There’s a new kind of product development agency in town

14 May 2019

Image: Kirk Donohoe/Solvers

Kirk Donohoe, co-founder and CEO of Solvers, explains why he’s taking major brands on a crash course to know their users.

Inspirefest 2019 speaker Kirk Donohoe spent time in the start-up world before defecting to the corporate world with a job at Mastercard in Dublin. As global vice-president of product innovation at Mastercard Labs, he supported product development for major brands such as Target, Citibank, Walmart, American Airlines and Disney. It was what he learned from this role and his grounding in the entrepreneurial space that led him to found Solvers.

Solvers is, by Donohoe’s reckoning, a “new type of product development agency”. It addresses a “fundamentally flawed” approach to designing solutions that doesn’t engage the intended user throughout the process, resulting in lengthy, costly projects that deliver something users don’t actually want.

One of the most popular programmes Solvers runs is a defined “solution acceleration” programme, rapidly bringing clients’ challenges to a workshop environment where they assess customer personas, and produce extensive journey mapping and storyboards. Next is the “lean research” phase, surveying and interviewing the defined customer types, testing the assumptions made on their needs and desires thus far. This leads to the experience design stage and thorough testing of high-fidelity prototypes. On any given day, Donohoe reckons there are 20 or more customer tests being run on prototype experiences by Solvers.

The whole programme, he said, can take from 30 to 60 days depending on the scope of the project. At the end, the client has an assured product prototype ready for software development.

“It’s not incredibly expensive or time-consuming, but what it does give the client we’re working with at the end of that period is absolute confidence that if you go off and actually build this solution – where a lot of the money is spent – it would be well received by the customers,” said Donohoe.

“More often than not, that grandiose vision for what a product should be, how extensive it should be, and the amount of features and experiences it should have is completely misaligned after a solution acceleration programme. What we’re really doing is helping them be a lot more efficient in what they should build.”

Give the users what they want

The cost of not designing in this way can be “astronomical”, Donohoe warned.

“If you want to change something in a [finished] mobile application, you’re talking about many, many layers of change that need to happen: the front-end, the back-end, the API infrastructure, the design. It’s very expensive from a time and a money point of view. Whereas, if you can catch some of these issues at an experience design level in a matter of days, you’re saving yourself an awful lot.”

Some examples raised during our discussion include Hertz’s $30m project that they claim “never delivered a functional website or mobile app”, and the embarrassing release of a comprehensive Apple Health app that didn’t include a period tracker. These late-stage design catastrophes are “driven by ego”, said Donohoe, who thinks the era of a Henry Ford or Steve Jobs attitude of telling customers what they want is over.

“The people that sit in the positions that make these executive-type decisions … don’t have the same concerns that people have at a grassroots level,” said Donohoe. “They’re not living in the same circumstances and, more often than not, they’re not their target customer … You’d be surprised the amount of them that don’t actually use applications that they’re trying to build. They’re so detached from what the actual customers want.”

He added: “Customers are a lot more clued into what they need and what they want now.”

Know your customer

Solvers had hit two years old last week when I spoke to Donohoe about the business, which has offices in Dublin, Prague and Toronto. Clients include Airbnb, American Express, Bank of Montreal and Donohoe’s previous employer, Mastercard. He says the reason they’ve been successful with larger partners is their ability to deliver within days.

Banking clients are common right now and their biggest demand is to catch up with challengers in modern finance such as N26 and Revolut – a critical misunderstanding, Donohoe pointed out. “Their target customers are actually already gone to these challengers, they’ve left them already. They’re trying to get them back, but they’re already two years behind the development cycle of these other challengers.”

Not only this but financial leaders tend not to understand the lived experience of an end user living hand to mouth on a tight budget. These users might not enjoy the experience of logging in and seeing their balance and expenses on-screen first thing. In contrast to these demand-driven approaches, Solvers is trying to listen.

“That could be a good idea and you may have something there, but let’s just ask [the customers]. And once we ask them, let’s just test it and in a matter of days we’ll tell you if you’re on point or not,” Donohoe added.

While Donohoe admits that at least one call a week is a struggle with a client who doesn’t “get it”, a lot of the work at Solvers is with millennials who do. This generation, Donohoe explained, not only want to change the culture of companies they work for, but they also believe that they can. This hubris comes from a new attitude to work among millennials and Gen Z that eschews a ‘job for life mentality’, which allows them to be braver when it comes to telling the boss what they really think.

“By the very nature of these people who have grown up with apps in hand, they just get that you cannot compromise on experience. Experience would be everything.”

What makes a good problem-solver?

At Inspirefest, the Solvers team will join up with Hack Access to run a mini hack for accessibility, providing templates to help participants frame their thinking, and teaching the pros and cons of problem-solving. They’ll work the room, helping people to work through exercises and arrive at a decent conceptual solution in 90 minutes.

Speaking of the problem-solvers he likes to work with, Donohoe highlighted the state of mind he finds is common among them – a topic he intends to flesh out when he takes to the Inspirefest stage on Thursday, 16 May.

“I’m going to talk a bit about the mental state and some of the unspoken traits of great problem-solvers. How their cognitive bias, randomness and awkwardness actually helps them be fantastic at what they do.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic