This article is based on Laura’s outstanding interview on the Product Marketing Life podcast. Check it out here

At the time of recording, Laura was the Global Head of Product Marketing at Uber. Since then, she’s scaled even greater heights and is now Chief Marketing Officer at Instacart. Congratulations, Laura!

In my early 20s, I was looking to jumpstart my career boost after some time in management consulting. I felt a bit uninspired and longed for more creativity in my work.

That's when I stumbled upon Stanford Design School (also known as which at that time was just a trailer on the Stanford campus with a little plastic sign out front. I had a strong gut feeling that this little trailer held something that would change my life. 

Once I arrived, I found myself fully immersed in the experience, spending most of my time there. I had the incredible opportunity to learn from the best, including the original crew from IDEO and other pioneers of this methodology. 

That experience ignited a lifelong passion for applying design thinking to real-life business challenges, and that’s what I want to share with you today.

We’ll explore:

What is design thinking?

The word "design" often carries a lot of baggage and can be quite intimidating. It can feel inaccessible, as if it's something only a select few can do. What I find fascinating about design thinking is that it challenges this notion and suggests that creativity is a skill that can be learned. 

In essence, design thinking is an approach to innovation that emphasizes the user. It's something that can be learned, studied, and put into practice. Over time, you can refine your ability to generate truly effective and remarkable ideas, products, and marketing campaigns that revolve around the core needs of the user.

During my time at Stanford, design thinking was taught using what I'd call the 1.0 model. It followed a structured process with key phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, iterate, and visualize. This process was often represented by the now-iconic double diamond.

Over time, as the methodology has evolved and been applied in diverse fields like medicine, fashion design, consumer packaged goods, and technology, design thinking itself has undergone significant changes.

Nowadays, I view design thinking more as a collection of principles rather than a strictly sequenced process. These principles include things like having a bias for action, showing instead of telling, and being laser-focused on uncovering insights. It also involves being mindful of the mode you're in – whether you're exploring possibilities or honing in on a specific solution.

When I teach design thinking to my team or return to Stanford as a lecturer, I like to present both perspectives.

First, I introduce the idealized process with its neatly-defined phases; then I go into the more field-ready approach where you have a toolkit of various practices and thinking styles that can be applied to different problems. It's a more modular and flexible approach that allows for tailored solutions to each unique situation.

How to instill design thinking in your product marketing team

I’ve always aspired to familiarize new PMMs with design thinking as part of the onboarding process. At both Uber and Google (where I used to work in Brand and Marketing Communications), we've taken various approaches, some more formal than others, to teach and integrate it into our work. 

What's lucky is that both companies have structured their entire product organizations around this approach. So, whenever we kick off a new product workstream, it's always rooted in insights and followed by developing a point of view through a PRD (Product Requirements Document), and then we dive into ideation. It's just baked into the way we work.

Design thinking runs through all of our onboarding materials and our product marketing playbook, which is like the founding document of the team – it outlines how we expect product marketers to embrace the design thinking approach. Each person's manager works closely with them on a daily basis to make sure their work is insights-driven and reflects these core design thinking principles that are fundamental to our practice.

Now, when it comes to formalized education, I can’t say I’m great at scheduling regular training, as much as I would like to, but we've had some victories!

At times, the UX design team and I have joined forces to run training workshops. We've held quite a few of those at Uber, and Google still maintains its awesome design thinking training program. 

How to build a design thinking workshop

When I was learning about design thinking at Stanford, I internalized a lot of the early lessons. Every training session I've run since then has been based on the iconic wallet exercise, which now has a lore of its own, at least in the valley.

In the wallet exercise, we split a training group into smaller teams and tell them, "Your job is to redesign the wallet." Then we set a timer for an hour or two and the teams have to go through the entire design thinking process in that time.

They go through all the main activities you might spend months on in a tech company designing a product, or a few weeks if it's a sprint. But here, it's all squeezed into the shortest time possible.

It's a simple, open-ended task, but it takes you through the experience of user interviews, empathy mapping, defining a POV, brainstorming, sticker voting, prototyping, testing, and finally coming out with a product.

You get a feel for the pace, the urgency, and the galvanizing effect that occurs when everyone in the team is focused on a common goal – delighting the user with what you've made. It’s about learning by doing.

So, when I'm at Uber, we'll usually try to find a relevant challenge area. Like, for example, "redesign the commute" or something tied to a business challenge that's relevant to our industry. We always highlight the importance of talking to the user base. For instance, if we're redesigning the commute, I can interview you, learn all about your commute, and redesign it without needing to do tons of research.

Doing this kind of exercise gives people a feel for what it's like to ask questions, to listen, to solve a problem in a group. It allows them to experience what it’s like to go back to the user with your prototype, having them critique it and give feedback. It helps you step outside of your own head and solve someone else's problems without letting your own biases get in the way.

Design thinking: Not just for product marketers

At Uber, the entire product organization has really rallied around design thinking or user-centered design, whatever you prefer to call it.

This focus is reflected in our team structure and work processes; it's a founding principle of the product org. I count myself lucky that some of the early starters at Uber came from companies that really valued this approach.

The fact that product marketing is involved throughout the entire product development lifecycle – even before we know what we're building – reflects our recognition that user insights needs to be at the core of all our products. The existence and the centrality of our user experience (UX) research team also points to the value the company places on design thinking.

In the early phases of the product development lifecycle, particularly during the planning stage, you'll often find our product marketing team partnering with the UX research team, data science, and consumer research.

Through this collaboration, we want to create a comprehensive, 360-degree view of the consumer and zero in on key needs we should cater to in our product design.

These same insights that inform the product roadmap also drive our go-to-market plan and shape our marketing campaigns. This holistic integration of user insights ensures that all aspects of the product, from development to marketing, are aligned and purposely designed to serve our users better.

Surprising applications of design thinking

When it comes to product marketing, some applications of design thinking are more obvious than others. However, it can help you with most tasks.

I've heard a lot of people say, "Oh, this would work great if I had been hired right at the beginning of this project, faithfully followed the process, collected insights, guided the cross-functional team through the development of our perspective, and done a lot of brainstorming. But what if I joined a day after the brainstorm, when the team already knows what they're going to build and it's already set in stone? How do I practice this then?"

This is when I remind people to let go of the rigid processes of design thinking 1.0 and instead think of it as a mindset you bring to work. 

I remember very early in my marketing career, fresh out of business school, I was working at Visa. In my first few weeks, my boss wanted me to present our consumer insights to the whole marketing team. He handed me this huge stack of reports, which looked daunting and, honestly, a little boring.

Instead of doing the usual – creating a PowerPoint deck with some facts and figures – I decided to use design thinking and approach it differently. I thought about my audience – my peers and coworkers – and realized I needed to inspire and shape their thinking. To do that, I had to capture their attention.

This was in 2009, right in the middle of a major recession, and trust was low amongst consumers in the financial services industry. So, instead of making a conventional PowerPoint, I decided to create a short video set to music, using quotes from consumer research and a just a couple of very abstract charts. It was like a five-chapter story exploring the five key mindsets of consumers. It had a very human and scrappy feel to it.

When I got up to present, people were expecting a run-of-the-mill presentation. Instead, I dimmed the lights and hit play. I think everyone was kind of like, "Who is this person and what is she doing?" But it worked. It wasn't what they expected, and it left them with an indelible impression of the consumer mindset.

Was that design thinking? Maybe. It showed a bias for action, did something surprising to change behavior, and brought a deep sense of empathy. I always say that if I manage to change someone's mind, or better yet their behavior, then I've successfully applied design thinking.

Advice for product marketers looking to get to grips with design thinking 

Before I wrap things up, let me leave you with some practical advice and resources you can use if you're keen to dive deeper into the world of design thinking. It really is a game-changer for product marketing.

Now, here's what I suggest you check out:

Books and resources:

📚 Tom Kelley's books, including "The Art of Innovation".

📕 Jake Knapp's book "Sprint" – a great resource on the design thinking process.

💻 IDEO offers many amazing resources online to learn about the process.

And finally, just a couple of words of advice on applying design thinking:

🏃 Execute a formal design sprint process: Bring an entire cross-functional team together to execute a design sprint. Again, Jake Knapp's book "Sprint" is a great reference on every part of the process, from the time required to the type of materials you need.

🤓 Practice independently: If a formal sprint process isn’t feasible, you can practice design thinking as a mindfulness exercise. 

When you find yourself in a situation where you need to design something, get curious. Start by asking "why" – why are you doing this

Then, consider your audience – who are they and what do they care about? Think about your end goal, which often involves changing someone's mind or behavior. Ask yourself, "How can I approach this differently?" 

These prompts will set you on a user-centric and attention-grabbing path that's likely to be more effective than simply replicating old processes.