Design Innovation in App Development

Nick Swenson

June 19, 2020
Reading Time: 8 minutes

How to channel design thinking into a user-centric process that yields results.

“Innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship… the act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth.” – Peter Drucker In this day and age, companies innovate or they die: Blockbuster didn’t innovate fast enough, Netflix did and made them obsolete. But innovation doesn’t have to mean revolutionizing an entire industry, it can also be on a smaller scale, like a tool. The Starbucks mobile app for example is a simple yet powerful tool that drives loyalty. So how do you innovate consistently and properly? Through a repeatable and applicable approach: Design Innovation.

Design Innovation

At Swenson He we use a combination of design thinking, design innovation and rapid prototyping in a repeatable user-centric process.

To ground our explanation, we will use an example as a thread. Look for the green text:


You are a manufacturer of high-end garden equipment and are thinking about creating a mobile application to allow users to manage your new line of connected irrigation systems.

Proof of Value (POV)

Discover user problems and value-add

What are we trying to do?

As the name indicates, in the proof of value stage the goal is to discover the value-add you can provide to your users. To do so requires:

  • Understanding your users
  • Defining the problem
  • Ideating solutions

What methods are we using?

1. Empathize with your users

The key to successful design innovation is to keep the user at the center of everything you do.

A user-centric approach requires you to be empathetic, to take interest in their lives, put yourself in their shoes. When you meet or observe your users, the goal is to be broad in your questioning/observation and have a completely open-minded and unbiased approach.

In this step you can also collect data:

  • Users: many methods are available to collect data from your user. From hands-on interviews, to interpretive observation, your objectives will define the methodology you employ.
  • Industry: understanding the industry around your project will be critical in avoiding being blindsided. Use different tools to gain a high-level understanding of the context. The following tools can be a good starting point: a SWOT (internal Strengths and Weaknesses, external Opportunities and Threats), a PESTEL (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental, and Legal)
  • Competitors: a competitive benchmark and analysis will help understand your competitors and what can set you apart. Take a look at direct and indirect competitors: what do they do and how? Is anything missing from the current offering? Are there any lessons you can learn and adapt?

PROOF OF VALUE – Empathize

You decide to talk to your irrigation system customers, product designers, landscaping professionals, and some industry experts.

Your goal is to understand what the pain points and needs are? What value can be added to the irrigation consumer? Is the experience currently not ideal and why?

From your multiple data gathering initiatives (interviews, observation etc.) recurring themes emerge: automation, environment (water waste concerns), scheduling, complicated set-up, multiple tools necessary, time consuming, lack of knowledge on necessary watering frequency. Potential competitors (direct and indirect) have basic scheduling and reminders.

Experts say overwatering is a common issue (“people don’t know how much or how often to water their lawns and end up damaging it and wasting water”).

2. Define the problem and needs

The define phase is all about analyzing the collected data and identifying the core problems faced by your users. It is important to stay broad and objective.

You want to identify actual problems, not problems you wish existed because your company has a solution.

Stay away from problem statements that include your company, your products, your objectives (market shares, sales etc.), and instead think about your users.

PROOF OF VALUE – Define the problem

It would be tempting to define the problem as “We need an irrigation system app that will increase our market share in irrigation systems by 7%.” But that would be wishful thinking.

Instead by looking at the data objectively, we can define our problem as “Irrigation system users need a single tool to manage their lawn and plant health in a simple, environmentally friendly and time-saving way.”

3. Ideate solutions

Based on the problems and data, create a range of solutions and concepts. Don’t get attached to a solution, keep your eye on the problem (if your solution doesn’t address the problem you identified and set out to solve, then you will not end up with an applicable and innovative output).

When ideating, the goal is to be broad and avoid getting attached to weakly held views. In other words, make sure you do not form a purely emotional attachment to an idea: use data to support and reinforce ideas.

Your solutions should have a clearly identified core value-add loop, feature set and user journey.

Your feature sets should distinguish between “core” features (ones that are essential for the app to add value) and additional features (nice to have and add value but non-essential).

Prioritizing features will be useful for implementation, but also help avoid “feature creep” (adding non-essential or new features that may result in an overly-complicated product).

PROOF OF VALUE – Ideate solutions

Create a point of view statement: “How do we create a simple irrigation system management app that simplifies their lives and encourages people to buy our products?”

Then use ideation techniques such as brainstorming, worst possible idea, mind mapping, Ishikawa fish bones and more to create a broad range of solutions.

Narrow it down to the most promising solutions. In this case:

1. App with 2 worlds “Garden” (lawn care: irrigation start/stop, schedule) and “Home” (plant care)

2. Lawn care app with scheduling, smart watering (duration and timing based on basic lawn info) and eco mode

Output of Proof of Value

Solutions with a defined:

  • User Journey
  • Core LoopFeature Sets
  • Feature implementation phases

Proof of Concept (POC)

Testing solution effectiveness

What are we trying to do?

The proof of concept is about starting to bring your ideas/solution to life to make sure that you have correctly identified the problem/solution and that your users respond well.

It is also very often at this stage that companies secure investment.

In order to validate your concept you will do the following:

  • Prototype solutions (generally low-fidelity)
  • Test and validate with users

What methods are we using?

Based on Proof of Value identified features, create testable prototypes to confirm and refine your core value-add loop and features (core and additional) through value testing.

The key to confirming features is to know what to measure and how. Gather quantitative and qualitative feedback and analytic insights to verify if the assumptions of ideal features, core loop and user journeys are well understood and engaging.

It is also important to think about and test your app monetization strategy if you are considering one. Monetization strategy success is very closely linked to its integration into the user experience, and as such shouldn’t be a last-minute add-on at app launch.

It can be helpful to use a rapid prototyping approach for proof of concept. Rapid prototyping involves developing, testing, and adapting a product repeatedly, with each iteration incorporating lessons learned from previous versions. Though usually used in development, this approach can serve as the framework for creating and testing prototypes to validate the MVP.


You create two low-fidelity prototypes and test both solutions on a limited number of users.

  • Solution 1: users like the two worlds/being able to manage their lawn and their other plants in one app, but they expect more lawn care functionality and would like to set custom reminders to water their plants.
  • Solution 2: are satisfied with lawn care features, would like to be able to set eco-mode as default (turn it on/off), would like to enter more information about their lawn to ensure optimal watering.

You realize that your users wanted to take care of their lawn, but also enjoy having all their gardening tools in one app. You identify the following features:

  • Lawn care: connect irrigation system (core)
  • Lawn care: scheduling and smart watering based on lawn info (core)
  • Lawn care: eco mode (additional)
  • Plant care: add plants and set recurring watering reminders (core)
  • Plant care: connect plant sensors (additional)

You define the following phases:

  • Phase 1: connect system and scheduling
  • Phase 2: smart watering (basic info)
  • Phase 3: smart watering (advanced info)
  • Phase 4: plant care add plants and set watering reminders

Output of Proof on Concept

  • Validated MVP with core features
  • Defined phases for development (rapid prototyping)

Proof of Market (POM)

Iteration to achieve product-market fit

What are we trying to do?

Now that you’ve proven your concept, it’s time to take it to market. Instead of rushing, an iterative approach once again allows you to validate and adapt features and ensure a tight product/market fit. For this step, you will:

  • Develop through rapid iteration
  • Launch

What methods are we using?

1. Rapid prototyping development

A rapid prototyping approach can be used to validate UX in the development phase. The feature implementation phases will be used to define the development effort timeline and validation steps/KPIs necessary to progress.

2. Test and learn

In order to learn from each iteration, you must learn from users by tracking critical KPIs for each feature and phase. This will allow you to understand how to reinforce the value proposition for each feature, and the overall user experience.

KPIs for rapid prototyping will sometimes differ from traditional KPIs. Tracking daily active users for example may not make much sense if you have a limited number of users testing your current version of the app.

Think through each feature/phase and your goal (what assumption or flow are you trying to validate) to define the most accurate KPIs.

3. Confirm and implement core features

Throughout the various phases, you will refine your features and arrive at a final MVP that is ready to be put out in the world.

This MVP should contain strong core features that are essential to your users, and a streamlined user experience (including monetization if needed).


Phase 1: scheduling

Users are frustrated by the 15-step setup process and the scheduling calendar is confusing.

You simplify the set-up process and bring it down to 5 steps. You also redesign the feature and retest. Users respond well to the new set-up process and scheduling UI. Engagement KPIs increase. Move on to phase 2.

Phase 2: smart watering (basic info)

You saw in phase 1 that users respond well to a traditional UI (no innovative designs, users are not intuitive and need clear instructions).

You implement a simple 2-step smart watering set-up. 82% of users prefer to schedule watering themselves and are not responsive to the smart watering automation feature in general.

You modify the smart watering feature so users can make changes to the smart watering schedule as well (pause watering, postpone scheduled watering etc.). 47% of users now use smart watering. Move on to phase 3.

Phase 3: smart watering (advanced info)

You add more advanced fields: only 4.3% of users fill them in, most don’t. You realize it’s because the terminology is confusing/the users don’t have in-depth knowledge about their lawns.

You change the advanced field options and add traditional information tooltips and illustrations. 28% of users now use advanced lawn information. Move on to phase 4.

Phase 4: plant care add plants and set watering reminders

You add the second “world” in the app in a traditional bottom bar navigation (not the swipe motion originally planned because you now know your users prefer simple and traditional UI).

You also imitate your scheduling UI for plant watering reminders. Users respond well to the second world and have no difficulties adding plants and setting reminders due to the familiar UI.

End result: MVP with all core features and an optimized, data-backed user experience.

Output of Proof of Market

MVP product ready for launch

Proof of Impact (POI) 

Evolution and growth

Now that you have launched, you must continue learning from users and make small iterations since the app is in more users hands.

This is also the time to add your identified additional features in phases (again each phase learning from the last).


Innovation, and in particular consumer-centric innovation can be hard to get right: it can seem daunting, you could get off-track or blindsided, and it could be vital to the growth and survival of your business.

But with a clear and focused approach, derived from design innovation and rapid prototyping, you can ensure you are one step closer to success. Using creativity, channeling it through user-centric, iterative, data-driven testing and development, you can get your innovative solution out there with confidence.

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