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Using Design Thinking to Improve Private Equity Operations

A man looking at a wall full of paper.

Seeing potential where others may not is a valuable skill in the business world—particularly in private equity investing. When an East Coast private equity firm needed to find a better way to identify operational improvements that would have a large impact on its business and users, they turned to a digital agency with a similar ability to envision what may not yet exist—SPR.

Historically, the private equity firm took a technology-first approach to solving operational issues. They would use existing technology to create workarounds, and did not rely on user validation to determine whether a solution was user-focused and user-friendly. As a result, this led to low adoption of new processes and platforms.

The firm was ready to try a new approach to problem solving. At the time, they were considering a new vendor management interface to improve operations for partners and employees. And thus, they engaged SPR to offer a new way of thinking.

Design Thinking

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    Conduct research to develop an understanding of your users
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    Combine all your research and observe where your users’ problems exist
  • A blue light bulb with a pencil in it.


    Generate a range of crazy, creative ideas
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    Build real, tactile representations for a range of your ideas
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    Return to your users for feedback
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    Put the vision into effect

Design thinking is a human-centered process that focuses first on the needs of the end user to come up with future-forward solutions. It’s more a mindset than a playbook. Through empathy, research, and targeted experimentation, design thinking allows an individual to examine their assumptions, identify core problems, and brainstorm creative solutions.

The Solution

SPR led a half-day, face-to-face Design Thinking Workshop to explore possibilities for the firm’s internal processes. The goal of the workshop was to better understand the firm’s end users and how a vendor management interface concept would affect them.

SPR and the firm’s leadership created a portrait of their end users’ needs through empathy mapping—an exercise in determining what end users think, say, see, and hear. This safe and structured free flow of ideas resulted in some surprise findings for the client, including a clearer picture of their end users’ needs and wants. By laying out and challenging the business’s underlying assumptions, the workshop allowed the firm to think more like disrupters—a highly prized skill in today’s marketplace.

Once the users’ pain points and goals were identified, they were prioritized so that our team could start ideating on ways to solve higher value opportunities. For example, one of the main challenges we identified involved profiling potential investments and quickly identifying companies that had return potential and minimal risk; something no off-the-shelf solution would provide. By the end of the half-day session, the team had developed several ideas that they agreed were worth further exploration. Ultimately, SPR developed and presented two of the ideas as semi-functional prototypes so that the firm could test their usefulness with actual end users.

The Outcome

The customer was pleased with the work. Engaging SPR allowed them to produce a full-fledged, high-fidelity prototype before a dime was spent on code, and ultimately saved them time and expense. More than that, our design thinking process helped the client to break free of traditional problem solving tactics and focus more on problem finding—they discovered that future technology solutions could, in fact, address the company’s and users’ core needs. As a result, SPR has been asked back to do a second Design Thinking Workshop for another branch of the business.