The One ‘Design Thinking’ Tool To Manage Uncertainties

In 1983, William Smithburg, CEO of Quaker acquired Gatorade for $220 million. It was touted as an impulsive purchase. Quaker grew the brand value to $3 billion. In 1994, Smithsburg bought another beverage brand, Snapple, for $1.8 billion. Due to Gatorade’s grand success, none of the board members opposed or protested this acquisition. A few years later, Snapple was sold off to Triarc Corporation for $300 million. Does Success blind us?

‘Fastrack’ was a successful “Rental Taxi” service brand in Chennai and was a leader for many years. Another brand ‘NTL’ came and the market became competitive. ‘Fastrack’ could successfully wither the storm, as NTL did not fight on any differentiation. But ‘Ola’ and ‘Uber’ came with a massive differentiation and disrupted the market. Though ‘Fastrack’ is surviving, it had lost its market leadership. ‘NTL’ was washed away. If I was a “Fast track” owner, how would I know that somebody unrelated to my field would come and disrupt my market?

Designer’s job is not to design a product or service, but solve a problem, anticipate future scenarios and prepare the team to face them. To solve a problem, we were taught to generate multiple options – “DO NOT PURSUE A SINGLE OPTION” – Single option blinds us, and we could get attached emotionally to the single idea (Happened in the case of Snapple acquisition).

For every option, designers would generate multiple scenarios – this reduced considerable uncertainty and prepare ourselves to face the potential outcomes. Yes, I agree that research shows that humans are poor in predicting the future. Particularly, the ‘experts’ have failed badly in predicting future – Stock market prediction and acquisitions are best of the examples. Designers use different creativity tools for creating multiple options. We use “What If” creativity technique to generate varied scenarios to solve future uncertainties. “What If” tool is used sometimes to generate options for the problems. “What If” tool may not predict the exact future but could help in reducing some of the uncertainties.


A biased mind would be blind to many of the subtle hints in the environment, people. An earlier success would create a bias in mind in the form of overconfidence. The first step in solving a problem is to remove the overconfidence, keep a beginner’s mind every time, look at the problem from different perspectives – from the perspective of a shop floor employee, a retailer, a customer, a user, an engineer. The research shows that to solve a problem, to predict the solution’s future implications, a person’s overconfidence makes him unconsciously draw conclusions and take decisions based on the information available close to him. In this case, he would be blind to future surprises, which were beyond his existing source of knowledge.


‘What If’ forces your mind out of logical reasoning – it is a generative creativity technique. By asking ‘What If’ questions, we can provoke a fictional narrative for the future. It helps us to explore a spectrum of possibilities and prepare for the worst possible scenarios.

Long back, while designing a speaker, I asked myself a provocative question – ‘What If’ the speaker flies like a helicopter? We made a concept similar to the present minion toy, which could move around based on the sound’s movement.

Imagine I am starting a restaurant –

What if everyone working in my restaurant is an entrepreneur? We all have a problem with employees learning the skills, going out and starting another restaurant. But how about hiring people who would like to start their own restaurant in near future – You would have got a dedicated workforce providing wonderful customer service – None can match the team’s energy – Entrepreneurial thinking would bring forth radical ideas for your restaurant – You would be building a future network – You would gain franchising opportunities – With this provoking question, you were turning the problem into a solution.

What if my restaurant customer pays to keep his privacy? Vow! How about the whole restaurant is an open area, but you could create a temporary structure for families in minutes if they need privacy and willing to pay?

What if I allow my customers to sleep at afternoons? After lunch, we could allow them to sleep for 30 -90 minutes. We could explore this idea further.

What If I make customers pay with virtual currencies created by us? A loyalty program – to make sure we build loyal customers – customers could order food before they leave home.

What If a customer pays for the ingredients used in the product or service? Customers could decide the type of food he likes and type of ingredients he would like to be added – It is a customer’s menu – the customer need not follow the restaurant menu – Loyal customers could mail his requirements and type of preparations and consult the chef’s opinion – you could charge for service, consultation.

What If my restaurant acts as a bank? People go and deposit money in the bank. Can we ask people to come, deposit their prepared food in our restaurant, so that we could sell it to other customers(Of course with stricter quality controls and customer feedback? Like Airbnb – You do not own kitchen, you do not cook – But you are a restaurant for people to come and eat – the menu changes every day and nobody knows what food we get – People love surprises.

What If a competitor opens a new restaurant just opposite to us? What If the competitor offers the food for half the price of us? What if the competitor is a famous brand? What if the government changes rules and regulations for our proposed innovative idea? What If our customers do not trust our services? What If we receive a negative review in the websites or press? What If somebody gets poisoned by our food? What If something falls over a customer of something dangerous happens to the customer?


Chip and Dan Heath in their “Decisive” book talk about a stock investor “Penstock”. One of the striking aspects of Penstock is his humility in his predictive abilities(Lack of Over Confidence).

Most of the stock investors use a simple rule to predict what a stock is really worth – If the future target price is higher than the current price, we should buy the stock. Penstock feels that this rule provides a false confidence to the investors. According to him, “Future is uncertain. It is not absolute, but a range”.

He stretches his sense of future by asking two questions –What if the situation goes bad? What if the situation goes well? Through these questions, he analyses the reasons why a situation would go bad, and what would be the lowest price in that scenario? Similarly, he analyzes the possible bright scenarios and predicts the likely best price? He chooses a stock price that lies closer to the lower range and he was fairly successful.


‘What If’ scenario helps you to create a concrete future scenario and work backward to the present – It forces us to find explanations why the event might happen.

The Minnetonka Corporation was a seller of niche novelty items like bubble bath, scented candles, flavored lip balms. In 1980s Minnetonka’s Robert R Taylor wanted to introduce a liquid soap called ‘Softsoap’ dispensed by a soft hand pump and could be used in homes for handwashing. Most people used bar soaps that time and the competition were heavier in this market due to bigger brands. Results from pilot testing of liquid soap sample in the market were encouraging. The “Softsoap” appeared that it would capture rapid market share.

Robert R Taylor asked himself two questions – What if Sales was booming high? What if competitors launch the copy product soon?

These questions had made the Minnetonka team generate explanations for those scenarios – They came across one common major reason for both the scenarios to happen – The dispensing pumps.

There were only two companies that supplied plastic dispensing pumps and they had a limitation in production quantities. If the sales were high, the pumps would be a bottleneck in meeting the market demand. If competitor launched a similar product, it would further affect the supply of pumps to Minnetonka. The solution – The Minnetonka executives signed a contract of 100 million units of the pump assembly with both the suppliers for a period of 18-24 months.

Big bar manufacturers could not get the Pump Assembly for the next two years and by the time they entered the market, Minnetonka had a firm foothold.

If you are planning to ask for a raise in salary to your boss, think about possible scenarios – What If his mood was bad, what would you do? What If he points out a past situation and bases his judgment on that incident – how would I counteract? What If he says that I am not a team player – How would I counteract, show examples? What If he asks me to leave the job – can I show him that giving a raise is cheaper, effective than a new hire? If you are preparing for a job interview – act future scenarios.


Though we cannot minimize bad outcomes, ‘What If’ scenarios help people to prepare for surprises, understand the early signs of failure and cope better when they encounter inevitable future difficulties. Some of ‘What If’ scenarios may help in mitigating risk, introduce, change marketing activities, business strategies, product features.

References: Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath, Well Designed by Jon Kolko.

How ‘Design Thinking’ turned ‘Febreze’ into a $1 Billion Brand

One of the P&G’s scientists accidentally discovered a chemical, that would draw scents of any object into the chemical’s molecules. He sprayed the chemical over the smelly fabrics, used socks, carpets and was pleasantly surprised to see that the unpleasant smell was gone when the mist dried. P&G saw a huge potential in the chemical, with an opportunity for wider applications

The P&G team observed that people who visit bars were leaving their jackets outside to avoid the smells due to smoke, alcohol. The market research confirmed that there was an immense requirement to mask pet smells in homes.

P&G named the product as “Febreze” and launched in a test market to validate the research and assumptions – They came across a user, whose job profile was “Park Ranger”, her job was to trap a lot of skunks. Due to her job profile, everything in her life smelled like the skunk, be it the clothing, curtains, bed, socks, room – Owing to this, She did not have any love life. She had tried all kinds of cure – special soaps and shampoos, unfortunately, the problems persisted. After using the Febreze, she almost cried and thanked the team for helping her love life. The skunk smell was gone.

The story was so inspiring that the P&G team felt that the product would be a huge success – A colorless, odorless liquid that would wipe out any foul odor without any stains.

So, P&G team positioned Febreze as a product that would allow people to rid themselves of embarrassing smells. They ran advertisements showing how people could mask their pet smells over home furniture –

“Sophie will always smell like Sophie, but my Sofa does not have to smell like Sophie?” – The advertisement message

P&G launched the product, ramped up production, distributed samples, stacked up containers in all stores to provide a visual trigger, spent a lot in advertisements.

Sales never picked up – the sales dwindled day by day and Febreze team were looking at a bleak future after 6 weeks of launch. So, why the product failed? How did they overcome?

In-Depth User Research

Steve jobs “I have always found is that you have to start with the customer experience and work backward to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out what to sell. I have made this mistake probably more than anybody else. I have got the scars to prove it. So we started with: what incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer?”

As a designer, whenever we come across a need or pain, we try to classify the need as People Problem or Situational Problem. The trouble with a situational problem – The user may not feel the need or pain if the situation changes and designing a product to meet just one situational problem would result in failure. The “Park Ranger” scenario was a Situational problem and not many users would face that type of scenario.

Pet problem – People love pets – If there is a need here for ‘Febreze’ product, then we could term as ‘People Problem’ – It needs detailed deep research to understand the need. You would love somebody as they are. After seeing the terrible results, P&G team went ahead with in-depth research to understand why the product failed. They visited a woman’s home who had nine cats. Though the house interior appeared clean and organized, the pet smells on curtains, furniture was overpowering for the research team, but the lady could not detect the smell. After series of research with pet owners, the team realized that most of them did not feel the “Pet Smell” as a major pain. Many of them could not detect the smell as they were getting used to their scent. Scents, in fact, fade with constant exposure. There was no trigger to make users buy the ‘Febreze’ product.


“Febreze” advertisements were all talking to rational mind and not to the emotional mind. The rational mind is not at all connected to our senses and only the emotional mind is connected to our sensory organs. Rational mind did not detect the pet smell and it never felt there was a problem or the need. The communication should appeal to both rational and emotional mind.


The golden rule in communications – “Never say the customer is wrong” – If you were saying that your room smells bad – You were blaming the customer that he was unable to keep it clean.

Will you admit that your house stinks?

Pets are loved, pointing problem with the pets is a wrong concept to promote the product. You should turn the problem into an aspirational statement, motivate him as if your product is trying to increase the sensory experience to a higher level so that it could benefit the user and the people around.


To develop a habit of using a product – there should be a cue which triggers an action and there should be a reward so that a craving for reward could be developed after repeated attempts. What was the cue for Febreze? Pet Smell? The smell from pet was a gradual process and the cue was not exactly defined or clear to the user. It was not an absolute point. Even if he was aware of the cue when he should start using the product(The action)? There was no proper guidance when to use the ‘Febreze’ product, even though a user buys the product – The cues were wrong and there was no clear indication when to take an action(Use the product). “No Smell” was not the destination. If right destination and the path is not defined, then the product would fail.


In User Research – One of the requirements is to look at users beyond the target segment – Extremes or Outliers or Non-Customers. If the product was already launched, we would try to understand and learn from people who use the product regularly(They may be outside the target segment) – Which could be called “Finding the BrightSpot”(Chip and Dan Heath used this term in his book “Switch”) – P&G team came across one such user – A woman with 4 teenage boys. The woman loved ‘Febreze’ and used it every day. She had no pets. No one smoked. The rooms were clean, tidy and no smell whatsoever. The teenagers never kept their room clean. So, she used to clean the rooms and to end the cleaning ritual in a nice way, she would spray the “Febreze”.


This scenario struck a chord with the research team – They started observing many people who kept their house clean and tidy – the team was moving in an opposite direction now. There was another user who after cleaning the clothes, folded them nicely, then sprayed the smooth comforter with a smile. Spraying was a mini-celebration for their work accomplishment – a way of feeling proud of their work. It is like having a sweet or dessert at the end of a spicy dinner.

Another user after smoothening the bed spreads, pillow, neatly arranging them – there was a smile, a relaxed, happy feeling in them and was proud to see their handiwork. After tidying the kitchen, wiping the counter clean – there was a smile, relaxed feeling in the user. The users treated cleaning as a ritual.

P&G team observed that this target segment was a massive one. But there was no pain to be solved – People were not looking for any options to end the cleaning ritual. A tablet need not be a painkiller – It could be a Vitamin too, but over a period of time, not having vitamins could turn into a pain. P&G team realized that ‘Febreze’ need not be a pain killer(For removing bad smells), but could be a Vitamin(Not solving a pain, but providing energy – boosting the visceral experience).


To create habitual experiences, we need to focus on behavior, not on attitudes or beliefs – Attitudes and Beliefs keep changing over a period of time and difficult to utilize. But behavior can be habituated.

Habit is activated by a cue that is associated with a context. As soon as a consumer sees a cue, an action happens, resulting in some reward, which further becomes a craving after multiple repetitions and the habit forms.

‘Febreze’ could be used(action) at the end of cleaning ritual(Cue) – The cue and when to take action was very clear, unlike the earlier scenario – after wiping the kitchen counter, after folding clothes, after neatly arranging bed spreads.

Here, the communication was not blaming the customer – not telling them their house is unclean – The communication was to elevate the user’s experience, to make something appear cleaner, to give more credibility to their cleaning ritual, to become an add-on sweet ingredient for their prepared food. It was no more about eliminating bad smells.

Design for Observability – P&G team added perfume to ‘Febreze’ to enhance the user’s visceral experience and user aspirations. It was a pleasant feedback mechanism to show the work done in right way.A pleasant smell would immediately attract the other people’s attention. It was an easy way for a user to show their sense of cleanliness to others in a subtle way.

Design for Craving – The pleasant smell at the end of cleaning brought the relaxation and the pride for the users – Over a period of usage, the mind began to relate smell as the completion of cleaning ritual – Without smell, the users felt like the work was not completed – the craving was being developed. Once craving was formed, it forces the user to form a habit of using the product every time they clean clothes, kitchen, carpet, curtains.

Once the craving began, even when the bottles ran suddenly dry – the bottles were designed in such a way that people could use diluted perfume in the container to spray over laundry clothes.(Temporary solution).


With deeper observational research, P&G team could convert a market disaster into a successful product. This case study shows that a product need not necessarily solve a pain point to become a successful one. Communicate proper cue, what actions, when to take actions to be communicated effectively to make people use the product. The reward systems need to be emotional as well as physical.

References: Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg