5 Ways Design Thinking Can Help You Create a Killer Content Strategy

Before Akshay Kothari sold Pulse to LinkedIn for $90 million, he was a reserved electrical engineering grad student at Stanford University. On a whim, he signed up for the introductory Design Thinking Bootcamp at the university’s with his friend and future business partner, computer science grad student Ankit Gupta.

The school’s interactive style immediately made Kothari feel … awkward. “When I first started, I felt like I was in the wrong place,” he said. “Before that moment, I’d spent all my time alone in a room, staring at math problems.”

Despite its name, “design thinking” has little to do with slick fonts or pretty color palettes. The process was popularized by David Kelley, co-founder of IDEO, an innovation consultancy known for producing a parade of groundbreaking inventions, such as the portable heart defibrillator.

Companies from Airbnb to Pfizer use design thinking to discover and address customer needs through five simple steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. The approach focuses on the end user—think fewer spreadsheets, more conversations with real live humans.

After studying more about design thinking, Kothari was able to use what he learned to turn Pulse into a wildly successful newsreader. And as we explain below, it’s possible for you to apply Kothari’s lessons to build a powerful content strategy.

Treat your content like a product

Many companies decide what users want without bothering to investigate their needs and behaviors. In fact, only 27 percent of businesses have a strategy governing their content creation, according to the Content Marketing Institute. This “ivory tower” approach to planning and creating content is a dangerous mistake. Audiences are sophisticated, and every publisher on the Internet is vying for their attention.

As strategists and editors, our job is to build and nurture relationships with readers by producing work they can use and trust. Buffer? Hell yes. SugarString? Not so much. By treating your articles, videos, and podcasts with as much importance as the widgets you sell, you can use design thinking to create meaningful content your audience will be excited to return to over and over again.


When Kothari first started working with Gupta on Pulse, they found themselves crammed in a coffee shop on University Avenue for 10 hours a day. But it soon became obvious their lack of a real office was a blessing in disguise. Everyone in the cafe was scouring news headlines —in magazines and newspapers and on their laptops and iPads.

“We were surrounded literally everyday by our target market as we were building our product,” Kothari said. So he got to work interviewing everyone he made eye contact with about how they read news, and later, what they thought of Pulse’s first iterations.

Figuring out what your audience truly needs doesn’t begin and end with a few questions on SurveyMonkey. You have to go into the field to observe and interact with real humans. As Kothari put it, “You stumble into these amazing insights that you just can’t get sitting in a room with your coworkers.”

While it’s impossible to hang out with your users in their apartments and cubicles, you can observe how they’re behaving online:

-Listen in on social media. What kind of articles are already popular with your audience? Use BuzzSumo, for example, to find out which stories about a certain keyword were shared the most on platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn. What questions are your prospective users asking each other about your industry? Q&A sites like Quora are your oracle.

-Have lunch with Brad from sales. It’s common for strategists to overlook their company’s sales and customer service departments. That’s a shame because these are the people who interact with real usersall day. Find out what questions customers ask them the most—your content should provide answers.

-Mine your old content for clues. If you’ve set up engagement metrics on your site, find out what articles or videos your users spend the most time reading and watching. Which ones receive the most comments? Which e-books are downloaded the most?

Get to the heart of your story

Before falling in love with design thinking, innovation consultant Toddi Gutner was a financial journalist for publications like The Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek. Gutner, now who teaches the methodology at CornellTech and Cornell Executive Business Education, finds that she still has to think like a reporter every day. “The investigative nature of trying to uncover insights or makes inferences to determine human needs is similar to trying to find or figure out ‘what’s the story,” she said.

At the “define” stage of design thinking, your mission is to distill your scattered findings into a meaningful narrative about your customer via a “problem statement” or point of view.

After observing and interacting with your audience, think about what you learned. What stood out? What was surprising? Did any patterns emerge? Formulate these needs into a problem statement beginning with the phrase, “How might we…”

For example, during Kothari’s many cafe interviews, one man complained about not being able to read the news during his daily train commute because of a precarious Internet connection. One of Pulse’s problem statements then became: “How might we create an app that users can read in a variety of environments?”

Brainstorm, build, and test

Once you’ve identified an existing need to fill for your audience, it’s time to move on to step three: ideate. Many companies jump straight to this stage because, well, it’s fun. But after putting in the effort to study your users, you’ll have a much deeper understanding of who you’re designing for—which gives your brainstorming session a clear direction.

To dream up your site’s new editorial calendar, invite people from across departments and have them brainstorm different story types, content formats, and topics. Resist the urge to reject any suggestions, no matter how outlandish. “Above all else, I think of design thinking as an employee engagement tool,” Gutner said. “It breaks down the silos and gives people permission to be creative.”

At the “prototype” stage, build a sample editorial calendar by narrowing down your ideas. As Stanford’s design thinking manual suggests: “As a team, designate three voting criteria (we might suggest ‘the most likely to delight,’ ‘the rational choice’, and ‘the most unexpected’). Carry the two or three ideas with the most votes forward into prototyping.”

Finally, it’s time to publish and test your prototype story ideas, headlines, and images. Kothari and Gupta’s first (or 27th) iteration of Pulse wouldn’t have amassed 20 million users or attracted LinkedIn. The app succeeded because the founders tested it relentlessly and optimized each version based on surprising findings.

In many ways, Kothari said, he is still experimenting. “You can never get close enough to your target segment—understanding the pains they have, the life they’re living, and how what you’re building affects the rest of their life.”

To get results, strategists must treat their audience the very same way.

Image by SpeedKingz

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