s app that would allow creche owners to find replacement staff at a moment’s notice. Instead of having to pick up a phone or engage with an agency, a creche manager would be shown a list of available temporary staff, along with their bona fides. When a temp is selected, they are automatically sent the latest reports on the children with whom they will be working.

The next step for the team was to mock-up a quick prototype using sheets of paper and return to the creches to get further feedback.

Gotcha Ninjas co-founder Tony Riley believes the solution will set his company apart from competitors, and the team has tailored its concept to exploit software his company has already built. “It opens up many potential new spaces for us.”

A second student team worked with a start-up called FoneSense. The company has pioneered an app that allows a brand to pay a phone owner in return for using its brand music as a ringtone. However, it faces a challenge in reaching new users, a challenge the students believe they have resolved.

First, the innovation students explored the capabilities of the product. Then they developed a new focus through which the company could reach new users cheaply. Equally importantly, in the process they established a basis for co-operation between FoneSense and a multinational non-profit organisation that will net the start-up several hundred thousand customers. FoneSense founder Christian Ryder says working with the Innovation Academy team has been an unexpected win, “refocusing us on what are actually the real issues, and not what we think the real issues are”.

The teams presented their results at a Wayra event yesterday.

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